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Player Development vs Athletic Development

Player Development vs Athletic Development


Juan Carlos Santana, MEd, CSCS


One alarming trend is the major focus on developing great players with great sports skills, at the expense of athletic development.  That is, trying to create great players without first creating great athletes.  I’ve seen this at every sport development camp I have been involved with.   “Elite goalies” that can’t forward role or cartwheel, wanting to perform power-dive saves!   Basketball players want to dunk the ball without developing the foot skills necessary to get possession of the ball.  Tennis players worried about the type of racquet their using instead of worrying about how they will get to the ball so they can use that “bionic” racquet.   For the most part, these kids are decent players, but terrible athletes.  No motor skills, other than those specifically demanded by their sport.  Many of them are “tired” and burnt out!  They often come to us with physical injuries due to lack of foundational work, lack of motor-skill development and chronic overuse (i.e. insufficient recovery).

I believe this problem is multi-factorial and typical of the specialized approach our society has adopted.  Although many professions are preaching the return to a more holistic approach to looking at human issues, we are still dissecting things and wondering why we have lost sight of the “big picture”.  Sports and athletic development are no different than any other profession.

Why is this happening?  Several main reasons!  Physical education, where we use to play ALL sports, has just about disappeared from our public school systems.  The socio-economic climate (i.e. most homes have both parents working and need some kind of after-school care for their kids) is also such that children are in a supervised and restricted environment, when they should be free-playing.  Crime, and society’s mistrust in its citizens has just about eliminated unsupervised, outside kid’s play.  This issue is key. 

It is during these “skill-hungry” years (6-11yrs of age) that free play teaches our kids what they need to be great athletes.  However, organized sports leagues are the only play many of our children get these days.   More often then not, these leagues are barely teaching sport specific skills (i.e. specialized skills).  I have observed and talked with many league coaches, and I’m alarmed at how few know what biomotor skills are, how essential they are and how to develop them. I have attended most of the major league sport-camps in and around Boca.  Most sports leagues do not assure proficiency in basic motor skills (e.g. skipping, prancing, galloping, jumping, tumbling, etc.).  All of them are too busy teaching specific, technical and tactical aspects of their particular sport.  So, our kids learn how to be players before they become athletes.  The wagon before the horse!

Some of these camps bring me in as the “plyometric, jumping, explosive, pull them on a cord, run them over hurdles, attach them to a parachute and make them fly - kind-a-guy”!  They are astonished at how much time I spend with the basics.  Then, the sure-fire question comes out, “when are you braking out the toys”?  I simply point out at their players that can’t run correctly, much less perform any other drill.    When I ask the coaches, do you really think these kids are ready for anything other then the basics?  The answer is usually - NO!  But, the pressure to bring out the equipment is eminent; a marketing tool to impress the kids and parents.   “If we don’t use or show it - the next camp will, and the parents will take their kids there”.  This reasoning is understandable and accurate.  I understand this is an essential “marketing strategy” for the success of their camp, but not the answer for the kid’s proper development.  What do I do?  Use the equipment to work on basics – everyone is happy and the kids get what they need. 

So, how do we begin to fix this dilemma?  Easy, educate the parents and coaches.  Thus the purpose of this column. 

A special message to parents and coaches

I now speak to you as a dedicated parent first, then as professional with the up-most passion and respect for my field.  Our children need proper progression and development to succeed in all aspects of life.  Sport and athletic success are no different.  Don’t be persuaded by big words and fancy equipment.  Remember that some of the best things in life are basic and available to all.  Concentrate on your child’s athletic development, not their sport development. 

Recall you early years and remember all of the gymnastics and tumbling you “hated” doing in school, all of the “useless” sports you used to play?  No one graduated from high school without three years of PE, no matter how hard you tried to get out if it!  It’s only now that you realize the benefit of those activities!  Do you see them in your children’s lives?  My 7 year old son gets two, 40-minute classes of PE per week, and who knows what that entails!  If you can’t spend time with your children in a playground letting them be kids with others of their own age, and I understand this is a hard thing to do with today’s scheduling, and then put them in a league with qualified directors and coaching.  Change sport with the seasons.   Ask questions and demand service - you pay for it!  The league will respond to your demands, their finances dictate that!  However, be patient and don’t put the pressure on the coaches to keep up with the Jones’ of sports camps – don’t ask for the toys unless the kids are ready for them.

For the coaches and league directors hard at work creating strong players.  Let’s not forget where great players come from – great athletes!  Create the athlete, and the player you are looking for will magically appear before you!   Don’t be sold on fancy lingo and exotic equipment.  Proficiency in basic skills are easy and inexpensive to teach.  If you are not sure about a training theory, do what you do in other aspects of your life – get a second opinion from a qualified, unbiased source.   The information is free, and you are guaranteed to make an educated decision.   Don’t know everything – you don’t have to!  Know enough to bring in the experts to help you organize and implement a sound program.

I urge parents and coaches to educate themselves.  The future of our children depends on this.  There are many qualified professionals in this area.  We have Florida Atlantic University and the University of Miami, with great Exercise Physiology departments available.  They will answer your questions or direct you to an unbiased source.  As for me, I am willing to answer questions that I can base on science, honesty and common sense - not financially dominated or anecdotal ideals. 

Remember! If they are selling you a magic potion or a quick fix, they are not worth your time.  You and I know there are no short cuts, sooner or later you must end up at the doorstep of “hard work and dedication”.


Juan Carlos Santana is the director of the Institute of Human Performance in Boca Raton Florida.  He can be reached at www.ihpfit.com.



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