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Why We’re Losing Athleticism

Written on April 25, 2014 at 3:56 am, by Eric Cressey

Last year, as the day was wrapping up a training session at Cressey Sports Performance, one of the last remaining clients in the gym took a detour on his way to the exit to leave for the night.  This client, a 39-year-old engineer who'd been training with us for about eight months, strolled over to the power rack.

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Once there, he proceeded to do a quick and effortless muscle up into a pseudo gymnastics routine, all atop the power rack. My jaw pretty much hit the floor. 

Stunned, I asked him, "Where did that come from?"

His response: "It was in our school curriculum. I've been able to do it since I was little."

You see, this client was born in Soviet Union (the region now known as Ukraine), and learning to move like this was an integral lesson in each day of schooling. In spite of the fact that he hadn't done much organized training in recent years - and the fact that he probably sits at a desk too much during the day, this client had maintained some significant movement capabilities.  As I thought back on his training history with us, too, I recalled that he not only crushed his evaluation, but also picked up new movements we introduced incredibly easily.  If you build a foundation, it's there for good.

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Now, compare that to the current model for "athletic development" (if you can even call it that) in the United States.  Fewer and fewer kids have physical education classes in school, and we have earlier and earlier sports specialization taking place. 

Very few American kids are exposed to the rich proprioceptive environments that not only makes them good athletes, but also sets them up for a lifetime of good movement.

In this New York Times article - which is actually several years old - some disturbing statistics were presented:

In its biennial survey of high school students across the nation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in June that nearly half said they had no physical education classes in an average week. In New York City, that number was 20.5 percent, compared with 14.4 percent a decade earlier, according to the C.D.C.

That echoed findings by New York City’s comptroller, in October, of inadequate physical education at each of the elementary schools that auditors visited. Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found just 20 percent of elementary schools in San Francisco’s system were meeting the state’s requirements: 20 minutes per day.

Most of the focus in this regard has been on implications with respect to childhood obesity, but the truth is that it has likely has just as profound an impact on long-term athletic development, as well as performance in school, as exercise and quality movement have tremendous benefits for brain function.

In the U.S., we are reaping exactly what we sow. We're fatter than ever, have far more injuries (both in competitive athletes and the general population), and aren't the international sports powerhouse we once were.  Our academic performance has also slipped considerably as compared to other countries around the world, and while there are loads of socioeconomic factors that influence this, I think it's safe to say that healthier, active kids are smarter kids. Anecdotally, the typical athletes I've seen on initial evaluations are now considerably less athletic than what I saw in 2006, when I first moved to Boston.  These kids also have more extensive injury histories, and they're on more medications.

Clearly, what we're doing isn't working. It's time to get kids moving, encourage fun and free play, and discourage early specialization. Please spread the word, and do your part.

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  • Ed

    Congrats on a great resource and newsletter.

    I’m really interested in this post, working with youth athletes in the UK, and I absolutely agree that PE in schools is not what it could be.

    However, as I see it, the problem with diminishing physical literacy is starting long before children arrive at their first organised physical activity class, and is more likely starting in infancy, when the modern child’s natural movement progression is hampered by:
    1. Already being overweight.
    2. Parents’ sedentary lifestyles.

    The resultant low relative body strength impacts on the young child’s ability to develop the key primal movement patterns that underpin human functional movement.

    I liked Alan Cooksey’s comments above and I bet when he was a small boy, overweight 2 year olds were an exception, and so a greater percentage of 6 year olds had honed their climbing skills…

  • Tesla

    I grew up in Switzerland, and it is mandatory to be involved in soccer before school, and often on weekends go skiing in the Alps with your school mates. Kids play in the street skateboarding, going to the park to play a quick game of pull ups or dips set up as “stations” for fun fitness. We had a ropes course set up in our school playgrounds so kids built agility and stability strength early on,often we arrived to school early to play on the ropes before classes started. This is not happening in America and it’s sickening to see people so inactive and having little if NO sport skills. Parents play a role in kids standards here, my parents took us hiking each weekend in the mountains and forests. The schools should have “outlet” stations for kids to learn to play and enjoy sports but this is certainly not the case. America is falling to bits… take responsibility for your kids, as the governments and schools will not do it for you….

