The myths and falsehoods associated with coordination training are plenty. I’ll outline the ‘top three’ here:

  1. Coordination is a singular element that is defined by a universal ability or lack of ability.
  2. Coordination can’t be trained or taught.
  3. Coordination based stimulus should be restricted to preadolescent children.

This article will provide a broad based look at each of those myths and shed some light on the realities behind coordination training as a continuum for the complete development of young athletes ages 6–18.


Coordination and young athletes

Largely considered a singular facet of athletic ability, it isn’t uncommon to hear coaches, parents, or trainers suggest that a given young athlete possesses ‘good’ or ‘bad’ coordination.

This generalization doesn’t reflect the true nature of the beast or specific features that combine to create coordination from a macro perspective. Coordination, in fact, is comprised of several different characteristics:

  • Balance: A state of bodily equilibrium in either static or dynamic planes.
  • Rhythm: The expression of timing.
  • Movement adequacy: The display of efficiency or fluidity during locomotion.
  • Synchronization of movement: The harmonization and organization of movement.
  • Kinesthetic differentiation: The degree of force required to produce a desired result.
  • Spatial awareness: The ability to know where you are in space and in relation to objects.

While many of these traits have great overlap and synergy, they are unmistakably separate and can, in fact, be improved in relatively isolated ways. That isn’t to suggest that your training programs should carve up the elements of coordination and work through them in a solitary manner necessarily. It’s just a notation intended to show that coordination, as it relates to young athletes, can be improved at the micro-level.


Coordination—can you teach young athletes?

The answer, in short, is yes. Coordination ability isn’t unlike any other biomotor—proficiencies in strength, speed, agility, and even cardiovascular capacity (through mechanical intervention) can be taught and at any age.

The interesting caveat with coordination-based work, however, is that its elements are tied directly to central nervous system development and therefore have a natural sensitive period along a chronological spectrum. The actuality of sensitive periods tends to be a contentious topic among researchers and many coaches, some of whom aren’t satisfied with current research and therefore aren’t eager to believe in their existence and others who accept sensitive periods of development to be perfectly valid. It’s worth pointing out that I’m not in any way a scientist or researcher, but I have read numerous books and research reviews on the subject and feel satisfied that they do exist and can be maximized (optimized for a lifetime) through proper stimulus.

This ‘optimization’ issue is the true crux of the matter. The central nervous system contains a great deal of plasticity or the ability to adapt, especially during the very early years of life (0–12 years). This plastic nature carries through the mid-adolescent years but then significantly decreases from there. Many mistake this point as an implication that the human organism can’t learn new skills in any capacity once the central nervous system has passed the point of being optimally plastic, but this isn’t true. Skill of any athletic merit can be learned at virtually any age throughout life. What the plasticity argument holds is that these skills could never be optimized if they weren’t introduced at a young age.

Why Michael Couldn’t Hit and Other Tales of the Neurology of Sports is a fascinating book by Dr. Harold Klwans and a review of his prediction that Michael Jordan, one of the greatest athletes of all time, would not become an extraordinary baseball player during his attempts to do so with the Chicago White Sox. Dr. Klwans contented that because Jordan didn’t learn nor practice the specific motor and hand-eye aspects of hitting baseballs when he was young, no matter how great an athlete he was, he would never be able to do so at an advanced level.

Inevitably, Dr. Klwans was correct.

The case for neural plasticity suggests that during the formative years of growth, it is imperative that young athletes be introduced to all types of stimulus that fuel improvement to the elements of coordination listed above. This is one of the very critical reasons that all young athletes should play a variety of sports seasonally and avoid any sort of ‘sport-specific’ training. Unilateral approaches to enhancing sport proficiency will meet with disastrous results from a performance standpoint if general athletic ability, overall coordination, and non-specific load training aren’t reinforced from a young age. This brings us to the final myth…


Teenage athletes are ‘too old’

Now, while there is truth to the matter that many of the sensitive periods for coordination development lay during the preadolescent phase of life, it would be shortsighted to suggest that teenage athletes shouldn’t be exposed to this type of training.

First, much of the training of coordination takes the form of injury preventatives. For example any sort of ‘balance’ exercise requires proprioceptive conditioning and increases in stabilizer recruitment. With ‘synchronization of movement,’ large ranges of motion and mobility work are necessary. ‘Kinesthetic differentiation,’ by definition, involves submaximal efforts or ‘fine touch’ capacity, which is a drastically different stimulus than most young athletes are used to in training settings.

Beyond that, there is the matter of motor skill linking. According to Jozef Drabik, as much as 60 percent of the training done by Olympic athletes should take the form of non-direct loads (i.e. non-sport specific). However, to truly stimulate these rather advanced athletes, one option, which is a standard during the warm-up phase of a training session, is to link advanced motor skills (coordination exercises) together creating a complex movement pattern.

For example:

Run forward ---> decelerate ---> 360 jump ---> forward roll ---> tuck jump or

Scramble to balance ---> one-leg squat ---> A skips ---> army crawl ---> grab ball/stand/throw to target

In each of these patterns, we have represented:

  • Spatial awareness
  • Synchronization of movement
  • Balance (dynamic and static)
  • Movement adequacy
  • Kinesthetic differentiation
  • Rhythm

I have used warm-up sequences just like these with high school, collegiate, and professional athletes from a variety of sports.