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Another mate, another chat, another step forward….Early Athletic Development

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Every now and again a spark jumps between colleagues as they communicate with each other and often something wonderful happens. When I am part of this phenomenon I get enthused, excited, re-charged, motivated………and loads of other things.

Today was another of those days when one colleague, faced with creating a system or strategy or plan that would help their organisation do things different and do different things for the betterment of all involved, got in touch with his mates.

Darren Ritchie, the Coaching Development boss of Scottish Athletics, found a little time in his incredibly busy schedule (he is one of the few Coaching Development Officers to (a) recognise the problems existing in current Coach Certification and (b) have the common-sense and humility to move towards an appropriate Coach Development strategy) to look a little deeper into the issues his coaching colleagues are facing. Unlike many others in his position world-wide he sees the foundations needed across all four pillars in an athlete’s journey and no longer assumes that his sport exists in a vacuum. He knows that a developing athlete is influenced not just by a coach in an athletics club but by parents and teachers. He realises that Primary and Secondary schools should be part of the pathway to appropriate learning in technical, tactical, physical and behavioural elements of the sport.

He recognises that you can’t separate community well-being from the pathway to improved sports performance. He recognises that the journey is more than a competition-specific journey. It is a journey that starts with the development of an appropriate and general movement vocabulary - that supports the development of locomotion, non-locomotion and manipulative skills – that supports the development of the foundations or running, jumping and throwing. I remember seeing the ‘penny drop’ with him a few years ago when he saw how all this ‘connects’ to his sport and the volunteer coaches that are the glue that hold it all together. I saw his reaction when he finally realised what he wanted all his nation’s coaches to be influenced by and knowledgeable in.

His communication with me in recent days was all about this athletic development journey and how the authors of the 5in5 (Steve Myrland, Greg Thompson and me) had woven the concept into schools. Steve Myrland continues to create more and more movements (his latest include the use of straps and broomsticks) and Greg Thompson continues to develop the deliverable schemes of work as he teaches in his Elementary School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Every day, week, semester, year, decade his students create more and more movement and metabolic efficiency, consistency and resilience as they not only solve but create puzzles. He has managed to convince the Classroom teachers to give over ‘movement-break’ time in the classroom each day so that the students have more and more time to create and solve puzzles. These two guys are part of the movement that encourages learning by using worthwhile movement-breaks that sees behavioural and academic improvement.

This ‘movement competence’ journey has been applied in the performance journey in Scottish Athletics and Darren continues to look for opportunities to reduce the athlete’s movement limitations along the pathway from development to high performance. His latest idea is to go to the Primary and Secondary schools in Scotland and see if they are willing to join the journey of athletic development.

So…..I get the Skype from Darren. My first reply is to remind Darren that Greg and Steve need to be involved in his idea to encourage the schools in Scotland to consider the ‘movement-breaks’. I described the years I had spent in Birmingham trying to encourage some Primary School Principals to re-ignite their PE curriculum to include movement efficiency, consistency and resilience. I met scores of exhausted teachers who, understandably, were not inclined to add anything more to their ‘crowd-control’ teaching environment. I quickly learned that they needed to be understood and supported towards the required change. They needed to be encouraged, appreciated and enthused towards the inclusion of movement-breaks in the school day. They needed more than what their current PE specialist was offering (a watered-down competitive games curriculum centred on winning at all ages) and they needed to be supported by parents and Principals in this quest.

I think I left Darren with no illusion of the task he faced, and it was going to be interesting to see the reply he got from Greg and Steve.

Both Greg and Steve were also under no illusion that the task would be a formidable one. The reasons were nothing to do with the efficacy of the exercise selection and progression but to do with the ability of Darren and his team to convince teachers to change what they were doing. To do this the teachers, first, needed to accept the arguments presented that clearly show improved well-being; improved movement efficiency, improved concentration, improved attitudes, improved academic attainment. Then they needed the support of their peers, their managers and their local Education Authority to do the other part of the equation – “if you are going to add something to an already full process you need to take something out first. It would be no use adding more stress to stress.”

Steve’s guidance back to Darren is worthwhile displaying here – I need say nothing more.

I have discussed this with Greg a couple of times since you wrote; and two things that stood out (for me) from our conversation were:

1)  Long-Term Athletic Development is not possible if concerted attention is not paid to Early Athletic Development (E-AD).  So, Greg and I decided to coin that phrase and start injecting it into the training conversation at every opportunity.  People must see that the chances of making chicken salad from chicken-**** are limited, and that all this banter about L-TAD is pointless if we do not start getting E-AD done—and done really well.  I think Vern said this about strength; but it is certainly true about the topic we are discussing:  Athletic development is something that must be built in rather than added on.  And yet, we continue to put our carts in front of our horses and we wonder why it takes so long to get the pigs to market.

2)  The 5-in-5 idea is a great one; but implementation—in any school environment—cannot be left to individual classroom teachers (as we once hoped it might).  What is needed is a ‘Paladin’ inside each school—the likely choice being the best physical educator. 

