Player development below age 14

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9 Years Old -tapped weigth to bat, hitting a 1 pound plyocare ball
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Having fun or getting better? Why not both?

What is development?

Author Vern Gambetta describes development as an increase in overall qualities of the complete athlete – balance of all components of physical performance: strength, power, speed, agility, and flexibility.

In general, development may be best thought of as not being skill specific. Development is what makes skill specific possible. It is the prerequisite of specific skill. If a youth player is lacking the ability to perform a specific skill/pattern or wants to improve any specific skill, it is a pretty fair estimate that about 95% of the time the answer to “how to improve” starts with overall development/movement. Athletic development of any youth athlete over the long-term is a much more important and has a bigger impact on any sport activity than just “mechanics”. Fundamental movements and good training habits is the key to development.

Not only as a youth coach but also as someone who has been around sports for decades I’ve noticed how much overall athleticism/physical development has declined in the youth population. But more importantly, so have the high school, college, and professional coaches and trainers noticed it as well.

Jeremy Frisch of Achieve Performance https://achieveperformance.training/ recently put it this way: “Childhood used to be great preparation for sport, but sport has now taken over childhood. Young athletes lack the diversity of movement and free play that was once found in abundance years ago.”

If you are not familiar with Eric Cressey and you have a young athlete in baseball or softball, I suggest you become familiar. His bio and website can be found here: https://ericcressey.com/about-eric .

Eric stated this in a blog entitled “Why We Are Losing Athleticism”:

“Anecdotally, the typical athletes I’ve seen on initial evaluations are now considerably less athletic than what I saw in 2006, when I first moved to Boston. These kids also have more extensive injury histories, and they’re on more medications.”

In another blog post entitled “20 Ways To Prepare Young Athletes For Success In Sports and Life” he writes this:

“One thing I’ve found quite interesting over the past decade or so is that the number of overzealous, pushy, high-pressure parents has increased exponentially. As we all know (and not surprisingly), burnout rates in teen athletes has gone sky-high in this same time period. However, on a more anecdotal level, I know I can speak for myself and many other qualified coaches when I say that the “typical” kid who walks through my door on Day 1 just isn’t as athletic as he used to be. Asymmetries are more profound, injury histories are more extensive, basic movement skill acquisition has been skipped over, and – perhaps more significantly – the athletes are a bit “desensitized” to the overall training process.

They view everything as just another game/practice, so the value of each training exposure is a bit less. This was something that just didn’t happen when I was younger and free play was so heavily emphasized; we got tremendously excited for each opportunity to get better, whether it was a summer soccer camp or a new drill or training approach that our coaches introduced.”

Why below age 14?

Puberty, growth spurts, growth plates, burnout, and repetitive use injuries (lower backs and arms) are real. Until a year after puberty starts (actual age varies per child) a parent can’t know: 1) what the next year brings physically or mentally for your child, 2) what their level of interest/commitment will be to any sport. So the recommendations and thoughts below are targeted for those in the pre puberty years. Also, this is the most critical time in an athletes developmental stages – it becomes increasingly more difficult to increase overall athleticism after puberty. Not that it can’t happen, just the window is closing as time marches on. In the post puberty teenage years – the development needs change. Not just because of the physical and mental aspects that puberty can impact but also the size of the field and the talent on the field changes. I will address 14+ development in a different blog post.

What does youth development look like?

If you think about it almost anything can help youth development below the age of 14. You can purchase developmental programs. If you have the means, go for it but do not think you can buy something and then development is “done”. Even if you change-up a purchased development program weekly or monthly, you are only getting a small piece of what true development looks like. You cannot purchase youth development like it’s another piece of equipment. Everything works, some things work better than others (depending on the player), and nothing works forever.

An element of development that is sadly missed by many parents of youth athletes is the undeniable benefit of free play. What is free play? In essence it’s being a kid, having fun. A shortlist of free play activities: riding a bike, go swimming, touch football with buds, climb a tree, go to the park, play tag, shoot some hoops, play street ball, play a different sport (organized or otherwise), mow the grass (not riding), build something with your hands, jump on a trampoline, and the list goes on and on. To put it directly, have your child spend less time with their face looking at a screen or playing the same sport/game/routine year around and spend more time breaking a sweat while having fun – lets call that Youth Development 101. Do not under estimate how vital this is for your child. There are certain elements of development that shouldn’t be homogenized.

Lastly, don’t worry moms and dads, having/creating a process is not difficult nor expensive and a degree in exercise science is not required. There are free sources available or some that cost less than a single lesson – all of which can benefit your child for years if not decades. Dynamic movement and body weight exercises/warmup as well as recovery can have a huge positive impact on youth development (on and off the field). Below are some examples of great resources/programs:

  • Wasserman Strength has a free dynamic warmup ebook: Click Here
  • Own the Off Season has a free speed program: Click Here
  • Zach Dechant’s Movement Over Maxes can be purchased here: Click Here

I hope this post helps in understanding what youth development is, what it is not, and why it is important. Get better!

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