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  • Invictus Performance Lab

Let the Kids Play! An Overview of the Key Components of Early Youth Development

“Let the kids play!” - an expression used frequently but seldom understood, as the true essence of the statement goes unnoticed and is often disregarded. Emphasis must be laid on the word “play”, as it is vital to the development of a child. In this context “play” is referred to as activities that are inherently enjoyable and do not have a specific structure or organisation pertaining to it.

Unfortunately, due to the booming modern sports industry, the governing bodies are developing models that focus on early selection and specialisation of children into a single sport. This in turn denies the inherent enjoyment derived from various forms of sport, and the skill development opportunities resulting from multi-sport and deliberate play environments (Côte et al, 2011). Attempting to develop future elite athletes, most youth sport programs are based on “deliberate practice” rather than “deliberate play”.

Côte et al (1999) formulated the Developmental Model of Sport Participation which consists of three stages of development towards sport expertise: a) Sampling (ages 6-12), b) Specialisation (ages 12-15) and c) Investment years (age 16 and above).

The different stages are based on changes in the type and amount of involvement in sport, deliberate play, and deliberate practice.The three step process in the centre of the model, presents the most ideal path for long term athletic development :

The concepts of diversity of sports/activities and deliberate play were the main elements of this model. Together this forms the backbone of the sampling years and augments sport involvement throughout the lifespan of an individual. Furthermore, youth programs built around the concepts of diversity and play have a protective effect against burnout, dropout, and injuries in the future. (Fraser-Thomas et al., 2008a, 2008b; Law et al., 2007; Wall & Côté, 2007)

The advent of early specialisation in a single sport has grown due to successful sportspersons like Tiger Woods (Golf) and Judit Polgar (Chess), who had started playing their sport at a very early age with an immense amount of technical practice in their sampling years. This has served as great examples for continued hard work in a single sport resulting in parents encouraging their children to specialise in a sport at a young age. It must be taken into account that though Woods and Polgar are successful examples of early specialisation, Golf and Chess have “kind” learning environments which are predictable and fairly monotonous. These environments are seldom encountered in a real-world situation where the environment is more “wicked” and reflexive. Nurturing children to be able to sustain themselves in these reflexive environments is a key determinant in long-term development, irrespective if the child pursues becoming an elite or recreational athlete.

In conjunction with developing reflexive individuals, we look at the three main elements of the sensory nervous system that play a role in movement and coordination :

These three systems work in synchrony to ensure coordinated motor output - “Movement is an expression of the quality of information that we gather from the Proprioceptive, Visual and Vestibular systems.” - Integrated Kinetic Neurology

In a program for kids, we lay emphasis on the development of these systems by focusing on coordination and executing synergistic movements which target these sensory systems. This enhances the ability of the child to adapt to adverse conditions while developing a motor pattern to overcome that situation.

The importance of free play and physical literacy in child development -

Youth sport or activity programs need to be considered from a psychosocial perspective, where enjoyment and personal development are the focal points. This improves quality of experience and retention (Côte et al, 2015). This increase in retention ultimately leads to neuroplastic changes in the brain that result in a vast movement vocabulary.

Physical Literacy is educating kids via movement, balance and coordination. Specialising in a certain form of movement or sport will only debilitate the child’s ability to learn more complex motor skills later on. To provide an allusion, would you let your kid do only math at school and nothing else? Hence, diversity is vital and the kids must be exposed to a variety of movements in a free-flowing and creative environment.

A program that addresses the development of diverse movement by implementing basic gymnastic exercises which make the kids utilise the entire body to work in a coordinated manner and in doing so, develop fitness and skill related components during the sampling years. This provides a robust foundation for future strength/resistance training. Coordinative actions like throwing, catching, jumping and landing are vital components that add to the large base of movements being developed. Inclusion of focus drills consisting of ambidextrous/bimanual actions enhance the functioning of the three neurological systems being targeted. These are some of the prime focus areas for athletic and physical development programmes for kids at Invictus.

We aim to address movement with enjoyment, creativity, and diversity, taking it back to what kids really should be doing- free play and having fun while they are at it. After all, movement is a gift and if we don’t use it, we lose it. Upcoming series to this blog will dive deeper into the various components of training kids reviewed here. In the meantime we should be getting out there and letting the kids play, as this guarantees a more robust, well-rounded and enjoyable way of life throughout their development and into adulthood. And, if not now, then when?


  1. Jean Côté, Joseph Baker, and Bruce Abernethy -Practice and Play in the Development of Sport Expertise - Handbook of Sport Psychology, Third Edition, 2007.

  2. Matthew W. Bridge & Martin R. Toms - The specialising or sampling debate: a retrospective analysis of adolescent sports participation in the UK - Journal of Sports Sciences, 2012

  3. Sally Goddard Blythe, Attention, Balance and Coordination - The ABCs of Learning Success

  4. Côté, J. (1999) ‘The influence of the family in the development of talent in sport’, The Sport Psychologist , 13: 395–417.

  5. Côté, J., Coakley, C., & Bruner, M. W. (2011) ‘Children’s talent development in sport: Effectiveness or efficiency?’, in S. Dagkas & K. Armour (eds) Inclusion and exclusion through youth sport, London, UK: Routledge, 172–85

  6. Côté J, Erickson K. (2015) ,Diversification and Deliberate Play during the Sampling Years. Routledge Handbook of Sport Expertise Routledge

  7. Côté, J. (1999) ‘The influence of the family in the development of talent in sport’, The Sport Psychologist , 13: 395–417.

  8. Samuel, Asir & Solomon, John & Mohan, Divya. (2015). A Critical Review on the Normal Postural Control. Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy Journal. 8. 71-75

Videos and Articles:

  1. How Falling Behind Can Get You Ahead | David Epstein | TEDxManchester-

  2. Integrated Kinetic Neurology-

  3. A Return to Play: Movement Training for Youth Athletes By Jeremy Frisch-

  4. How to Introduce Youth Athletes to Strength Training By Mark Hoover-

  5. “Let the Kids Play” : Jorge Carvajal, Zach Even-Esh, Jeremy Frisch: Youth Athletics and Early Specialization Roundtable, Just Fly Performance Podcast #100-

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