Developing Youth Athletes

Kungfu This is Jackie Chan.  Maybe you've heard of him (if you haven't, scroll to the bottom of this post.) 

Watching Jackie last week on a typical "Entertainment!"-type show, I was surprised to hear the interviewer ask him the key to turning kids into martial arts superstars.  No doubt the answer would surprise a lot of parents: Chan didn't emphasize discipline or practice or even a martial art.  His answer?


In The Dancing Wu Li Masters (Gary Zukav, 1979,) contributor and Tai Chi teacher Al Huang describes speaking at a conference and providing a very visual example of technique vs. brute strength.  Huang, a ping pong player of small stature (around 135lbs,) asked a 300lbs attendee to jump into his arms.  After much back-and-forth and assurance, Huang caught the man – more than twice his bodyweight – and held him up in front of the audience. 

Is amazing balance and coordination, then, a racial trademark?  Is it the domain of a culture rooted in the martial arts; is it borne of the necessities of combat against larger opponents?  Or is it the fruit of a different cultural value system, in which 'sport' and 'art' are not parallel lines, but part of the same continuum?

World-championship-ping-pong As Westerners, we've taken the approach of prioritization of time: a child leans toward doing artistic things, OR sporting things.  This is largely a function of our industrial-model system of education: sit here.  Listen. Repeat what you're told.  Now choose: do you want to go left, or right?  You can be a red circle, or a blue square.  If you like blue, you're a square.  If you like circles, you're red.  Simple.

The more prevalent philosophy in Eastern (and most European cultures) is one of variety.  Consider the USSR's system for preparing athletes throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s: teach children a huge variety of sport while young, including wrestling, gymnastics, and weightlifting.  Develop skills in all disciplines until physical maturity is reached.  At that point, begin specialization, but always continue to include "off" sports as part of the annual training plan.  Their weightlifters played soccer; their throwers wrestled.  And played badminton, ping pong, and did tumbling exercises. 

The reason: different systems develop at different rates.  For instance, most of your neuromuscular development happens at a young age; this is why kids who do gymnastics or dance before age twelve typically have better balance and coordination when they're older.  A child's kick reflex develops very young; their aerobic capacity develops later; and their hormonal systems develop later still. 

System growth during childhood This week, we'll look closely at planning a young athlete's training – and practice, and play – to provide the best experience in terms of progression, growth, skill acquisition, and fun.  

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