Imagine if Greg was given fewer class hours at his school in Farmington, and with the hours gained by releasing him from class-time, he could roam the building dropping into classrooms and getting the 5-in-5 done.  The kids know Greg from PE.  They respond to him well.  And they are probably going to be thrilled to have him drop in and change the pace of things in their classroom (and be given a chance to shine in the eye of their classroom teachers). 

This is the crux of things: “Support-of-practice” . . . i.e. the real connecting of all areas of curriculum within our schools (sciences, math, language arts, music, art, movement . . .) to create something more synergistic and optimal than the lumpy, truncated incomplete and unhealthy beings we seem to specialize in producing.  It is the simple recognition of the fact that all areas we pursue in education would be better done by seeing that they all are interconnected (developmentally) in ways we will never be able to appreciate until the child is an adult.  You don’t know if your recipe worked until you get to taste the finished soup. Well:  We sure know our current recipe (based on disconnected disciplines) isn’t working.  Why not try something radically different?

So.  It must begin early (and be sustained); and it requires a specialist to teach it properly and to go around through the school stirring that physical element into the mix of the classroom experience.  The classroom teacher, in turn, will absolutely benefit from the interruption by getting revived and better focused learners after the physical interventions.  The research on this is solid and overwhelmingly supportive of what we are after.

Greg chimed in with the following guidance and observations:

Your goal of addressing what Steve and I are now calling ‘early athletic development’ is on the right track. If I can be of assistance, I'm happy to share my mistakes and successes. I have tried many things to get quality movement breaks into the classroom. In each case, where a class does it on a regular basis, the students are transformed.  The trick, I find, is that the classroom teacher in this country is under enormous pressure for students to do well on high-stakes testing. Taking the time to add one more thing often feels like too much. So, to that end, you will need some loyal fanatics who will champion this for you. It is not unusual for the same teachers who come to my after-school staff workouts, to use the content with their students. This is not always the case as I have few at my school who are very fit and do the program with their students. As we discussed, it is very personality driven.  

Kelvin's "clumsy" overview of his attempts to get meaningful movement breaks going in schools, outlines many of the challenges associated with trying to get the program to work. As I mentioned, I am not sure if a school-based physical educator is present in Scotland. In Farmington, I see my kids once every 3 instructional days. We do a hybridized version of 5in5 with some modifications to duration of both work and rest elements. The foundations are the same with kids moving in three planes and a combination of leg, core and shoulder girdle targets in the movements. I do think my original approach at Hillside, where I taught a module one week that would be used in the classroom the next week, worked nicely. I saw my students every other day at Hillside and could be certain that the module was ready. Seeing my students only once some weeks has encouraged me to video-tape a class performing the module. I then begin my next class with their video. When they have smooth transitions and movement fidelity we make a new video. It is a subtle difference, but I like it.  Many classroom teachers are then using the exercise video for movement breaks. Interestingly, many teachers find that they use other movement break programs that are available for free and are of what I would call the "fluffy" variety. Nice music, mindless movement.

Solving this cultural puzzle will not be easy Darren. I am happy to be a sounding board as I would guess are Steve and Kelvin. In each setting, you will need to find a PE person as well as a classroom teacher who has a passion for fitness or kids moving, to champion your cause. You will, as we discussed, and Kelvin echoed, need to find a school with a Principal or Head of School who is vested in the idea of physical literacy or what Steve and I are now calling early athletic development, as a priority. It is, as we all know, very different than mindless vigorous movement. There is a truck load of that out there.

What I learn from this dialogue is that ‘sharing’ is a powerful tool. Darren, in his own right, is an exemplary practitioner making a remarkable contribution to his sport. I would class him as a world-leader in the creation and delivery of an appropriate Coach Development process, yet he has the sense and humility to seek the counsel of others.

The great thing about all this is that while all the bureaucrats continue to ‘fiddle while the community burns’ there are some practitioners out there who do give a damn, who take the next step, who don’t ever give up and who actually care about other people.

My ‘take-home’ phrases from these three brilliant practitioners:

    “Paladin” - the foremost warriors of Charlemagne's court.
    EAD – “Early Athletic Development.”
    “Smooth transition and movement fidelity.”
    “Nice music, mindless movement.”
    “It must be ‘built in’ rather than ‘added on’.”
    “Revived and better focused learners.”

If you enjoyed this you can find all my other ConnectedCoaches blogs here. You can also find out more about me by visiting my coaching profile.

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Comments (1)


Thanks for sharing Kelvin! For those that don’t know about the 5in5 series Kelvin Giles mentions... it’s a series of progressive movement puzzles that come in modules of 5 movements. There are 24 modules in the 5in5 and 10 modules in the ‘More 5in5’. He hasn’t gone into much detail on the blog about them to adhere to our participation guidelines (https://www.connectedcoaches.org/about/participation-guidelines ) so thank you for doing that! If anyone wants to find out more about the modules check out Kelvins coaching profile for a link to his website

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