Coaching Association of Canada

Shawnee Harle, ChPC - Basketball

Athletes are Made in the Off Season

No matter what your sport, the off-season is a critical time for kids to raise their game. And I don’t mean work on their shot, or their serve, or their swing. I mean start becoming an ATHLETE. I define athlete training as motor development and fundamental movement skills (FMS) and it should begin as young as 9-years-old.

Dr. Istvan Balyi is a leading expert on planning and periodization, and short and long-term training and performance programming. Dr. Balyi says: “One of the most important periods of motor development for children is between the ages of 9 and 12 (Balyi and Hamilton 1995; Rushall 1998; Viru et al. 1998). During this time, children are developmentally ready to acquire the fundamental movement skills that are the cornerstones of all athletic development. These fundamental skills include running, throwing, jumping, hopping, and bounding—the ABC’s of athletics. The introduction of the ABC’s of athleticism (agility, balance, coordination, speed) during this period will lay the foundation of athletic excellence for later years.”

Why do fundamental movement skills matter? Why can’t kids simply spend time getting better at their sport or the specific skills required by their sport? Dr. Balyi states: “If the fundamental motor skill training is not developed between the ages of 9 and 12, skills cannot be recaptured at a later time (although carefully planned and implemented remedial programs can contribute to limited success).”

Wow, that is big stuff! It makes me think about our Canadian amateur sport model and our backwards ratio of games to practices. Experts suggest a ratio of 4:1 meaning 4 practices for every 1 game. Most of our youth teams have far more games than they do practices and not only that, the competitive season has extended to year round. This extended season means more games and practices which leaves little, if any time for off-season ATHLETE training.

I often get asked by parents, “What should I do to help develop my child?” In my sport of basketball, what they are really asking is, “How do I help my child score more points?” Coaches ask me, “What drills should I do in practice to make my team and players better?” What they are really asking is, “What do I need to do to win more games?”

The reality is that athletic ability trumps skill most of the time. So how come nobody asks me about athlete development? If we teach and train our kids and our players in the fundamental movement skills and ABC’s, that will help kids score more points and it will help coaches win more games. I don’t care how many jump shots a player takes or how many defensive drills a coach does in practice. A better athlete will always find a way to shut down a great jump shooter and a great athlete will be able to slice and dice any defensive drill that a coach has implemented.

Once I have had this discussion with parents and coaches they ask for advice on what to do about athlete development. My answers are always the same:

- take an NCCP course to improve your expertise in this area;
- download, read, and implement the Long-term Athlete Development Model (LTAD);
- allow kids to be involved in a multi-sport environment;
- allow kids more time for free play;
- train the fundamental movement skills and ABC’s.

Wow, that is a big list and it can be intimidating. The good news is that there are resources out there that can help. Many coaches in my area are now including athlete development in their team training and parents are signing their kids up for it in the off season. Both are leaving it in the hands of experts and I much prefer that to year round, sport-specific training done by parents or coaches who lack the expertise. However, do your homework before hiring out these services.

Whether you choose to teach and train it yourself or hire somebody to do it for you, ATHLETE development is a must - the benefits last a lifetime. Think about how coaches and parents could enhance their kid’s experiences if they invested in athlete training in the off-season rather than playing more games and having more practices. Would it help decrease the drop out rate of females at an early age? If men and women had been taught to run, jump, and throw, would more of them join house league volleyball, play recreational basketball, step up to the plate on their company slow pitch team, or pick up a golf club or tennis racquet at a later age? Would we see more parents, especially moms, participate in the kids vs. parents game at the end of the season if they had the agility, balance, coordination, or speed to at least avoid being embarrassed? As John O’Sullivan from Changing the Game Project says, “We have the opportunity to serve our children better. We have the responsibility to help them become better athletes by encouraging them to become all-round athletes.” Why can’t ‘all-round athlete’ last from elementary school to adulthood -- from youth leagues to adult leagues? If we invest in developing athletic ability, we have an opportunity to enhance the enjoyment of sport for all kids, not just the superstars. And last time I checked, there is no reason to have an expiry date on enjoyment.