By: Brett Klika, C.S.C.S.
Director of Athletics, Fitness Quest 10
“What can we do at home to make our son or daughter a better athlete?” This is one of the most common questions I come across with parents. For the sake of this discussion, “at home” means things that are done outside of professionally supervised sport skill and general preparation work. Over the years, I’ve written about and recommended exercise programs, eating regiments, and other at home “modalities” designed to improve athletic performance. Anybody who has read my writing on youth athletics in the last year or two has probably discovered a change in my “at home training” paradigm. This is a result of practical experience combined with a mountain of research on the topic of “at home” sports performance. Over the years, I’ve continually scoured the journals, books, and professional transcripts looking for an ideal “at home” exercise plan to suggest to parents. I’ve implemented accountability programs, made online video resources, and written programs till my eyes crossed. The overwhelming conclusions drawn from this process, however, have steered me away from specific, “at home” program design. When reviewing the literature and long-term practical results from at-home interventions, nothing has a more positive correlation with long-term athletic success than facilitating unstructured free play.
“Free Play” is what we used to do to prepare for athletics. We’d have the neighborhood World Series, the backyard Super Bowl, and games we just made up to pass the daylight; no coaches, no referees, no overbearing parents, no college scouts. Currently, only one in five youth do anything physical outside of organized athletics. It’s either practice, games, or nothing. Research suggests that it takes about ten thousand hours of practice to perfect a skill. If a young athlete only participates in an activity during practice, private coaching, and games, say 8 hours a week total, IT WOULD TAKE 24 YEARS TO REACH 10,000 HOURS!!!! It’s hard to beat playing in the backyard for hours every day when it comes to accumulating skill practice. Additionally, free play allows youngsters to naturally develop athletic intangibles such as creativity and “game sense” that cannot be coached. Take baseball for instance. Forty years ago, kids crowded fields, alleys and streets playing some form of the game. It was our national passion. If we were to play baseball against any other country in the world at that time, the smart money would be on America. Since then, we’ve institutionalized and commercialized our baseball development program for our youth. Kids don’t “play” baseball anymore. They “compete” at it. Who would you put your money on now in a game between America and one of the Latin American countries who have inferior equipment, facilities, and coaching, but kids “play” baseball all day? Did you change your bet?
Research comparing our athletic development model to other countries highlights the fact that other countries favor unstructured play in the first 10 years of an athlete’s development. During this time, they learn sport and physical skills through a combination of structured pedagogy and free play. These athletes have proven to be more successful on the international front, less likely to be injured, and have longer careers when compared to American athletes. Free play allows for unmatched volumes of skill practice in addition to a true passion for an activity. This cannot be trumped by more intensive, supervised, structured coaching. When a youngster voluntarily participates in an activity out of sheer enjoyment, they learn to love it for life. The single most important factor in long term athletic success for children is their level of enjoyment in the activity. Facilitate their enjoyment in any way possible, and you improve their athletic chances.
In America, we get kids into competitive athletics as early as age 8. While there is actually a negative correlation between early competition and eventual athletic success, this obviously serves an industrial opportunity, as opposed to developmental need. League and tournament organizers will be the first to admit this. Competitive leagues, tournaments, and clubs make a lot of money. We live in the land of opportunity. Everyone has the right to make a buck. If one person or organization doesn’t do it, someone else will. Parents also know this but they can’t deny the “political fallout” of not putting a more proficient athlete in a higher level of competition. If a youngster doesn’t get with the top level teams at a young age, they may receive inferior coaching, sport skill development, and exposure. While I understand this emotion-based conundrum, logic has to prevail at some point. Look at the research and empirical evidence from around the world. We have to quit making bets on the losing horse of early competition!
What can you do at home when free play is not part of our athletic culture any more? Kids actually have to learn how to play again. We as adults have to teach them. When I train a youngster, we go outside with a ball and make up games. At first, the child stares at me blankly. No positions? No coach? No team? Within a couple of minutes, they are running, laughing, and using their creative capacity to adapt to the demands of our new game. This is an essential part of the process of sending them home sweaty, smiley, and smarter! You can do this at home. We all remember some game we played as kids until the street lights went out. Show this game to your child and their friends. Get them outside!!!
While organized and supervised athletics are important to development, research overwhelmingly correlates long-term athletic success with volumes of unstructured free play. If you want to give your child the “athletic edge” at home, get them outside and enjoy sport for the sake of sport. If they emerge from athletics sweaty, smiley, and smarter, you’ll have a successful athlete for life!
For research suggestions and a bibliography on this topic, pleas contact Brett Klika at email@example.com.
Brett Klika is the Director of Athletic Performance at Todd Durkin’s Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, CA. He culminates his vast experience working with thousands of youth, elite athletes, and every-day people to inform and inspire trainers around the world. Brett currently authors for a variety of publications, produces DVD’s and presents internationally on topics in fitness, wellness, sports performance and leadership. Contact Brett Klika at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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