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  • Writer's pictureMateo Kovačić

Is The Golden Age for Developing Motor Skills a Myth?

The concept of a "golden age" for motor skill development is prevalent in many Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) models. These models propose that there are optimal periods during childhood and adolescence for training specific motor abilities. But does modern research support this theory?


The Stop'n'Go Reactive Agility Test (SNG-RAT) is one of the most comprehensive validated reactive agility tests. In 2014, it was validated on 66 college-aged athletes, aged 18-24 years, who passed health screening, and were categorized into agility-saturated (AG) and non-agility-saturated sports (NAG) groups. Reliability analyses showed high consistency, with intraclass correlation coefficients (ICC) of 0.81 and 0.86 for men and women, respectively. This underscores the test's robustness and consistency in delivering reliable results. The comparative analysis across different levels of sport-specific training further demonstrates its validity.  To perform the Stop'n'Go Reactive Agility Test (SNG-RAT), the athlete starts at the central point. When an LED light signals a pod, the athlete runs to the indicated pod, touches it, and returns to the start point. This process is repeated three or five times, ensuring the athlete waits for the LED signal before starting each run to maintain the reactive component of the test. The test is designed to measure the athlete's reaction time and agility. The best score from the trials is recorded as the final result.


LTAD Models and Sensitive Periods


Long-term athlete development (LTAD) models often categorize (simplify) physical attributes into five general motor abilities:


x flexibility,

x speed,

x coordination,

x endurance,

x strength.


They suggest that certain ages, known as sensitive periods, are particularly effective for improving these skills. For example, the ages 7-12 are often cited as prime times for developing motor skills in both male and female athletes (See more in the figure 1).



Understanding the difference between Biological vs. Chronological Age


When discussing LTAD models it's crucial to differentiate between biological age (developmental stage) and chronological age (actual age). LTAD models typically propose sensitive periods based on chronological age, but recent studies suggest that biological age might be a more accurate measure.


Visual representation and showcase of The Sensitive Periods of Accelerated Adaptation to Training  by authors Balyi And Way from their research in 2005.
Figure 1: The sensitive periods of accelerated adaptation to training depending on biological and chronological age (Balyi and Way, 2005)


What is the difference between Sensitive vs. Critial Period?


In sports, a critical period is a narrow timeframe when specific experiences or stimuli are essential for the normal development of crucial abilities. Missing this window can affect an athlete's potential to fully acquire these skills later on. On the other hand, a sensitive period represents a broader - optimal time when athletes are particularly responsive to learning and skill acquisition.


The visual representation of the difference between sensitive vs. critical period in motor skills development. In sports, a critical period is a narrow timeframe when specific experiences or stimuli are essential for the normal development of crucial abilities. Missing this window can affect an athlete's potential to fully acquire these skills later on. On the other hand, a sensitive period represents a broader but still optimal time when athletes are particularly responsive to learning and skill acquisition.
Figure 2: The visual representation of the difference between sensitive vs. critical period in motor skills development.


The Debate: Reductionist vs. Holistic Approaches


Recent research by Van Hooren et al. (2020) criticizes the reductionist approach of LTAD models for oversimplifying the complex nature of motor abilities. They argue that these models fail to account for the interconnectedness of skills, task-specificity, and individual factors like genetics and prior experience.


Task-Specific Sensitive Periods


Van Hooren et al. (2020) propose a more holistic approach, suggesting that if sensitive periods exist, they are largely task-specific. For example, a study by Solum et al. (2020) on dart throwing with non-dominant hands found no significant difference in learning curves between 10-year-olds, 18-year-olds, and 40-year-olds, challenging the notion of age-specific advantages in motor learning.



Conclusion: Are sensitive periods crucial for motor skill development?


While LTAD models provide a useful framework, holistic approach teaches us that it's essential to consider individual differences and task-specific requirements. Effective training should be tailored to the athlete's developmental stage, previous experience, and specific sport demands.


Key Factors Influencing Motor Skills Development:


x Genetics: Innate abilities play a significant role in how quickly and effectively motor skills develop.

x  Environment: Exposure to different physical activities and sports can enhance motor skills development.

x  Practice Opportunities: Regular and diverse practice is crucial for obtaining progress.



How To Enhance Motor Skills Training?


Enhancing motor skills training involves incorporating diverse and engaging activities that challenge both fine and gross motor skills. Utilizing tools like balance boards, obstacle courses, and interactive games can help improve coordination and muscle control. Regular practice, combined with positive reinforcement, keeps young athletes motivated and focused. Tailoring exercises to individual needs and gradually increasing difficulty ensures continuous progress and skill development.


Tools like Sportreact can help optimize this process, ensuring that athletes receive the most effective training at any stage of their development. With the Sportreact device, coach can easily conduct spatial awareness and agility training, as well as precisely measure progress in abilities such as speed, reaction time, and agility. The app’s analytics features allow for individualized, sport-specific drills and provide the opportunity to continuously track athletes’ progress and adjust training accordingly.


By using Sportreact, coach can:


x Precisely assess speed, reaction time and agility during pretests or training sessions.

x Track progress with detailed analytics.

x Craft individualized, sport-specific drills to enhance coordination, agility, and other motor skills.

x Provide valuable feedback to motivate athletes and refine their training.



Video 2: How to enhance motor skills with Sportreact device?


References

Balyi, I., & Way, R. (2005). The role of monitoring growth in long-term athlete development. Canadian sport for life, 2(1), 47-64.


Solum, M., Lorås, H., & Pedersen, A. V. (2020). A golden age for motor skill learning? Learning of an unfamiliar motor task in 10-year-olds, young adults, and adults, when starting from similar baselines. Frontiers in psychology, 11


Van Hooren, B., & De Ste Croix, M. (2020). Sensitive periods to train general motor abilities in children and adolescents: do they exist? A critical appraisal. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 42(6), 7-14.


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