The first blog in this series discussed different types of stages associated with sports including developmental and learning stages. Please review that blog before proceeding. This blog examines developmental stages more closely. This blog series came at the request of a parent who asked us if there are specific stages of development in children’s sport participation.
A Time Sensitive Matter?
Some research shows that sensitive stages may exist during development when the body is more responsive to a stimulus such as specialized sports training (*). These stages are called critical when they occur at a time of irreversible change (Anderson, Magill, and Thouvarecq 2012). The basic theory here is that the body is more adaptable to different types of training at different stages of development and less adaptable once those stages have passed.
Let’s be critical of critical periods
Sensitive and critical period research provided much fuel for the notion glorified in ‘pop science’ books [see for example: (Gladwell 2008, Syed 2010, Shenk 2010, Colvin 2008)] that to become an expert in a domain, one must initiate highly specific and intensive training at a young age to leverage these stages of development thought to maximize one’s capacities. It is argued, for example, that ballet dancers must establish the ‘turnout’ of their hips and pitchers must develop the degree of shoulder rotation in their throwing arms before puberty sets in and their joints become less adaptable (Ericsson, Nandagopal, and Roring 2009). The notion of sensitive and critical periods research certainly appears intuitive and played a huge roll in former Eastern European (e.g. Soviet Union) sports programs [see: (Drabik 1996) for in depth discussion]. However, before we proceed further, a caution:
Anderson and Mayo (2017) argue that research suggests but does not confirm sensitive periods actually exist and, despite lacking evidence, sensitive periods are still promoted as fact and form the basis for several modern athlete development models (Collins and MacNamara 2017). In other words, though sensitive periods seem plausible based on common sense and intuitive (yet unscientific) observations, the research literature supporting sensitive periods is lacking.
Many specific sensitive stages take place as early in life as fetal development. Maternal diet, maternal exercise, and maternal stress, for example, may influence cognition and motor development; muscle fiber type, distribution, and count; and even metabolism into adulthood (**). Several sensitive stages are thought to influence youth sport performance and participation including optimal periods to develop strength, explosive strength, speed, stamina, flexibility, and sport specific motor skills (Balyi, Way, and Higgs 2013, Drabik 1996, Anderson, Magill, and Thouvarecq 2012).
Other adaptations that influence the way we perceive the world around us and perhaps the way we approach our learning occur very early in development and are considered critical (Fox, III, and Levett 2010, Bell and Deater-Deckard 2007, Anderson, Magill, and Thouvarecq 2012). During growth and maturation, the architecture of the brain and central nervous system adapt to the unique patterns of activity children experience. This influences the size of cortical areas of the brain and strength of the neural connections throughout the central nervous system. “Each one of our perceptual, cognitive, and emotional capabilities is built on the scaffolding provided by early life experiences,” explain Fox, Levitt, and Nelson (2010). Accordingly, connections that are continually exposed to healthy experiences and high-quality information will stay strong and develop as long as the quality of information continues to increase. Therefore, the way we view success and failure, set goals, apply ourselves in practice and all other endeavors, are critically influenced by the quality and uniqueness of our youth experiences.
Experientially, we do believe there is some truth to these sensitive periods and we believe the research is lacking or inconclusive because children experience them in so many different ways. Therefore, we do have some suggestions below.
A Coordinated Effort
Teach them how to learn from the beginning. Establish children’s conception of learning and approach to sport starting from their earliest experiences. Activities should be fun, balance autonomy and structure, nurture intrinsic motivation and teach children responsibility, respect, fair play, and, very importantly, that hard work leads to improvements. These experiences should positively influence their perceived competence, teach them how to fail, fail again, and then find a way to succeed. Ultimately, children should learn that, with our guidance and support, they are the driving agents of their participation and learning.
Develop motor coordination. Children should develop an extensive repertoire of simple, yet essential, fundamental motor skills so that they can move about in their environment with confidence and efficiency through a wide range of physically challenging situations. In this way, the nervous system is challenged through a large variety of movements, rendering it more capable of specializing later on in development. Such experiences should start at a young age. Researchers refer to this as the development of physical efficiency (Bompa 2000) or physical literacy (Balyi, Way, and Higgs 2013).
Young children can be exposed to many types of foundational physical experiences. This includes gymnastics, striking skills and hand-eye coordination (e.g. hitting a ball off a tee), swimming, gross motor movements (e.g. a game of tag, or tapping to music), fine motor movements (e.g. tossing dice into a cup), creativity (e.g. acting out stories), even rough and tumble play (Collins and MacNamara 2017). Since figure skating is an early specialization sport, it is very challenging to commit to the sport and find time to develop physical literacy from other activities. Physical literacy can still be developed through coordination training classes off the ice and exposure, on the ice, to a wide range of movements, turns, jump and spins.
Be ready for puberty physically and psychologically. According to some sensitive period research, the optimal stage to develop motor coordination is from about the age of seven to the onset of puberty because growth is very steady at this time (Balyi, Way, and Higgs 2013). Once children reach their growth spurt, motor coordination drastically suffers. Since height and weight do not increase proportionately and the pendular dimensions of the limbs change, the body must search for, and develop, new patterns of movement that satisfy its changing dimensions (e.g. height, weight, limb length). It has been observed that prepubescent children are more coordinated than pubescent children (Balyi, Way, and Higgs 2013). Thus, puberty is a challenging time to maintain one’s motor skills, let alone develop new skills… and this happens all the time in figure skating when children start their triple jumps right when puberty has kicked in.
Puberty also affects one’s strength in different ways. Growth (adding mass) means that more muscle is needed to lift the body. Fortunately, during puberty, anabolic processes that mediate muscle growth, composition, and metabolic properties are very active (to facilitate the rapid changes) and the natural maturation of the muscles counters this effect by providing greater force per unit of mass (Zatsiorsky and Kraemer 2006). Therefore, children naturally get stronger (absolute strength) during puberty, but they might not be able to do as many push-ups as they could before (relative strength) because of the disproportionate increases in height and weight.
Children are also susceptible to injury during puberty because bones grow faster than muscles which increases the tension in the tendons. Couple that with repetitive practice of complex skills, a loss of coordination, frustration from efforts to maintain one’s skills, and the susceptibility for overuse and other types of injuries increases. If your child experiences a major growth spurt you should expect them to go through this awkward and psychologically challenging stage.
Prepare for the pubertal growth spurt looming in the distance. Engage lots of dynamic and static stretching so the muscles can better accommodate this period of rapid growth. When puberty arrives, be sure to supplement with structured and professionally monitored strength and conditioning training to leverage all those natural growth factors. Be aware that the rapid changes will no doubt disrupt coordination – skills that were once effortless will now require more attention; skills will evolve into different shapes and forms (yes, they will even look different) and remember: this is an incredibly necessary stage for the body to pass through. Once your child gets to know their ‘adult’ body they can re-establish their motor skills and perhaps perform them better than they ever could in the past!
**(Perry et al. 2002, Carballo et al. 2008, DiPietro 2004, 2010, DiPietro et al. 2009, DiPietro et al. 2006, Dwyer, Stickland, and Fletcher 1994, Hatch et al. 1993, Rogers et al. 2005, Dwyer and Stickland 1992, Barker et al. 2002, Coles , Ellison 2010, Holt 2002, Huotilainen 2010, James 2010)
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