First Things First: Help Children Become Athletes First, Players Later

UW Health Sports Performance Program Director Dave Knight explains why it's more important to focus on athletic development in youth playersMadison, Wisconsin – Does your son dream of playing for the University of Wisconsin football team or being the next Aaron Rodgers?


Or perhaps your daughter watched the U.S. national team win the Women's World Cup over the summer and wants to emulate star midfielder Carli Lloyd.


As a supportive parent, you might think the best route of action to encourage your child would be to find a local league in the sport of their choice and sign them up.


Putting the Athlete First


But the best long-term approach to help your child in his or her athletic endeavors – and to help keep them healthy – is to help them become an athlete first. Not a football player or soccer player, but an athlete.


"It certainly is," said Dave Knight, program manager of UW Health Sports Performance. "When you talk with pediatricians and you talk with people who understand the science behind it, it really seems to be the only way to go."


That's why "Athletes First" is the philosophy for young athletes in the Sports Performance program, which is housed in the state-of-the-art sports medicine facility at the new UW Health at The American Center on Madison's east side.


"I like to use the example of math," Knight said. "In sports, a lot of times it's like we're asking kids to perform complex trigonometry and calculus problems, but we haven't given them the skills to learn how to add, subtract, multiply and divide. The idea of Athletes First is that, from a young age when the athletes are really moldable and very receptive to learning, we teach them those skills like adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing – those rudimentary skills. We want to teach these athletes how to move their bodies when they're young, so that when they start to transfer into moving them for a specific sport, they can overcome some of these barriers. We train athletes first, and then players down the road."


Developing the Fundamentals


Sports Performance Programs

There are several programs at UW Health at The American Center to help kids develop the fundamentals to be better athletes. Check out the latest offerings

The first level is to P.L.A.Y., an acronym that stands for physical literacy and youth. Kids as young as 7 can take part in the program, which promotes fundamental movement skills and neuromuscular training for developing athletes.


"In that early age group, these individuals are going to learn to train through games," Knight explains. "We're going to play games where they throw balls at a target. They're going to learn to catch objects of different shapes and sizes. They're going to learn to run, to skip, to hop, to jump. They're going to learn to strike objects like golf balls and baseballs. They’ll do all of these different movement patterns that don't seem like they relate, but at that age, they're the addition and subtraction, the multiplication and division, that we need to build the fundamental skills of athleticism and sports."


And it's those fundamental movements that can help kids excel at their sports and avoid injuries as they get bigger and stronger and their sports get faster.


Preventing Injuries


"We know that early specialization – participating in only one sport and doing that repetitively, especially year-round – significantly increases your risk of injury," Knight said. "So these young baseball players, these pitchers who are throwing year-round, there's a reason that Tommy John surgeries (for elbow ligament reconstruction) have skyrocketed, especially in the youth population. They're doing the same thing all year-round and they're not developing their athletic systems.


"Why do girls have such a high risk of ACL tears in their knees while playing soccer? Some believe it's because they've been playing soccer since they were 6 or 7 and they started to specialize at the age of 9 or 10. That's all they've ever done. Their bodies never learned how to move in spaces, never learned to overcome adversity, so when it gets in these bad positions, they aren’t prepared to adjust and it causes injury. But if I'm an athlete, I can adapt and I can overcome scenarios. My body is prepared for those situations through a diverse approach to training and preparation.


"This is a long-term athlete development model. A 10-year-old shouldn't be worried about whether they win the baseball tournament. A 10-year-old might love to play hockey, but they shouldn't be playing 35 or 40 hockey games in a season. They should be spending much more time developing their skills, and that includes fundamental movement and sports skills. Developing those skills so that later on in life, when wins and losses matter or when competition matters, that can be more the focus. What we're trying to do is make sure that we're not developing baseball players at the age of 8, 9 or 10, but we're developing athletes who play baseball."


Looking to the Pros for Proof


Knight enjoyed seeing Jordan Spieth take the golfing world by storm this year – the 22-year-old is the world's top-ranked player and won two of the sport's four major championships in 2015.


"Jordan Spieth played baseball, he played basketball. He didn't specialize in golf at the age of 10," Knight said. "He was an athlete first. Then his special skills took him down the path of golf. That's what a lot of people don't understand – they think in order to be a 22-year-old phenom like he is, you had to be doing that your whole life. And it's just not true."


Need more proof? NBA superstar LeBron James was a two-time, all-state wide receiver football in Ohio before taking his talents to basketball on a full-time basis. And the Tracking Football website researched the backgrounds of the 256 players selected in this year's NFL draft: 224 of the players played at least one other sport in high school (88 percent) and 37 percent of drafted players were three-sport athletes.


"Early specialization doesn't work and leads to increased rates of injury," Knight said. "USA Hockey has realized this over the past five or six years, because they're seeing our United States-born athletes get run over by these other countries. These are other countries that don't have AAU or summer hockey leagues, and they asked, 'How can this be happening to us?' What they're finding out is these other countries' athletes are involved in a lot of different sports, they're doing a lot of different activities. They are developing athletes."


Looking even further down the road, Knight notes that the Athletes First approach can provide benefits for your children when they're adults.

UW Health Sports Performance Developmental Speed Strength introduces developmentally appropriate training for young athletes.


"When an athlete then gets older, they've developed those movement skills that they need in order to do a different activity," he said. "Maybe when they're 26, they can't play baseball anymore, so maybe now they want to play volleyball or play soccer. We want to give them those skills when they're young so that when they get older, it can also help them there, too."


As kids get older, UW Health's Sports Performance programs continue to build on the fundamentals. Developmental Speed Strength for 11-14-year-olds introduces sports nutrition, as well as strength training and movement technique. Additional programs such as Dry Land Hockey Training, Preseason Basketball and more focus on sports-specfic needs centered around agility, strength and mobility. In addition, Academies offer players the opportunity to interact with professionals in a specific sport.


"We are the best at training high-level athletes," Knight adds, "but we have the ability to work with you no matter what level you're at."

Date Published: 10/13/2015

News tag(s):  sports performancedave knight

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