Pyramid of Athletic Development

With fall high school sports season gearing up in Pittsburgh, PA it is perfect time to blog about a concept called the “Pyramid of Athletic Development.”  This concept is absolutely critical for athletes and parents to understand because it is the key to minimizing the chance of injury in the near and distant future along with optimizing athletic potential.

I was first introduced to this concept when reading a book entitled Movement by Gray Cook.  Plain and simple, Mr. Cook is a genius in the world of physical therapy.  The concept he presents in the book is simple, the foundation for any athlete should be their Fundamental Movement Patterns.  These patterns are things such squatting, pushing, pulling, stabilizing, balancing, and in general moving well.  Quality movement is paramount for the foundation of any athlete, regardless of their sport.  On top of that movement foundation General Fitness is laid.  General fitness are things like conditioning, strength, power, endurance, etc.  Finally, at the top of the pyramid are the Sport-Specific Skills an athlete needs to master.  In summary develop a solid movement foundation, layer fitness on top of that solid movement foundation, and finally layer on the necessary sport-specific skills.

Pyramid of Athletic Development


If you really take a good look at many young and old athletes you will notice that many of them do not move well.  You’ll also notice that most of what they are doing in practices has to do only with developing general fitness and sport-specific skills.  The result is you get a pyramid that ends up looking like the one below where general fitness and sport-specific skills are layered on top of poor fundamental movement patterns.

Inverted Pyramid of Athletic Development


Just looking at the visual of the pyramid and you can tell it is only a matter of time before it topples over.  This is exactly what happens to young athletes who layer fitness and sport-specific skills on top of dysfunctional movement,  eventually something gives and the athlete gets injured.  In fact, one of the things I remember vividly from Gray Cook’s book is to “never layer fitness on top of dysfunction.”  Even if the athlete is fortunate enough to not get injured, lacking a good quality base of movement causes them to leave something on the table in terms of performance.

Now if you think about the typical tennis athlete they spend tons of time working on the very demanding and necessary technical skill-set to play their sport.  This is perfectly fine if the fundamental movement patterns and some level of general fitness already exist.  However, is technical work really the best place an athlete could be spending their time if they are lacking a good quality movement foundation?  And we wonder why young tennis players develop so many injuries…

If you are wondering, “well this is great information but how in the world can I tell if an athlete’s fundamental movement patterns are dysfunctional or not?”  The answer to that question also lies in Gray’s book Movement in an assessment called the Functional Movement Screen (FMS).  The FMS is a qualitative assessment that looks at an athletes fundamental movement patterns, which by the way I have been utilizing for some time now.  If you are a coach and interested in learning more take a look at, buy the 400 page text book and start reading!

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