Is Your Child Ready to Play Sports? Part 1: Growth, Maturation, Developmental Age, and Long Term Ath
In the paper entitled When is my child ready for sports? the authors state, “Learning basic skills such as throwing, running and jumping is a normal process that most children go through. They learn each skill in little steps. Some children learn faster than others. By the time they are three to five years old, most children have learned some of these skills.” But is this really the case? Can your child run, jump, throw, hop, skip, land, change direction?
The paper continues, “To play organized sports, kids need to learn how to put these skills together (for example, how to run and throw at the same time). That doesn’t happen until they are approximately six years old.” Do you know if your child has “put these skills together?” How do you make this judgment?
Before we answer these questions, a little background on brain and body development will give you a little background to better put these questions in context.
Never Too Late, But Earlier is Better
“The first years of life are a very busy and crucial time for the development of brain circuits. The brain has the most plasticity, or capacity for change, during this time, which means it is a period of both great opportunity and vulnerability. The impact of experiences on brain development is greatest during these years—for better or for worse. It is easier and less costly to form strong brain circuits during the early years than it is to intervene or "fix" them later. Brains never stop developing—it is never too late to build new neural circuits—but in establishing a strong foundation for brain architecture, earlier is better.” From Key Concepts: Brain Architecture
“During the first few years of life, 700 new synapses (neural connections) are formed every second. After a period of rapid proliferation, connections are reduced through a process called pruning, so that brain circuits can become more efficient. Early experiences affect the nature and quality of the brain’s developing architecture by determining which circuits are reinforced and which are pruned through lack of use. Some people refer to this as “use it or lose it."
Is Your Child an Early Bloomer or Late Bloomer?
See the chart in When is my child ready for sports? to see movement skill levels based on age. This chart begs the question, “what does ‘age’ mean – chronological age or developmental age?” Is your child 6 years old with a 9 year old skill level, or 9 years old with a 6 year old skill level? Before you giggle with glee that your 6 year old can perform all the 9 year old skills, have you thought about whether the athletes that continue on to college or professional sports are early or late bloomers?
Chronological Age vs. Developmental Age
A sports development model called LTAD: Long Term Athletic Development encourages physical literacy, physical excellence, and life-long physical activity and pays careful attention to sports specialization, developmental age, sensitive periods or windows of opportunity for skill and/or physical capacity development.
Two of the key factors on which LTAD is based are developmental age and windows of opportunity. Chronological age and developmental age may be completely different for a child. In the United States youth sports are based on age and usually start at 6 – 8 years old. Most leagues have U6, U7, U8, (under 6, under 7, under 8) etc. age groups. Depending on the cutoff month, your child may be the youngest or oldest chronologically.
But where are they developmentally? Think back to when you played sports. Where you always the best, the worst, somewhere in-between? And were you the youngest, oldest? Where some kids young and played great? Did they go on to play sports at a higher level? Did some kids blossom late and go on to great success?
See p. 24 of LTAD: Canadian Sport for Life for the different Fundamental Sports Movement Skills that Underpin Sports Literacy. At what developmental level is your child for each skill? And what skills are most necessary for the sport your child wants (or you want your child) to play? Developmental age is defined as “the degree of physical, mental, moral, cognitive and emotional maturity. Physical developmental age can be determined by skeletal maturity or bone age.”
Think about this when deciding whether being an early or late bloomer is “better”.
“The tempo of a child’s growth has significant implications for athletic training because children who mature at an early age have a major advantage during the Train to Train stage compared to average or late maturers. However, after all athletes have gone through their growth spurt, it is often the late maturers who have greater potential to become top athletes provided they experience quality coaching throughout that period.” From LTAD: Canadian Sport for Life, p. 29
When the child blooms is not what matters; it is the development of proper motor skills, the quality of coaching, and how much fun a child has (Listen to Changing the game in youth sports: John O'Sullivan at TEDxBend) as they develop and play that are most significant.
In my blog post A Path to Excellence, I summarized the findings of two studies by the United States Olympic Committee reviewing the development of Olympic athletes. Participation in a variety of sports before single sport focus, love of sport, high quality coaching, and steady training progression were the highlights of these reports, not early maturity. Here is another article which states, "88 percent of NFL draft picks played multiple sports".
Windows of Opportunity
The other key component of the LTAD model is the window of opportunity. These are key developmental periods when there can be accelerated adaptation to training. Dr. Greg Rose, co-founder of the Titleist Performance Institute, recently stated, "You only have one chance to do this right. It's a fact. The more we learn about this, the worse this gets." Speed, suppleness, skills, stamina and strength are best developed during certain “windows of opportunity. Stamina and strength are based on developmental age – growth spurt and peak height velocity. Speed, suppleness, and skills are based on chronological age. Also, girls develop earlier than boys.
What does Dr. Rose mean by “The more we learn about this, the worse this gets?” It means that most kids perform so poorly on motor development testing that identifying and correctly these poor movement patterns has become critical to youth athletic development. For example, I coach my son’s U8 boys soccer team.
None of the kids (except my son) can skip well forward and none can skip backward. The same goes for lateral movement. Why can my son do it? Do we spend hours training? Am I that crazy dad? Nope! He can do it because we spend a minute here and a minute there outside skipping, hopping, running, and jumping. He does it for 30 seconds and then is on to the next thing!
Youth Physical Development Model
Another sports development model called the Youth Physical Development Model has recently been proposed. One difference is that this model states that “most fitness components are trainable throughout childhood and should not be restricted to specific “windows” at various stages of development.” It also states that the LTAD model offers “no guidance is offered as to when and why these qualities [power, agility, and hypertrophy] should be trained throughout childhood and adolescence.” Lastly, this model discusses individualization of training based on the factors discussed above.
Both models advocate the development of functional movement skills from a young age. I will let the scientists battle the merits of each. What is most important to your child is to determine physical, cognitive, and emotional preparedness PRIOR to starting sports and use it to determine his/her progress while playing sports.
See Part 2