Why Many Young Athletes Struggle to 'Play Physical'

Today's kids generally aren't as comfortable with contact as previous generations, but if you give them the right tools, that can quickly change.

In a recent piece, we outlined why roughhousing is one of the best activities for a child's developing brain and body, and how unfortunately, opportunities for it seem to be disappearing.

Now we're examining how this lack of rough-and-tumble play impacts young athletes in particular.

Over the years, parents and school officials have gradually become more intolerant of roughhousing. Concerns over someone getting hurt or sued has led to a bubble-wrapped existence—at least in comparison to those of previous generations—for many kids. These same adults then send kids off to play organized sports which require and reward contact and aggressiveness, then they wonder why they struggle to "play physical."

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In a recent piece, we outlined why roughhousing is one of the best activities for a child's developing brain and body, and how unfortunately, opportunities for it seem to be disappearing.

Now we're examining how this lack of rough-and-tumble play impacts young athletes in particular.

Over the years, parents and school officials have gradually become more intolerant of roughhousing. Concerns over someone getting hurt or sued has led to a bubble-wrapped existence—at least in comparison to those of previous generations—for many kids. These same adults then send kids off to play organized sports which require and reward contact and aggressiveness, then they wonder why they struggle to "play physical."

"A lot of kids aren't being as exposed to rough-and-tumble play. Sports is the first time a youngster is often allowed in someone else's personal space. In school, it's, 'Hey, get out of my bubble.' You're not allowed in someone's personal space. Mom's yelling at you to leave your younger brother or sister alone," says Andy Ryland, Senior Manager of Education & Training at USA Football.

"So for a lot of kids, regardless of sport, this could be a new and slightly uncomfortable environment they have to learn to navigate. That's kind of the first roadblock we need to break down before we're ever going to master those contact skills for any sport."

Although football is the most obvious example, many team sports require strength in contact to be successful, whether it be basketball, soccer, hockey, lacrosse, etc.

"The name of so many games is to be able to stay in a good shape and stay in a powerful position, whether it's a basketball player boxing out, two soccer players trying to shield the ball from one another, or a football player engaged in blocking," Ryland says.

"Whoever holds their posture is probably going to be more powerful and be able to win that. Learning either how to hold postures or re-adjust postures against those physical forces is really key."

But before you get to winning those physical battles, children must first get comfortable with contact. You can't just throw a helmet on a kid during their first day of football practice, tell them to go hit someone, and expect consistently good outcomes. This is where grappling-based games and activities can be a huge help.

In this day and age, many kids must simply get used to pushing and pulling against an unwilling opponent before they can become more physical in their play.

"Athletes must be comfortable and calm in contact before we ever move them to collision. So before we're going to ask these two guys to run into each other, are they comfortable just being in those spaces? I think that's really important," says Ryland.

It would certainly be awesome if kids roughhoused more often in their free time, as well, but that's determined by a multitude of factors. By dedicating practice and/or training time to developing these skills, coaches can meet athletes where they are and help them become more confident and capable.

"By creating fun and challenging grappling-based games, you can start to break down some of those barriers," says Ryland.

Many of these games draw inspiration from grappling sports like wrestling, judo, jiu-jitsu, etc. Simple pummeling can be a great way for kids to get comfortable in someone else's space and become accustomed to the pressures of contact. This can then progress to more competitive variations, such as competing to gain double underhooks and establish a body lock on the opponent, as demonstrated here:

Getting more football specific, options like the Two-for-One Drill work on hand combat. Two athletes face one another. Both grab a wrist of their opponent (so if you grabbed my left wrist with your right hand, I'd then grab your left wrist with my right hand). Once the drill starts, both athletes fight to get two hands around one of their opponents' wrists/forearms, yet they cannot intentionally break the grip of their opponent.

"Now we're both reaching and grabbing, but our wrists are being controlled by the opponent. (You learn) to push, pull and resist an opponent's force in a little bit of a hand battle-type situation," Ryland says.

