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Gymnastics, Martial Arts, Dance & Soccer: Furious 4 for Pre-Adolescent Athletes

by Brett Klika

The inner workings of human movement, coordination, and development are a complex and fascinating spectacle. There are nearly an infinite amount of different stimuli and intensities of stimuli our brain and body must learn to react to physically, mentally, and emotionally. We are born with some of these reaction patterns already in place, but many we must learn through experience. Logically, the more experiences we have with different stimuli, the more successful and effective our reactions and will be. When we are trying to develop coordinated, effective and injury-free young athletes, this process of learning from a variety of stimuli is very important.

During our pre-adolescent years (about 6-12), our body’s neuromuscular system is on “learning overdrive”. During this developmental phase, there are innate mechanisms in our brain that make us extra-responsive to adapting to new stimuli and learning new skills. It’s as if our brain knows it’s important to “bring our body up to speed” in order to perform the tasks of daily survival. During this time, the type, amount, and diversity of activities we participate in will shape our movement patterns for the rest of our lives.

The year prior to the 2000 Olympic Games, I had the opportunity to work with many of the Olympians while I was a resident intern strength and speed coach ARCO Olympic Training Center in San Diego. These gifted athletes, representing a variety of different sports, were the best of the best. Through competition, they had proven that their brain could communicate with their body more effectively than anyone else in their sport. After spending a great deal of time talking with them about their athletic upbringings, some common threads linked them. Nearly all of them had competed in gymnastics, martial arts, soccer or dance during the early years of their youth. When I thought about it, I realized that these activities provided an extremely high volume of different skills that formed the foundations of athleticism. Gymnastics develops whole body flexibility, strength, power, balance and coordination through a variety of movements. Martial arts do the same, and add the demands of reaction. Soccer combines these attributes and introduced agility, speed, and aerobic capacity. In all of these activities, movement is continuous so participants get a lot of repetition. This gives way to more learning, development, and adaptation.

Years later as I continued to study youth athletic development from industry experts like Brian Grasso and Avery Faigenbaum, these activities, with the addition of dance, were continually mentioned as “essential for overall physical development” in youngsters. The notion is that these activities provide the most comprehensive spectrum of physical skills and physical adaptations to stimuli. Mastering these skills and adaptations will set the stage for a lifetime of coordinated, effective, pain-free movement.

All too often, we streamline our youngsters into one sport at too young an age. Pressures of competition and lack of developmental knowledge drive this practice. These youngsters only develop a handful of the entire spectrum of physical skills and movement patterns necessary to develop overall athleticism. As they get older, their ability to adapt and learn new skills decreases. This is usually manifested in injury or burnout. Injury can physically limit a youngster from a lifetime of health and wellness and burnout can do the same mentally. While less than 1.5% of athletes will play a sport (scholarship) in college, and less than 1% of that 1.5% will play professionally, teaching skills for a lifetime of physical fitness and wellness should be the goal with our youth.

Be cautious of narrowing your child’s athletic focus at too young an age. If you want to lead your young athlete to a path of performance and a lifetime of health and wellness, look to the furious 4 for an unbeatable arsenal.

Coach Brett Klika is the Director of Athletic Performance at Todd Durkin’s Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, CA. He specializes in youth fitness and athletic performance, overseeing a staff of 8 strength coaches developing programs for over 300 youth per week, both athletes and non-athletes. He presents around the world to both trainers and corporations with Todd Durkin Enterprises on a variety of health, wellness, and athletic performance topics. Brett contributes monthly to the award-winning “TD Times” newsletter. If you would like to sign up, you can do so by visiting, or use the contact form below: [easy-contact]

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