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Thoughts on athleticism by Vern Gambetta


July 05, 2011

Why a Decline in Athleticism?
There are several factors that have caused a decline in overall athleticism as well as an alarming increase in injuries:
Early Specialization in one sport and even to one position or event within a sport. The broader range of motor skill developed through free play and exposure to many varied motor programs in the developing athlete is lacking and it is a big limiting factor. The choice is to produce better athletes or produce highly specialized athletes with a skill ranges very specific to their sport. Ultimately the goal is to produce the best athletes who participate in various sports.

Biased One Sided Training with an emphasis on one or two components of performance rather than a blend. The components of performance, and therefore training are: Speed, strength, stamina, suppleness, skill and recovery. There is a synergistic relationship between all components therefore all components must be trained during all phases of the year in varying combinations appropriate for the developmental age of the athlete.

Monkey See – Monkey Do Syndrome. Just because an athlete or a team has been successful with a particular training method does not mean that the method is the best or should be copied by all. It is my experience that many athletes and teams are successful in spite of, not because of their training. Make sure that what you are doing is based on sound training principles and a good progression that fits your sport and athletic population.

"Nobody gets hurt, but nobody gets better." Training that is so conservative or narrow that the athlete is never challenged will not produce results. When in fact, because they fail to challenge the athleticism of the athlete they might actually predispose the athlete to injury.

The simple fact is that before the advent of specialization, athletes at the high school level and even at the college level participated in several sports. It was not unusual to see a high school athlete play football basketball and baseball or run track. This was not so bad. The athlete may not have been as good early, but once they did chose to specialize they had a broader base of motor skills to draw upon to enhance their specific sport skill. Sometimes it is good to look back to gain perspective to move ahead. We cannot go backward, but we must look for ways to enhance athleticism that has been lost due to early specialization.

Understanding and training athleticism is a challenging process. It demands creativity and imagination. It is often contrary to conventional wisdom as represented in current mainstream sport science research that emphasizes specificity and measurable outcomes. Do not be limited by use conventional wisdom as a staring point and move forward while thinking and acting outside the box. You and your athletes will enjoy the day to day challenges of training more with the results a higher injury free performance level.

Awaken the Athlete Within
Athleticism is the ability to execute athletic movements (run, jump, throw, push, pull, leap, stop, start, hit, fall, roll, brace etc.) at optimum speed with precision, style and grace. It is easy to see when someone has it. It can be developed and improved

Today in the development process we have increased specialization and sacrificed overall athleticism. It is not an either-or proposition - produce a better athlete or produce a player. Ultimately the goal is to produce the best possible athlete who does a particular sport whose performance will be enhanced and injuries reduced. With the same amount of training time available is it possible to train to improve athleticism without sacrificing specific skill training. They are co-dependent and intertwined, one enhances the other. There is time within the context of the existing structure to fit in athleticism components. It just needs to be made a priority.

There is a saying that "You don't need to see different things, but rather to see things differently." Sometimes we overlook the obvious. The foundations for athleticism are basic coordinative abilities. According to Drabik is his classic work Children & Sports Training the coordinative abilities are:

Balance – Maintenance of the center gravity over the base of support, it is both a static and a dynamic quality

Kinesthetic Differentiation – Ability to feel tension to in movement to achieve the desired movement

Spatial Orientation – The control of the body in space

Reaction to Signals – The ability to respond quickly auditory, visual and kinesthetic cues

Sense of Rhythm – The ability to match movement to time

Synchronization of movements in time – Unrelated limb movements done in a synchronized manner

Movement Adequacy – Ability to choose movements appropriate to the task

The coordinative abilities never work in isolation, they are all closely related and they are the underlying foundation for and the prerequisite for technical skills

It is imperative to look for every opportunity to incorporate elements of athleticism in all aspect of training. Specific sport skills are a combination of patterns of complex motor programs. They are patterns that can be reproduced when we tap into the wisdom of the body. Through experiencing all different patterns of movement we learn to let things happen. We learn to let the motor program run. We cue an action that will result in a "chain reaction" of efficient movement. We need to emphasize a free play approach that results in fluidity and improvisational skills.

Should we try to teach every movement and then coach it or should we allow the athlete the joy of discovery through exploration? There seems to be a worry about getting it wrong! My answer to that is: What is wrong? There must be a spontaneity and improvisation, not a robotic programmed paint by numbers approach. It has been my experience working with athletes at all levels in a wide variety of sports that athletes will find their own best way of doing something if they are put in a position where they have to adapt. They are very adaptable. We need to encourage an extemporaneous approach much like a great jazz musician improvises.