Learning the Right Way
I've coached baseball for many years. With spring here, we've started outside practices. As I coach, I always keep an eye on what is going on around me with other coaches. You're never to old or experienced that you can't learn something from other coaches.
This past weekend, I didn't learn a whole lot, but I did see something that I see every new season that always leaves me shaking my head. On the junior fields I saw a team that was perhaps, 7 or 8 years old. As the boys ran onto the field, the coach lined 3 up at each infield position, and then set all but the first line of infielders back a few feet. So far so good. It's what happened next that caught my attention.
The coach went back to the plate, bat in hand, and said, "OK, let's turn two".
Turn two? If you aren't familiar with baseball, turn two means, "I'm going to hit a ball, and I want the player I hit it to, to cleanly field the ball, then throw the ball to second base, and from there, throw it on to first base.
Naturally, you might be saying, "Well what's wrong with that? Turning a double play is a part of baseball." You are right, it is a part of baseball, but consider the students here. At 7 & 8 years old, these poor kids fielded poorly, threw poorly and caught poorly. They were not near prepared for the "intensity" that the coach was expecting. What ensued was a lot of missed balls, bad throws and poor catches.
In the same way, people make this mistake with athletes of all abilities in all pursuits. It is something that we try and avoid at STL Youth Performance.
Mastery of most athletic skills is more often the result of good coaching rather than "innate ability". You will hear it said all the time. "Oh he/she is just a natural. Look how easy this comes to them." While in some cases, this is all too true, in most, what appears easy and effortless is the result of great coaching and tireless training to get it right.
The proper sequence to athletics
With most pursuits, greatness is achieved by following a process. CrossFit teaches that the sequence required for greatness is as follows:
Let's look at these one by one.
In order to be good at baseball, running, basketball, or any other athletic pursuit, you have to master movements. If we take my example of baseball above, I believe kids should spend hours upon hours learning how to plant their feet to field a ground ball, how to play the bounce, in what position the glove should be, whether the glove should be moving or stationary for different kinds of hits, and on and on.
Each of these is a mechanic to be mastered in order to excel. By the same token, if an athlete wants to get strong, they should Deadlift, Squat, Press and do other types of resistance training. But unless they do these movements with proper mechanics, they will likely not achieve their potential.
In order to be ready for "game play situations", an athlete must master the mechanics of movement and be able to apply them consistently. This takes time. Though you know what to do mechanically, chances are that muscle memory from what you do naturally will always draw the athlete back to old habits.
Overcoming those natural habits so that you move with proper mechanics consistently is the next hurdle. Consistency is the key to avoiding momentary errors in movement that cost your team or yourself in individual sports.
Once the athlete is able to move mechanically well, and do so consistently, then and only then is it time to approach intensity. In my example, turning a double play represents intensity, and for most 7 & 8 year old boys, the mechanics and consistency are not yet mastered. So don't move to intensity. Keep it simple and grow proper skills to prepare for intensity.
At STL Youth Performance, we work with Junior athletes through college scholarship athletes. In all cases, our focus is continually on mechanics. Getting athletes to do things correctly will arm them with the tools to be successful at intensity at their chosen sports.
Is it always fun to learn this way? Absolutely not. Sprinkle in some fun along the way. Let the kids have a short 3-point competition in basketball at the end of practice. Let the soccer team have a penalty kick contest. Help them enjoy playing along the way. But don't take your eyes off the fact that the majority of practice in intended for skill development, not game play. Teach them well.