Navigating the developing young athlete today can become a complex and costly journey at times. High tech training programs, multi-layer coaching and sports gear promising enhancing skill sets can lead to time commitments and money that may/ may not improve the athletes’ performance. While I am not saying these paths are not helpful, for most young athletes, I believe that the very basic skills of young athletes are being undeveloped.
Young athletes develop their athletic skills at various ages. While it is essential to know the techniques of your sport, it is also vital to develop fundamental movement skills that can enhance your level of play in your sport.
But what are Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS) and why are they important? FMS are simple motor skills such as running, balancing, hopping and kicking. These skills are the precursor or building blocks for more specialized sports specific skills. FMS helps build competency and confidence to participate in sports and recreational activity that can become part of a healthy life after sports. These are skills that should be developed before sports specific skills.
In future articles, I will discuss other aspects of FMS but today I want to go over one of the FMS that is often undeveloped but is critical in improving the developing young athlete, and that is BALANCE. In sports, learning balance is essential in enhancing sports performance. Balance plays a role in many sports: a baseball pitcher winding up to throw a pitch, a sprinter in track and field running down the track or a soccer player attempting to kick a ball to score a goal. At one point all of these athletes must have good balance to perform at their highest level.
Former Detroit Lions NFL Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders is an excellent example of how balance is critical in sports performance. If you look at any of his highlight films- I highly recommend you take a look- his ability to change directions on the field and avoid tackles while running is fluid and eloquent using great BALANCE and body control. Improving balance helps with improving muscle group coordination that will naturally increase when performing challenging tasks. For the young developing athlete, this helps with reaction time, agility and body control.
On Episode 32 of the DYA Network podcast show, Former Pro Soccer Player and US Army West Point Men’s Head Soccer Coach Russell Payne discussed what he felt were the five attributes of athleticism in a soccer player. Out of the 5 attributes which included: speed, quickness, agility, power, and balance, he felt that balance and stability were crucial. He discussed how he had a soccer player that was not gifted with some of the other attributes, but the player had great balance. The player was great at positioning himself between other players and the ball. His great balance gave him an edge, making it difficult for players that were bigger, faster and stronger and more athletic to knock him away from the ball.
Coach Payne also noticed that if players did not have great balance, it was difficult for even some of the more athletic players to improve their skill set. Soccer players spend an enormous amount of time on one leg and having balance during this time is critical in this sports specific skill. Coach Payne indicated that one of the foundations of a good soccer player is being able to keep the ball and not give it to the other team. This requires coordinated control of muscle movement and balance while in possession of the ball.
Balance is a critical skill that can be learned with practice and repetition. The following are drills that can be performed anywhere for athletes of all ages.
PICTURE A (arrows drawn)
PICTURE B (no arrows)
Picture A-technique needs improving-the front arm swing hand should be near her ear and back arm swing elbow should be elevated along with increased separation between hand and hip.
Picture B-adjusted technique-better hand position of front arm swing and elevated elbow of back arm swing along with increased separation between hand and hip.
The Myths of Motion
In many sports, speed is one of the critical fitness components for success. Some people believe that to be fast, you have to be born with speed. Well, I disagree, I believe anyone can run faster if taught HOW to run.
In speed, the arm motion is just as critical as the leg motion.
One area in which young athletes can become faster is by decreasing wasted motion in running. Wasted motion can add seconds to their running which can lead to being tagged out at the base, missing the catch or even missing the tackle. Proper running techniques encompasses more than just leg motion, it also includes arm motion as well. To achieve maximum speed, the arms and legs have to be coordinated contralateral to propel the body in a horizontal direction-forward motion. Poor body mechanics and awareness can compromise maximal speed. Young runners can improve their speed by making minor adjustments to their running technique. Improving/correcting arm motion in running is a simple technique that can improve speed.
Techniques to improve arm motion.
It is critical to understand the importance of proper arm mechanics- which assists with propelling the body in a horizontal direction and also keeps your body balanced allowing forward movement in a straight line. Techniques that I have used to improve coordination in arm motion is first to have my athletes understand the arm and leg motion used in walking(gait). Normal arm motion during gait is forward movement with the opposite arm with the opposite leg. Next, I have them exaggerate their arm swing by having them swing their arms across the center of their body so they can see how difficult it is to walk forward. I want to emphasize here the wasted rotational trunk motion and arm swing in relation to the legs. I also explain that running and sprinting is a continuation of this counterbalance motion. I always like to start with walking and showing arm and leg motion before proceeding to run or do speed work because if they cannot perform coordinated arm and leg technique while walking, then it will be difficult for them to do this at maximum speed.
Coordinating the hand, the arm, and the swing.
When I teach this drill to young sprinters, I like to keep it simple demonstrating the position of the arms. In walking the arms are relaxed and swing, in running the arms are relaxed but positioned at a 90-degree bend at the elbows (maintaining the L shape) and that the motion comes from the shoulder, not the elbow. We expect some elbow flexion and extension on the front (60-90 degrees) and back side(90-120 degrees) of the drill because we want this motion to be relaxed and fluid, not a mechanical process. If you look at any video footage of a world-class sprinter, you will see the relaxation in their face, shoulders, arms, and hands.
