This article was originally published for MPG New England. It has been republished here with permission.
"The word ‘athlete/athleticism’ is used too loosely amidst the sporting community. It is one thing to participate in a sport and it is another thing entirely to be an athlete."
Athletic development is a long-term pursuit. The organization and implementation of sport training programs can pose many challenges. Programs should never be a simple concept of various exercises for a given number of sets and reps combined with exhaustive conditioning sessions if individualization in the process of long-term athletic development is of any importance to the coach and athlete. Athletic development is a process in the mastery of several components. One component of athletic development that is often overlooked (or ignored) by many coaches is proper mechanics as they relate to the acquisition of sport skill. Or in its simplest sense, the concept of movement efficiency. This is especially evident in youth sports, arguably when the instruction and learning of proper mechanics matters most to an athlete.
The training of fundamental athletic qualities should start early in life. These athletic qualities have been described as coordination, mobility, balance, rhythm, relaxation, timing, and kinesthetic sense (awareness of one’s body in space). It is these qualities or biomotor abilities that separate a true athlete from someone who simply participates in a sport. James Smith wrote, “The word ‘athlete/athleticism’ is used too loosely amidst the sporting community. It is one thing to participate in a sport and it is another thing entirely to be an athlete.”
We all can appreciate this concept. Be it a youth soccer game or an international track and field event, we have seen the ‘superior athletes’. The highest-level athletes standout by their ability to make complex sport movements look effortless due to their high degree of mastery. They simply make things look easy because they have learned to move efficiently.
Whether it is the ability to sprint, jump or throw, several athletes participating within a high level of sport do not demonstrate efficient mechanics. Let’s consider sprinting. Yes, the ability to generate high levels of power and ground reaction forces will allow an athlete to move fast, but speed potential cannot be realized until efficiency of movement is mastered. This often requires the eye of a coach/specialist who understands biomechanics as it relates to sprinting and the ability to instruct what is necessary to the athlete.
The concept of teaching ideal or efficient movement should take priority before increased training loads or demands are implemented. This holds true for sprinting as well as any sport skill or weight room movement. The more a movement or sport skill is practiced at increasing velocities or against greater loads, the more concrete that exact movement pattern becomes programmed at the neuromuscular level. Meaning that that athletes who perform a specified movement without regard for proper mechanical efficiency only get better at moving inefficiently. This becomes detrimental to their long-term potential as an athlete and elevates their risk of injury. It is the proper mechanical instruction of the sport skill(s) combined with proper management of training load variables that becomes vital in setting the stage for athletic development.