One staple drill in USA Football's Advanced Tackling System, which Ryland designed in concert with multi-sport tackling expert Richie Gray, is the Shoulder Battle. Two athletes begin in an all-fours position with a shoulder engaged. If using it competitively, the goal from there is to drive the opposing athlete out of a circle or past a pre-determined distance:

"They're both going to have to deal with large forces coming through their shoulder. But since we start pre-engaged, there's no impact risk. We're just going to have to get comfortable with large forces pushing in through the shoulder, which is obviously something they're going to have to do with a full tackle," Ryland says.

"They really have to learn to fight anti-rotation forces, how to position their hips, drive through their feet, fight to stay square and not let themselves get corkscrewed."

"It's also a drill that gives the athletes some great self-discovery about leg drive and cleats in the ground and keeping their hips low, because if they don't do one of those things, they tend not to be successful. They don't always need the coach to tell them what they did wrong…That learning through games, learning through experience, is such a sticky form of learning."

The Dominate on the Deck Drill is another opportunity for that robust form of learning, particularly as it relates to finishing tackles.

One athlete lies flat on the ground simulating a tackled ballcarrier, while the other is in an all-fours position clamping their hands around the opponent's legs, simulating the tackler. On the go call, the ballcarrier attempts to roll out of the clamp and stand up, while the tackler works to prevent this by keeping them pinned to the ground. Ryland points to the tackler "squeezing their ear" into the opponent's legs and keeping their cleats in the ground as keys to success.

"(With these games), we want to train at high forces with no impact. Getting in these situations, we can grapple and fight and battle, which is very useful functional strength, especially for a younger athlete," Ryland says.

Jeremy Frisch, long-term athletic development expert and owner of Achieve Performance in Clinton, Massachusetts, has found great success using grappling-based games with the youth football team he coaches.

"For me, it's a no-brainer," says Frisch.

"I'm working with younger kids and we're trying to develop them into football players. We know contact is a huge part of the game, so we're going to do some type of activities that promote contact. I think wrestling and grappling is where we start."

After the team's dynamic warm-up, which often includes elements like tumbling, Frisch's team spends 10 minutes of every practice working grappling games. When padded practice is forbidden, they conduct them without pads and helmets. Once padded practice is permitted, they conduct them in helmets and shoulder pads. Frisch began regularly implementing grappling games into the practice plan last season, and he saw a marked improvement in his players' physicality and contact skills.

"I thought that last year, towards the middle and end of the season, we had kids who were much more aggressive. I thought our blocking improved, especially one-on-one," Frisch says.

"I thought we had a lot of plays where our kids did a really good job of getting an initial push and keeping that contact to not let guys get away…The kids seemed like they were tougher and more comfortable pushing each other around. (Even the) kids who initially shied away from pushing and pulling and tackling, I definitely saw them improving, as well."

Again, football is perhaps the easiest sport to connect to grappling and grappling-based games, but these same principles can be applied to any sport that involves contact. Simply identify the type of contacts inherent to the sport and then think of how an athlete can be exposed to them in a fun, competitive, low-impact environment. For soccer, it could be something like setting up a small perimeter and having one player shield the ball while another tries to steal or kick it away, or having two players engage in a hip-to-hip battle.

Parents and coaches alike frequently claim they want their kids to "play more physical," yet never consider whether they've been given the tools to do so. While free play used to develop many of these traits, those opportunities are shrinking.

Introducing rough-and-tumble play to athletes in fun, competitive, skill-appropriate scenarios can get them excited about the idea of moving opponents against their will and help them discover the functional strength needed to make it happen.

Photo Credit: Ales-A/iStock

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Topics: FOOTBALL | MENTAL TOUGHNESS | YOUTH SPORTS | HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL | MIDDLE SCHOOL | GETTING STRONGER | TACKLING