The Secret to Building an Elite Athlete From Adolescence

By no means am I a parent, nor am I planning on giving the readers a rant about the increasing amount of sedentary behavior in our youth. That is a different issue entirely. What I am going to shed light on is the importance of free play during a youth athlete’s childhood. As Sports Performance Professionals, we are witness to our youth athletes playing more and more organized sports (facilitated by a coach) than ever. At points, organized style of play can be very beneficial to specific skill acquisition. Writing this article feels a bit hypocritical. However, I am going to go into detail on how free play can build a tremendous amount of speed, agility, and overall fitness, and how we as strength and conditioning professionals can facilitate this type of play into our training sessions.

When prescribing agility drills to our athletes we attempt to make them as chaotic and reactive as possible. Playground games are a critical time of development in a youth athlete’s development. A game of tag essentially encompasses every foundation of agility found in field and court sports. It requires quick acceleration, creative change of direction, and fast reactive decision making. In addition, the use of “Four Square” (Sometimes called box ball) has been a way we implement coordination into agility work. It’s amazing to see the diverse ways athletes move while playing this game. A structured agility drill is rhythmic and repetitive, a game of tag or four square is chaotic and constantly changing, just like on the field.

We love to utilize equipment such as gymnastics rings and parallel bars to allow the athlete a creative outlet in building upper body strength and body awareness in space. The jungle gym and action of hanging from one’s upper extremities is an innate primal movement. When our young athletes are on the playground hanging from monkey bars they are building both overhead stability and strength through the shoulder as well as building hand and grip strength. These are critical foundations for athletes in building a resilient and injury free upper body later into their athletic careers.

Regardless of whether we are strength and conditioning coaches or skill coaches, allowing the athlete to make a mistake and self-correct through repetition is how true performance gains are acquired. When a group of athletes come into the building they immediately run to the turf, grab a ball, start playing something. This is a great thing. They are warming up, and their minds are acclimating to being in the gym and completing physical tasks. It is amazing to see the creativity and ideas that they will come up with during free play. They attempt and make plays that they never would have in a practice setting. This is how true skill is acquired. The point being, we must not overcoach our athletes.

The take away from this information is that coaching our athlete’s at a young age is a delicate process. Structured coaching is important to create a system of organized skills for the athlete. On the contrary, free play will allow the athlete to lay a physical foundation of agility and fitness that will benefit their training process for the rest of their careers. We may never know the exact athletic benefits athletes receive from free play. A great athlete who appears to be a naturally efficient mover generally cannot pinpoint why or how they move so well. However, we do know that from observation, young athletes who are more involved in free play outside of practice perform better in our facility than those who do not. It is easy to pick out an athlete who is over-coached and involved in too many organized sports. They generally have trouble in drills that require fast adaptation and reaction to the environment. To all strength and conditioning professionals, I encourage you to allow your athletes the opportunity to have freedom throughout various drills as they will find themselves ingraining skills that will transfer to their sport.

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