Movement Training and Early Specialization

To be a confident, competitive, skillful athlete we first need to establish a very strong foundation in dynamic balance, rhythmic footwork and an understanding of how to quickly reposition the body to gain a competitive advantage. Coordination is key to mastering any skill, and many young players are lacking this foundational component of sports mastery. 

Movement based training is becoming a lost art as young athletes get pushed into technical and tactical sport skills (early specialization) during critical periods of development. Training has dramatically changed in the past decade, and although the research and sports science field has helped top end athletes achieve great things, we are losing the battle in the trenches. 

Now, I’m not saying that early specialization is bad. In some instances it is a necessity… 

Question: Name the sports that require athlete to specialize early? 

Answer: Figure Skating and Gymnastics

Here is an interesting thought... Why do these sports seem to be able to get away with an approach to early specialization, while other sports don't have as much success? To succeed at these sports, the athlete must control speed and power in a rhythmic manner. Figure Skating and Gymnastics spend the majority of their training on movement skills, coordination, body control, stability, strength, power and dance. The sport itself requires these aspects, and they are woven into the training program every day.

When the windows for developing coordination are wide open (ages 6-12), these sports are focused on exactly that. What if we could do this with all athletes? What if we could develop a solid foundation in athletic body control at a young age? How much easier would it be to coach a player, if they had a heightened sense of awareness, body control, strength, balance and rhythm? Even more, what if these aspects were so ingrained in the young player that he or she could move athletically, at speed without thinking about it…without wasted steps… without expending unnecessary energy.

When tumbling and dance were pulled out of the elementary school curriculum, and we started cutting down the time spent in P.E. we started seeing a rise in early specialization club sports. And these sports went from just playing games on the weekends to practicing once, twice and now three to four times per week. Why the increase? Because the young players were not picking up the skills as quickly as they once were… So club coaches added additional practices to fill the gap. 

But the club coaches didn’t teach movement, they taught skill and tactics. So this led to burnout, injury and over training because the young player was not able to keep up with the expectations or the demand. Players who were great at a young age were not so talented by 14 years old, and they were being dropped from the top teams.

 Okay… I’ll get off my soap box now. So how do we fix this?

It’s easier than you think… Instead of monotonous 10 minute jog and stretch warm ups, why not spend 15-20 minutes at the beginning of your session in a movement skill warm up. Progress this warm up in stages, adding new complexities and more demanding tasks every few weeks to keep the players engaged. Teach them how to run, change directions, jump and land. Teach them how to shield, react, fall and avoid. Don’t just let them go through the motions.

If you practice twice a week, creating a 30 minute movement skill (integrated with some technical skill complements) to your session would add up to 4 hours a month or 12 hours a season. If you practice year round you would get about 50 hours of impactful movement training per year.

One thing that I loved about some of David Copland-Smith’s Beastmode Soccer drills is that they complement some of the simple footwork patterns that we do for agility, balance and body control. The patterns are simple, and some coaches say that they don’t translate to the game, but I beg to differ. Combining some of the AthleteFIT balance hopping and agility with some of these patterns has helped our players “bridge the gap” between rhythmic body control and skillful execution. 

Try doing some of the 2 Cone, 6 Cone or Diamond Passing drills (see our Instagram account @athletefitcoach) and see how your hips feel after just a few minutes. These drills are great for balance, rhythm and hip stability. These drills can be organized into a progressive session that takes a player from hip stability to aggressive agility to quick touches on the ball to creating space with aggressive change of direction moves. This warms the player up (physically and mentally) for any tactical session that a coach may have planned, and adds the critical missing link of movement skill.

Back at it this morning w/ defending champs @fckansascity -already looking fit and fast!

A photo posted by Scott Moody (@athletefitcoach) on

If we want to compete with the rest of the world in this sport we have to attack the issue from all three sides (physical, technical and tactical). And we need to start this at the grass roots level so our rising players have the confidence and athleticism to compete on the world stage. Do you have an extra 30 minutes to take your game to the next level?