Some brief thoughts on Athletic Development
Updated: Jun 17, 2022
I recently saw an instagram post from Ray Dalio, the author of principles, and he was answering questions that followers put to him. The question was "How do you define success?" His response:
"For me, life is all about meaningful work and meaningful relationships. I should say, excellent work and excellent relationships, and then evolving. Both evolving myself and contributing to evolution. If I can do that, I am a happy person having a great successful life."
Combine this with his response to a different question: "what motivated you at the beginning of your career and what motivates you today?" His response:
When I was young I got into the game of playing the markets and that was a kick. So for the rest of my life I was motivated by that and then I was motivated by doing it with great people. So my big thing is meaningful work and meaningful relationships. If you got passion in your work and getting to do it with great relationships with others, there's nothing better in life.
The emphasis on work may not be everyone's taste (family first etc.) but I can relate to it (and I'm sure most who work in sport can too). To work in sport, it is going to be competitive, long hours, low pay, not always as glamorous as it may seem etc. Finding an intrinsic satisfaction from work is key to longevity and perseverence, which is needed to have a career working in sport. Ray Dalio got a kick from playing the markets, I get a kick from athletic development in whatever environment it may be - development or elite level sport. Having listened to the thoughts of Ray Dalio around his motivation for, and definition of success, I thought about defining what meaningful, or excellent work looks like from an athletic development standpoint, and defining evolution.
What is athleticism?
Athletic development is a more contemporary name for strength and conditioning. Many job advertisements today would have openings for an "athletic development coach" rather than a "strength and conditioning coach". Personally, I would prefer athletic development as it is more rounded and I think it just looks cooler. Athletic development is an umbrella term that can cover numerous aspects of performance qualities: strength, power, speed, agility, energy system development, mobility, flexibility, recovery etc. In my opinion, strength and conditioning is somewhat limiting.
In a line, the role of an athletic development coach is to "develop athleticism in players/athletes/clients". To develop athleticism, I lean heavily on Jeremy Moody's work (see framework below). Athleticism to me is to develop the athletic motor skill competencies that underpin almost every sport specific skill.
Jeremy Moody's Athletic Motor Skill Competencies (AMSC) Framework.
Athletic Development program framework
Below is a framework I have created from which I can develop some of the AMSC listed above. I have developed this framework from my own thoughts and experiences, combined with learning from the work of many others, including Simon Woodward, Jamie Joyce, Tom Green and James Baker, all of whom are heaviliy involved in youth athletic development. The framework contains a progression for:
core movement pillars of resistance training: squat, lunge, hinge, upper body push, upper body pull, brace (anti extensiton/flexion/lateral flexion) and rotate.
UB Power: vertical, horizontal and rotational power.
Plyometric: vertical, horizontal and lateral plyos.
Olympic lifting: Snatch, Clean and Jerk.
Gymnastics/Parkour: Brace, Hang/Climb, Inverted Balance, Roll and Vault.
The framework is not designed to automate exercise prescription and programming. Rather, it is a guide, coaches must still use their coaching eye and intuition to identify what the player in front of them needs. Coaches must be humble enough to do whats best for the athlete, and agile enough to be able train it appropriately within their contstraints. This framework contains levels 1-5 and generally progresses in terms of athletic difficulty. However, what is difficult for some, may be easy for others. Some challenges I have faced:
Squat: a young player with a huge range of motion around the ankle may find body weight squat (L1) easy, but may not be very strong in terms of external weight (e.g. goblet squat (L2)). Whereas a more muscular player may be more comfortable under external (L2), but may struggle to get into a bottom squat position when there is no external weight (L1) to counterbalance against.
Within a squad of players, all may be at levels 3+ on Strength and UB Power, but there might be a huge variation on level of ability for Gymnastics/Parkour.
There is a lot of crossover between exercises, and this can be especially useful to introducing the Olympic lifts. I am a big fan of utilising Olympic lifts for youth athletes (hich I have documented here), but they are admittedly difficult to teach. Being aware of this crossover and purposely working it into your sessions (interleaving for learning) can maximise efficiency. To perform a hang clean for example, I would instruct athletes to 1) RDL down to their knees, 2) straighten up to get into a jumping position, 3) jump like you were performing a squat jump (triple extension), 4) catch the bar in a front squat position. While I am typically not a fan of breaking a task down into components (task decomposition), using these metaphorical cues can help athletes to understand what they should feel in terms of an exercise.