  • I’ve read a little about MovNat. That sounds similar to this concept. Any ideas on specific things we can do to teach kids these movements like this man got in the Ukraine? I move better than most, but probably couldn’t teach my kids to do what this man did!

  • Mik

    Just read through 53 comments and no one added the other part of the problem. No one allows their children to play outside. Fear of being kidnapped, abused, or whatever has paralyzed society. All of us who are over 50 remember summers when we left the house after breakfast and as long as we made it home for dinner everything was fine. We did not call home. We rode our bikes. We played in the park. We moved on to basketball. We swam in the city pool. Today, in order to ride a bike you have to get dressed like Robo-Cop, to play in the park you need an adult with a taser, to play basketball you need to be on the HS team and no one would let their kids swim in the city pool. Do you know how dirty that water is? Someone commented about only the monied classes having the ability to fund sports activity. That may be true, but when the kids are taking SAT prep classes starting in JHS there is little time for sweating.

    We are overinformed about the dangers of life. A kidnapping in Tampa today, one in Seattle tomorrow. The entire nation knows all the details. Paralysis sets in and we do nothing for fear that we will not be able to forgive ourselves if something bad happens to our children while they are off on their own. Well, something bad is happening to our children. If I were a young college student I would go to medical school and study orthopedics. The rates of trigger finger, tendonitis of the wrist and neck pain are going to sky rocket as we all crouch over looking at the screen, clicking incessantly.

  • John

    Whenever I read these articles, I get more confident in the ‘curriculum’ that I teach. I coach secondary schoolboy rugby players. When I took up the role, I wrote a development plan to teach a broad spectrum of skills, including rolling, tumbling, etc. and this is what I do.

    Where I despair is when I recall that they come to me at age 13 or 14. Many of the skills that I teach, they should be experts at by the they come to me and I should be able to concentrate on Olympic lifting, the classic lifts and programming. Alas, it’s not to be. That development plan I wrote was a compromise. I had to write it on the basis that kids these days (God, I sound so old when I say that) do not have basic fitness and do not have the skills to do what I would consider fundamental human movements.

    That said, I could count the number of PE sessions I had in school on one hand. I spent most PE sessions (one a week!!!) in study class because I wasn’t good at the one sport they played at my secondary school. There was ZERO PE in primary school (i.e. age 4 to 12). We were ALL fit though because we played outside at home every day after school and every weekend.

    I wasn’t sporty and sucked royally at team sports. I was a dancer and I did martial arts. That was SO long ago. Today, my sport is Olympic Weightlifting (Master’s level of course lol). I’ll never be elite; I know that. However, my technique is excellent and I have great mobility and stability in my joints. Where did I get this from? As I said, I never did have a formalised PE class that introducted a broad range of skills. Many of the kids I coach can’t touch their toes when I first meet them.

    I’m so glad that you mentioned free play. I think that every kid should have access to un-guided play. My kids are forever tramping through mountains, climbing trees, getting covered in muck, falling over and getting up, and so on. I think this is a crucial part of skill development.

    I believe that every school should be obliged to deliver a proper PE curriculum. However, I’m not necessarily convinced that the lack of same is the reason why kids these days lack basic movement skills. I think that screens/gadgets and the nanny state has a lot to answer for.

  • mckillio

    Thanks for the thought invoking article. Physical fitness should be required through HS and I would have no problem requiring it for college either. I took at least one athletics class every semester in the second half of my college career and it was one of the best things I could have done.

  • John

    I’m fortunate to live at the end of a long cul-de-sac with a nice green space at the end of it. Every evening, our road is full of kids out playing. The ‘summer’ (I live in Ireland, so have to be careful around the definition of summer) is the best; the kids are playing on the road and on the green and the parents are out chatting to each other whilst keeping an eye on the kids. This is how it should be. It gives a real sense of community, I get to know my neighbours and the kids are outdoors playing. I live in city and would consider myself middle class (in other words, I’m not loaded and living in a gated estate or anything like that). I think it comes back to parents to turf their kids outside and figure out how to play. By the way, my eldest is sporty, my second eldest isn’t. However, they both find different methods of to be physically active.


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