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Using The Warmup To Teach Self-Organization

I've written before about how the integrated approach I use in training the kids I work with: blending structure and play to create a training environment that is both fun and yields results. Before you read the rest of this blog, I highly encourage reading that one as it will give a clue as to how the warmup progressions I detail here are implemented in the training session.

One of things I've talked about in regards to warming up for training sessions with younger kids (8-12) is the need for time devoted to developing athletic abilities. One of the prime methods I use to do this is the process of self-organizing. In my mind, a lot of movements get over coached in youth sports, limiting the amount of actual learning that happens for the kids. Most learning, from what I can tell based on what I've read and observed, happens through the process of self-discovery; mini experiments of trial and error that are repeated until the right method sticks. The same can go for athleticism and sports.

Athletes, and all humans, tend to have this ability to simply "figure things out." Look at walking, for example. A tiny human rises to its feet, takes a step and falls down. This may be repeated multiple times before a second step is even possible. Over time those awkward unbalanced steps turn into a normal gait cycle, with the foot moving in synchronous motion to the opposite hand. This is self-organizing. The process of figuring it out.

This is an extremely valuable skill to hone in on for athletes, as sports are chaotic and they have to utilize skills often taught in isolation on short notice.

They have to solve the problem.

This is why I spend 10-15 minutes working on self-organization during a 15-20 minute warmup with my athletes. That time is invaluable in developing the brain's ability to figure out new problems in human movement. But what does that look like and how is it applied? (It should be noted that the following concepts are all minimally taught, as a method of letting kids figure it out)

1. Start Off With Skipping

I always start off our time of Self-Organization with a series of skipping variations. Skipping, and it's rhythmic nature, is something I find to be a marker of coordination and overall athleticism. The more fluid and smooth a young athlete skips, the more likely I've found them to be able to learn speed and agility skills or strength training movement patterns. It's also great as a low level plyometric exercise, and helps prepare the body for higher force or velocity movements.

I start slow with the skipping variations, increasing the intensity and difficulty as we go, usually doing them for 15 yards at a time. The first few I pick (which change daily as to have variety) are geared towards getting the rhythm going: forward, backward, low, sideways, or in a circle. Then, I move on to force production or the controlling of forces. Depending on the type of speed/agility skill I am teaching that day, I may spend more time getting creative here. Usually, it may look like the following skips: loud, quiet, high, low and loud, or backward and loud. If we are teaching a linear speed skill that day, I may also throw in a power gallop: jumping off one foot and landing on the other with as much height as possible.

The goal here is to get creative. I mentioned several key ones that I use, but I also mix these together into weird combinations and variations that force the kids to think. I don't necessarily coach these movements, I describe them very similarly to how they are described above.

2. Hops and Jumps

In my opinion, hops and jumps are probably the best way to develop strength and power in kids. I also use this second, as I throw variations in there that I think are best to be warmed up for as to lower the risk for injury. It also flows nicely after having warmed up the body's ability to move rhythmically. In the same way, however, I still teach very little about the movements themselves and am trying to get the kids to figure out the best way to do the movement.

Similar to skipping I start with the easiest and lowest level hopping progressions first: forward, backward, sideways, low, high, or on one foot. These are great for teaching force production, and builds up some coordination in the process as a lot of kids these days struggle with hopping with their feet together.

I then progress to jumping movements. I separate hopping and jumping here, with the note that I see jumping as a higher power output movement, being that our jumps are always for distance or for height. The jumping progressions start slow again, usually starting with a jump off of two feet and land on two feet: forward, sideways, backwards, over the imaginary wall (to mimic a hurdle hop). Occasionally, depending on the ability of the group, I may also throw some single leg variations in that require jumping off of one foot and landing on two feet.

3. Crawls and Gymnastics

After we skip, hop, and jump, I put the kids I train through a series of ground-based movements and simple gymnastics moves. Even here, I am not doing much teaching. The purpose is to let the kids figure out a movement with minimal description to find the most efficient way. These I find to be highly beneficial due to creating better balance, increasing upper body strength, and building confidence. I also usually mix up the order of the movements here to prevent kids getting sick from dizziness, mixing the crawls and gymnastics movements in the order done.

Now, when I say gymnastics, do note that I am not a gymnastics coach and I am not asking kids to perform highly complex maneuvers. Most of what we do are crawling and rolling variations. But our crawls are creative: forward, backward, sideways, or one foot in the air. We also do "crab walk" variations in the same ways. These are often intermixed with rolling variations that follow a similar pattern: forward, backward, or sideways.

After finishing with the simpler variations, I always end with some more complex ones. The kids, in particular LOVE cartwheels!

Because they love it, and because I find it highly beneficial to athleticism, we ALWAYS do cartwheels.

Finishing off the warmup with something fun like that is also a great way to keep kids engaged and to let them be kids. It is also crazy to see how kids will Self-Organize into a proper cartwheel just based on repetition. Additionally, I started ending the warmup on a final instruction of "an upside down move of your choice." I then list examples of what that could be: forward/backward roll, round-off, cartwheel, or handspring. You would be surprised how many kids will actually attempt a handspring if they are reminded it's an option (forward handsprings, not backwards though).

The beauty of this warmup sequence, is that not only is it fun, but it also sets a tone for practice without judgment. Most kids will shy away at trying something for fear of failure or embarrassment, but if everyone is asked to do something that they could fail at, then more kids will be willing to put it on the line. This transfers into our learning and play based drilling of speed and agility skills. By utilizing these movements that are Self-Organized, kids realize that everyone has their struggles and difficulties learning new movements.

It reminds them that failure is part of the learning process and increases the effort they put into learning something new.

As a whole, this portion of the warmup is one of the most valuable parts of our training. I can teach all session long about speed, agility, or strength training, but at the end of the day the most learning is often done when I am just a source of energy that is powering creative movement. I facilitate movement exploration, and the kids succeed because of it.

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