In every contest there are key moments, a chance to score, to stop the opponent, to change the momentum of the game. There are windows of opportunity. Taking advantage of those opportunities goes a long way in determining the quality and the outcome of the game.
When it comes to the development of an athlete, especially a young athlete there are windows of opportunity as well; key moments we can take advantage of that have a big impact in determining quality of their experience as well as the long term outcomes.
The good news here is that unlike a game or a contest we know when those window are going to be there, when they open and close. That gives us as coaches and athletes and parents a chance to be prepared and capitalize on those opportunities.
Research from Istvan Balyi and others has identified these windows of development and the chronological and biological markers to help us work with them. The challenge for us as coaches and teachers and parents is to work with what nature is giving us, to design our programs and create opportunities that take advantage of those open windows.
For example focusing on increasing stamina in an 11 year old boy is like pounding on a locked door. We can spend our time and energy trying to force it open or we can take what is available to us which is the window of skill development. And, if it’s the skill window that’s open we can focus on the placeswhere skills are developed which are practice and free play and downplay the emphasis on organized competition.
Signing up for another tournament or league at this stage isn’t very productive in the long term development of a young athlete. Neither is using practice time to have 11 year olds run laps or wind sprints.
This all makes sense when you take the unfolding view of athletic development. These windows, these sensitive periods are the critical times in the growth and unfolding of a young person. Missing the window doesn’t mean you can’t ever get better, develop a skill, have fun or enjoy success. Think of them as lost opportunities though that begin to limit development and can’t be fully retrieved later on.
Go back to skill development as an example. In a recent article on Excelsior Sports, Steven Plisk wrote “ Long-term skill acquisition has an interesting biological basis. A remarkable pruning process occurs in the brain before and during adolescence, in which unused connections between neurons are eliminated. Meanwhile, connections that are used regularly are reinforced, making them faster and more efficient. The process is guided by genetics (nature) as well as experience (nurture), and may be the ultimate example of the use-it-or-lose-it principle.” Taking advantage of the skill window opens up possibilities and encourages potential. Underutilizing the opportunity limits and narrows.
In a world where more is often seen as better let’s find our focus. As coaches, teachers and parents let’s learn where those windows are, what’s going on for our young players during those times. Let’s find ways to work together to take advantage of the opportunities that nature provides us and think more about where we want to put our efforts and how we want to structure our training and programs. Let’s take advantage of those unique moments to help our kids develop the basic skills and attributes they need to become healthy, successful, accomplished young athletes and reach their full potential.
Love to know your thoughts or what you’re doing to move in this direction. Does it raise any questions or stir any new thinking for you? Please leave your comments and ideas.