By Laura Legoupil – WTA tour physiotherapist and strength and conditioning coach

As coaches, we should remind ourselves that the players we train, are athletes before being tennis players. It’s especially true when it comes to young athletes. It is well known that a lot of the best athletes in the world are not only skilled in their sport but are also really high-talented in other sports (Bergeron et al, 2015 ; Côté et al, 2009). Tennis players often demonstrate very high-level skills in other sports such as soccer, basketball ball etc…

Of course, we can presume that most of them have innate talent when it comes to perform a sport. But does talent mean everything? My opinion is that from a really young age, they have developed Fundamental Motor Skills (FMS) which are involved in every sport (Caruso, 2013 ; Lloyd et al, 2012) These skills can be divided in three categories (Howard, 2018):

– Body management : balancing, landing, stopping…
– Locomotor skills : crawling, walking, running, jumping…
– Object control : dribbling, kicking, throwing…

Specific movements required in every sport are all based on a combination of some of these FMS’s. Therefore, being a master at these basic skills will permit the athlete to develop her movement patterns giving her the opportunity to perform in her sport. She is able to do this by working from a basic and solid foundation to improve his specific tennis skills (Lloyd et al, 2016).

Fundamental Motor Skills development during childhood

Learning process is more efficient at a young age (Stillset al, 2010). There is strong evidence in the scientific litterature that developing motor patterns during chilhood (up to 11 to 13 years old depending of the individualized time of maturation of the child), is easier because of the better plasticity of the brain, also called neuroplasticity. For coaches, it represents the ‘opportunity to take advantage of the motor skill potential of children’ (Lloyd et al, 2016).

To optimize the great capacity ot the brain neuroplasticity during childhood, the use of diversified numerous stimuli is key. The more diversified situations you propose to the athlete, the more chances you give her to adapt, to solve problems and so develop her wide range of motor skills. A young athlete involved in different sports will receive many stimuli (= game situations, exercises) and will have the opportunity to develop more answers (=FMS) to these stimuli (Caruso, 2013 ; Balyi et al, 2004). A soccer play will help her develop his kicking and running skills, a baseball game will help her develop his throwing ability, gymnastic practice will help her develop his balance. Many of these sports require some common skills (running, balancing…), but each sport specific environment will lead to a different answer from the athlete (individual or team sport, hand-eye or hand-foot coordination…). As a result, all these different game situations will provide your child to enlarge his FMS, which will help him later to work on specific sport technic.

FMSs have been viewed as the building blocks for sport-specific movement patterns and should typically be the focus of physical development programs for children from early childhood to develop gross motor skills »
Lloyd et al, 2012

Short-term approach VS. Long-term development

For a long time, we thought that early specialization was the key to success as it was confronting the athlete from a really young age to the specific movement of the sport. It was more of a ‘quantity over quality’ approach, with a huge amount of practicing hours in a single sport. The hypothesis made was that training only on the specific movement patterns from a young age will certainly make the athlete better at those skills. It could appear like a gain of time and a good way to achieve quickly high performance…on a short-term approach (Caruso, 2013 ; Vaeyens et al, 2008).

The goal of every athlete is to sustain a long career at high-intensity, without being stopped by injuries. We don’t want to train athletes so they perform at the age of 12, but rather help them so they can progressively develop their skills and perform later in their career (Balyi et al, 2004). On the performance side, it has been reported in sientific litterature that ‘early specialization is not an essential component of elite athletic development’  (Caruso, 2013). An other study states that ‘successful youth athletes do not by definition always develop into elite performers in adulthood’ (Vaeyens et al, 2008). On the contrary, long-term development has shown more convincing results as the focus is on developing the overall athlete by building physical and psychological solid ressources to prepare her for the sport specific skills (Lloyd et al, 2016).

The progressive approach based on long-term gains is also associated with a decrease in injury risk (Lloyd et al, 2016 ; Bergeron et al, 2015). It has been proven that if a child is engaged from a young age in only one activity, they are more likely to be injured as they only develop restricted movement patterns specific to their activity (repeted daily), and very often in an asymetric way as in tennis (Lloyd et al, 2016). For example, we know for a fact that most elite tennis players present a deficiency in internal rotation of the shoulder of the dominant arm (mostly caused by the serve). Therefore, it could be interesting to delay the exposure of early high stress on the shoulder induced by a huge amount of serve repetition (early-specialization approach) by mixing the movements applied on the shoulder : different types of throwing, use of both arms (long-term development approach).

Conclusion

Fundamental Motor Skills are the foundation upon which you have to work with your youth athletes as they represent an advantage in both optimizing the performance and decreasing the injury risk rate associated with early sport-specialization. These instil the solid basics from where coaches can later teach, in the most efficient way, the more complex sport-specific skills. To develop these FMS’s, coaches should take advantage of the great neuroplasticity of the brain during childhood by applying a lot of diversified stimuli.

I would highly recommand you to look more deeply at these two long-term development programs as they include very well the utilisation of the FMS : The Long-Term Athletic Development (LTAD) and more recently the Youth Physical Development (YPD). Moreover, both programs have in common the use of an holistic approach : in addition to the physical development, personal and mental skills development are also emphasized.

Above all, coaches should make sure that each training session will bring fun so the young athlete can enjoy and develop herself (both physically and mentally) in the best positive way.

« The philosophy of the YPD model […] will help the child to appreciate the benefits of training and develop intrinsic motivation for participating in training, which is a strong predictor of well-being and is associated with positive behaviors. » Lloyd et al, 2012

Bibliography

Balyi, I. (2004). Long-Term Athlete Development: Trainability in Childhood and Adolescence. Windows of Opportunity. Optimal Trainability. 8.

Bergeron, M.F., Mountjoy, M., Armstrong, N., Chia, M., Côté, J., Emery, C.A., Faigenbaum, A., Hall, G., Kriemler, S., Léglise, M., et al. (2015). International Olympic Committee consensus statement on youth athletic development. British Journal of Sports Medicine 49, 843–851.

Caruso, T. (2013). Early sport Specialization versus Diversification in Youth Athletes. 4.

Côté, J., Lidor, R., and Hackfort, D. (2009). ISSP position stand: To sample or to specialize? Seven postulates about youth sport activities that lead to continued participation and elite performance. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology 7, 7–17.

Howard, R. (2018). The ABCs of Long-Term Athletic Development. 4.
Lloyd, R.S., and Oliver, J.L. (2012). The Youth Physical Development Model: A New Approach to

Long-Term Athletic Development. Strength and Conditioning Journal 34, 61–72.

Lloyd, R.S., Cronin, J.B., Faigenbaum, A.D., Haff, G.G., Howard, R., Kraemer, W.J., Micheli, L.J., Myer, G.D., and Oliver, J.L. (2016). National Strength and Conditioning Association Position Statement on Long-Term Athletic Development: Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 30, 1491–1509.

Stiles, J., and Jernigan, T.L. (2010). The Basics of Brain Development. Neuropsychology Review20, 327–348.

Vaeyens, R., Lenoir, M., Williams, A.M., and Philippaerts, R.M. (2008). Talent Identification and Development Programmes in Sport: Current Models and Future Directions. Sports Medicine 38, 703–714.

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