By: Brian J. Grasso
The goals of any trainer or coach working with a young athlete (pre-pubescent) should include increasing proficiency of motor ability, developing functional versatility (from a strength, movement and biomechanical standpoint) and lastly, inhibiting the potential negative effects of specialized training. Upon reflection, these points, both individually and collectively, lend to the credence that when working with young, pre-pubescent aged athletes, the mandate should be one of global, all-encompassing development rather than specialized ventures into a single sport. With pre-pubescent children, muscle innervation is completed by roughly the age of 6 years. Muscle innervation refers to the final expansion of motor nerve endings within a muscle fiber’s interior. The impact of this action on motor coordination is quite profound. At the conclusion of the muscle innervation process (again, roughly by the age of 6, although individual variances occur), children are now able to learn and begin the process of establishing functional proficiency in gross motor skills and movement patterns. It is critical to understand however, that the innervation process happens more quickly and earlier (chronologically) in larger muscles. Again, innervation being linked to coordination and motor control, it stands to reason that children gain proficiency in gross motor skills more quickly than finer skills. This remains another argument for why early specialization is counterproductive : every sport requires various degrees of fine motor skills, which can simply not become functional abilities in younger athletes. Global aspects of gross motor skill development are most understandably the crucial component of training pre-pubescent children. Within a child’s brain (specifically the cortex), stimulation and excitability govern over inhibition. This reality means that young children are prone to poor concentration (especially over prolonged periods) and display indiscriminate reactions when responding to a specific stimulus, particularly those involving sudden changes of direction. In actuality, reflexes become ˜conditioned’ and more permanent around the age of 10 : 12 years. Reflexes are extremely difficult to develop in the puberty years. This supports the notion that multilateral development and global skill acquisition is crucial to training a young athlete. The inability to develop appropriate and specific reflex abilities in the teenage years supports the need to introduce young athletes to as many athletic stimuli as possible in the young years. One of the interesting features in support of multilateral development is the concept of plasticity. Plasticity, as I have spoken about in past articles, refers to the ability of the young brain to adapt to new stimulus upon introduction. The plasticity of the brain and nervous system declines rapidly in time, and actually may reach a functional limit (athletically speaking) by the late teenage years. The incomparable Dr. Mel Siff in his outstanding encyclopedia, Supertraining, directly counters this point. Dr. Siff makes the point that the capacity for neural change is present not only early in life, but throughout most, if not all human lifespan. However, Dr Siffs’ perspective is countered by Dr. Harold Klawans in his insightful book, Why Michael Couldn’t Hit. Dr. Klawans states that brain development is a long process and based largely on exposure. In fact, the ˜brain development period’, which extends through childhood and into adolescence, is characterized by an increased ability to adapt to new stimulus (i.e. high plasticity). However, this process does not continue equally forever. The human brain is distinguished from the brains of other species by the postnatal capacity for learning and it’s apparent plasticity, BUT THERE ARE LIMITS. There are critical periods, or windows of opportunity, for different types of learning. IF A SKILL IS NOT ACQUIRED DURING ITS CRITICAL PERIOD, THEN THE ACQUISITION OF THAT SKILL LATER IN LIFE WILL BE HARDER, IF NOT IMPOSSIBLE. Expose children at a young age to everything you can

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