Baby Athletes – the Science Behind it

Posted on Thursday, December 30th, 2010  |  


Doreen was featured on The Today Show on December 29, 2010

The thought of teaching sport skills to babies seems absurd to many adults.  Developing toddler athletes?   People think it can't or shouldn't be done.  Really?  Let's take a look at the scientific facts as quoted from Tom Farrey's book, “Game On”…

Human beings learn at an astonishing rate when very young, perhaps faster than at any other time in their lives.  Beginning in the mid-1980s, parents started becoming aware of the developmental importance of the first five years of a child's life.  The human body takes about two decades to reach its ultimate size, but 95 percent of the brain and central nervous system gets formed by age 7, and most of that growth is in the first four years.  During that time, cells are being created and connected in ways that support the basic components of neuromuscular coordination.  By 18 months, the cell content of the cerebellum – part of the brain that affect movement – has already reached adult levels.  It's not mature from a cognitive standpoint, but the physical infrastructure is all in place. 

Motor skill development is a plastic process affected by habitual physical activity and the practice of specific movement.  At age 2, a toddler might not be able to do much more than strike a ball with a plastic club.  But each time they whack it, signals are sent to their neural systems – the brain, nerves, and eyes – and with repetition, the signals suggest that the capacity of performing this activity needs to be developed.  The sooner those signals are sent to the neural system of a child, the better chance he or she will have of later nailing a technique.  A similar neurological process controls the learning of  language, which is why parents are encouraged to expose kids to foreign tongues as early as age 1. 

Teaching Physical Literacy (sport skills) to babies and toddlers is consistent with the science of motor learning, which suggests that complex skills are mastered by first gaining proficiency on simpler maneuvers.  Technique itself is merely a function of perfecting sensory-motor habits, learned activities that are practiced to the point of automation.  The motor centers are taught how to act in a relaxed and economical way, so that ultimately a movement flows from the unconscious.  The action just occurs on its own, once the go-ahead to do it is given.  All that repetition also helps the muscles and joints to recognize minute deviations in proper form.  “If kids are taught developmentally and start with what's simple and build from there, they can learn skills early,” says Crystal Branta, a Michigan State professor of motor development whose research was cited by the AAP in its recommendation. 

The nay-sayers are worried that early training is harmful to kids.  But, the problem with teaching sport skills to very young children is not what is does to them, but what it can do to the adults around them.  Early success can be  intoxicating – and disorienting, knowing that potential greatness is in your care.  If he's this good now, parents may think, imagine how good he could be when he gets older.  The needs of a child can become lost to the perceived needs of his athletic career.  “Childhood should be a smorgasbord, instead of being pushed into a sport at an early age,” says Robert Malina, the youth sports researcher and expert on growth and maturation.  “Otherwise, you're violating a kid's rights.”  Remember that every good thing can be used in a harmful way, but let's be sure to stop the harm and not the good! 

Motor-skills expert Crystal Branta says that for optimum physical developmental, the priority should be on learning general athletic movements – running, jumping, hopping, skipping, and so forth – that can serve as a foundation for entry into multiple sports once children's bodies mature.  The best athletes are those who played a variety of sports through teenage years, rather than specialize early in one sport.  This is because of the transferable value of basic coordination, balance, and other foundational skills.  It should be our goal to develop every child into an athlete, but that doesn't mean that every child should participate in competitive sports.  There are many highly skilled athletes who choose never to compete and instead enjoy a wide variety of recreational activies.   The goal is to educate children well, and then allow them to choose how they use their skill and knowledge.

Learning sport skills starting in infancy can and should be done.  And, little ones can be taught in a safe, and creative way that is fun for both parents and babies.  Gymtrix DVDs  teach parents and caregivers how to do this.  When babies and toddlers do learn Physical Literacy skills, they become more confident and active.  Isn't that what we want for our kids, and isn't that what every doctor prescribes for health?  The good news is that every child can learn Physical Literacy skills and if we start now, we will change the future of our nation!


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