Back in my college days I remember one of our engineering labs using this giant machine to filter sediment.
Essentially what it did was, after we’d pour a mixture of dirt and rocks into the top of the machine, separate the pieces by size. It did this by falling through a series of grated trays, each one with progressively smaller holes than the one above it.
The bigger rocks would catch and stay on the top filter, the next biggest pieces would catch on the next one, and so on. So the only sediment that made it through all the filters were the finest grains of sand.
In many ways, this is similar to how athletic development sorts itself out over time. Each level of success seems to have its own key filters as kids go from youth leagues to high school, college and beyond.
Not every sport is exactly the same, but there are some clear filters to athletic success that span over a large number of them. There are certain ‘big rocks’ that need to come first for early success, with a series of more refined skill sets that are necessary as you climb the ladder over time.
Parents and coaches who are drowning in the sea of athletic opportunity for their young athletes these days should keep in mind that what your kids need at different age levels will vary, but those needs are often more predictable than you think.
The Biggest Rock – General Coordination and Movement Skills
Go to any youth sports league and watch the kids who rise above the rest. Almost certainly it will the the ones who have the best coordination. They can shoot balls or pucks with more accuracy, square up on fastballs better in baseball or softball, and do many other skills that require basic coordination better than their age-level peers.
Coordination in running technique will also allow them to move better too, making the need to develop more fluid and athletic movements the first filter to reaching success in sports.
The early years where this dominates will last somewhere until around 10-12 years old.
The 2nd Biggest Rock – Bodyweight Strength & Its Impact On Speed
At the next level you’ll find that most every top player has passed through the coordination filter, so now the ability to cover more ground will take on greater importance.
Passing through this filter is a bit trickier, because it could be a need for strengthening, weight management, or both.
Poor nutrition habits or a lack of activity outside of their sport may lead to problems with excess weight gain.
Alternately, some kids grow taller at a rapid rate but their strength levels do not keep pace. This creates a scenario where they will appear to play slower in relation to peers who used to be equal or behind them speed-wise.
These concerns typically first maifest themselves during the middle school years, and based on sports dropout and obesity rates for this age level, it is the hardest filter for young athletes to pass through.
The 2nd Smallest Rock – Technical Movement, Strategic, and Sport-Specific Skills
With initial speed, strength and coordination needs met at this point, most kids will find that the technical side of athletics begins to take on more and more importance.
Team strategies and playing beyond oneself become more essential as athletes seek to thrive in the systems of established high school or AAU programs.
More refined sport-specific skills (puck handling, dribbling, passing, etc), forged through countless hours of practice are necessary to separate a player from all the other coordinated, fast kids at this stage.
And as the game once again speeds up, more advanced speed & agility technique provides another critical advantage for those who wish to slip through to the next filter.
The Smallest Rock – Body Composition & Power Maximization
Regardless of sport or gender, the clear trend in athletics over the last 20 years is for bigger and stronger athletes to reach the pinnacle of success.
What makes this such an elite challenge is that getting bigger and more powerful cannot interfere with the coordination, flexibility, or speed skills previously built. This is an incredibly fine line to walk.
And when you add in that you’ll have to have your nutrition and recovery streamlined as well, succeeding at this stage requires an almost round-the-clock commitment to success.
Keep in mind that none of the previous filters ever go away completely, in fact often times they require advanced strategies too as you reach higher on the ladder of athletic success.
But the biggest takeaway for coaches and parents is that every piece of the athletic puzzle has its time and place, and there are different areas that are most likely to cause challenges for your kids to be addressed at each level.
Those who take a smarter long-term approach are far more likely to see the ultimate success they dream of.