During running, the athletes’ hands should be relaxed and should swing from shoulder to hip-another term you probably heard is ear to pocket. I like to use the verbal cue SHOULDER to HIP because on the front swing most young athletes will swing their hand beyond the shoulder-a good front swing is when the hand is between shoulder and ear. With the back arm swing, we want separation between the hip and the hand. Another way is to make sure is that the back arm swing elbow is to the sky. I heard sprinting legend Carl Lewis use the term “elbow to the sky, thumb to the eye” to make sure the arm motion technique was correct.
Trunk rotation and muscle tension can cost critical seconds.
The arms should not come across the front of the body because this will create trunk rotation which decreases speed-loosing critical seconds. In running, we want to keep everything as straight ahead as possible in the sagittal plane. Remember the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and we want to build maximum velocity straight ahead. I sometimes use the example of a fighter throwing a punch. Which is quicker a jab or a hook? A jab is a straight forward punch whereas a hook is more of a curve swinging motion.
Tension in the face, arms, and legs can cause flexion of the muscles which can restrict motion leading to wasted energy. The eyes should be straight ahead, and chin horizontal with a relaxed face. The focus should be on a relaxed rotation of the arms through the shoulder joint and minimal trunk rotation.
The arm motion drill can be done walking and also in a standing position. As my athletes do the drill in the standing position, I will walk around and correct any mistakes. Start slowly with this drill making sure their arms and hands are in the proper positions, then you can tell them to PUMP their arms with a focus on keeping BIG ARMS so that they don’t over flex their elbows. The key here is quality vs. quantity. This drill is simple enough where they can also do this at home in front of a mirror so they can see their technique. Usually, I tell them to do 3 sets for 30 seconds.
Remember that increasing speed can be as simple as improving arm coordination. This takes time and practice. A key point to remember is relaxed muscles and proper form. This should be a fun activity and one of the first adjustments with technique to improving speed.
“We seek out the highest competition we can play and go play them.”
Our interview with former MLB catcher John Hodgins provided grand slam information for parents, coaches and young athletes. John talks about why travel teams make kids better, knowing why the fundamentals of baseball are essential, why scouts arrive early to games and much more.
“A travel team in any athletic event you do, you want to play against the highest level you can play at least EQUAL TO OR GREATER than and that’s how you become better.”
There was a time when playing sports was seasonal and then came travel teams. Many parents new to having their kids play baseball may not know or understand the significance of their child playing on one of the travel teams. John breaks down the purpose and how he sets up his team.
Selected players from a young age make up most travel baseball teams. The team can be anywhere from 10-12 players. On John’s team, he carries anywhere from 22-26 players. They travel to different states and play other teams that are highly competitive. Playing teams with skills higher than their own can make players better in the long run according to John. “You don’t just go to tournaments to play...you go where there are scouts...you go to be seen”. John also has a fall travel team, and they play 32 games at different colleges in six different states: Division II, NAI, JUCO 1, 2, and 3. During this time, the players can get exposure to playing at the colleges, and potential scouts.
“The fundamentals in baseball is everything.”
There is a difference in why some children want to play sports: they want to play professionally, camaraderie with friends, or just an after-school activity. For whatever reason, your child decides to play- knowing the fundamentals of the sport is essential. It can be frustrating to players, coaches or the athlete if they are making errors because they do not understand the fundamentals of the game.
According to John, players should be taught the fundamentals of baseball such as how to field a baseball, the proper footsteps in hitting, arm slot in pitching and where to throw a baseball at certain times. John wants parents to know that college and professional scouts look to see if a player has mastered five fundamentals:
Hitting, Hitting with power,Foot speed, Foot and glove work, and Arm strength.
The fundamentals are important to start learning at the young level-coaches and players should start focusing on the skills especially if their dream is to one day play in the MLB. “It’s a tough way, less than 1% in the world get to play pro-baseball”.
“We actually start looking at kids at the age of 14”.
Now, what if some players are serious about playing the game of baseball. They have their sights set on the major leagues. Are there nuances of scouting that is important for the parent, coach or athlete to know?
Yes, according to John, scouts can arrive up to an hour before games. The purpose is to be able to see players doing infield and outfield skills. If John is sent to scout someone and he never sees the player get a ball, then he may not be able to do a report on that player.
Also, scouts may start looking at kids at the age of 14. The player can be followed once a year throughout high school with more visits during their senior year. “We can draft kids out of high school.”
“There’s a lot to baseball that’s just not talent.”
According to John, it is a formula- one that includes a thing called make-up. When John is scouting a player, many factors come into play. He may need to know the size of their feet, their calf size, waist size, if they have a barrel chest or flat chest, if they have sloped shoulders or square, how big are their hands and if they have facial hair. All this goes into the formula, and each club has a different method or a different way on how they want their players to look. The MLB understands that scouts may see young athletes, but this information determine if the young athlete will be able to play at a high level eventually.
How important is speed and agility in baseball?
According to John, to play Division I Baseball the 60-yard dash timing has to be 7 seconds or lower. Speed is an important skill to work on because it is important at the college level and professional level. For John, he stresses, “it’s hard to beat a kid that has good speed,” players with speed can change the dynamics of a game with stealing bases and putting pressure on the pitcher.
John’s Motivational Moment
“Make sure that you LIVE YOUR DREAM, go after your dream and make sure you WORK ON whatever game you are going to play everyday…” John Hodgins
John Hodgins is a Colorado Rockies MLB Scout and founder of Lake Area Dodgers youth travel ball organization that has helped over 700 young athletes receive college baseball scholarships.
David Edwards Founder of the DYA Network.