How Much Sports-Specific Skill Teaching Do Beginners Need?

When To Teach Kids Sports Skills And How We Can Approach It

In a grassroots community sports setting, how focussed should we be on the kids getting the skills right? Should we try to teach the kids “correct” sports-specific skills? Or should we just allow them to get in, have fun, and be active?

There are occasions when we should allow kids to simply participate and play without adult interruption. But there are times when we need to be more particular in ensuring the kids are learning the “right” way to do things.

Let’s discuss when we need to spend time teaching kids the skills of the sport. I will use track and field athletics as examples.

Prerequisite Skills

There are some core prerequisite skills in every sport without which the kids can’t fully take part. To stay within the rules of shot put, for example, a child needs to be able to put a shot without first dropping or pulling it away from their neck. Otherwise, they will not record a measured distance. The triple jump is another example. In the triple jump, a child needs to be able to perform a hop-step-jump sequence. If they can’t, they won’t record a result. Such skills are crucial to allow for proper involvement. Do they have to be done “perfectly”? No, but they must be taught to a point that they can be consistently and reliably performed.

There are skills, that if missing, make it very difficult for a child to develop even basic competence in their sport. An example is the grip and release of a discus. There is no rule that governs how a discus needs to be held or released. Kids can initially survive holding the discus their way and releasing it however they want. To eventually make any headway, however, the kids will need to be taught an effective grip. They will also need to know how to release the discus over their index finger. Progress will be muted without these skills.

Finally, there may also be some skills that help keep kids safe and injury-free. For example, a reasonably competent javelin throwing arm action will help to prevent elbow and shoulder injuries. A poor throwing action makes it more likely that a mishap will occur.

Where To Focus Teaching

If we need to teach skills, on what should we focus?

Track & field athletics is a simple sport that can be made very complex. With kids at a grassroots level, I suggest erring on the simple side. For beginners, identify the skills that are non-negotiable and work on these.

For example, at its most basic, the long jump requires a child to:

  1. Accurately take-off from one foot from a running approach and;
  2. Land simultaneously on two feet in the sand.

This is where the majority of the initial coaching should be focused. Early on, forget anything secondary to this.

Once the kids have the very basics, you can encourage them to apply them with more speed and power. Challenge them to jump into, past, or over markings or soft objects in the landing pit. This will help them to naturally form the positions and shapes required to jump further, with little or no instruction. Too much explicit coaching at this stage can slow the kids down and interrupt their natural movements. We don’t want to overload their processing limits.

In Summary

The coach needs to decide which core skills will allow the kids to fully participate, provide a platform for further learning, and keep them safe. Initially avoid trying to explicitly teach them skills that are peripheral to this.

What are initially considered peripheral skills for beginners, may gain in importance and need a greater focus at a later stage of development. But most of the kids involved at a grassroots community level will at first just need the basics.

Over to You!

Determine what the highest-priority, non-negotiable entry-level skills are for your sport. Then plan to teach them in a simple, succinct, and engaging way.

If this post helped you please take a moment to help others by sharing it on social media. If you want to learn more I encourage you to leave questions and comments or contact me directly.

Darren Wensor is a sports development professional, coach educator, specialist coach of young athletes, and founder of the blog Learn more about him here and connect with him on TwitterFacebookLinkedin, or via email. Check out Coaching Young Athletes on YouTube, the Coaching Young Athletes podcast, and the Coaching Young Athletes E-Book Series.

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