For the past decade as a physical therapist treating individuals from elite athletes to young children, I have been immersed in the complexities of physical wellness and sports performance enhancement. During that time I have grown increasing concerned by the lack of fitness and quality of movement in our youth, which sees them at a higher risk for long term health problems and increases in chronic illness. With that said, two incidents in the past two years have changed my professional life forever and allowed me to "Connect The Dots" and see the bigger picture in a way I had never before seen.
First, I had the opportunity to give a lecture on current trends in the running athlete, and the importance of skilled movement, to the sports medicine team at a major university. During the lecture, the head athletic trainer asked a very profound question, and it went something like this:
“Understanding the importance of proper movement development (physical literacy) and physical resiliency in our youth, collegiate athletes, and every individual for that matter, do you think you will be talking about these same things in 5-10 years?"
I had to pause and think for a minute. Then I answered honestly, stating that I would most likely be talking about the same ideas, and that unfortunately, on a global scale, very little change will occur. We went on to agree that parents, coaches, and administrators in our educational system don’t understand the importance and need for physical literacy and proper movement development in our children’s youth. The athletic trainer continued to state that at their university they have a significant problem with all their athletes staying healthy, but especially the incoming freshman. These athletes are some of the most talented in the nation in their respected sports, yet their basic essential movement skills are so poor that they are unable to stay healthy when they enter a collegiate program that requires an increase in duration, frequency, and density of movement. This lack of movement vocabulary has resulted in a significant increase in lost practice time and, therefore, poor resiliency.
Secondly, I treated a 10-year-old boy, brought to my clinic by his mother and father. He complained of low back pain, and had difficulty running in PE class. During the course of the evaluation, the boy explained that he was embarrassed to run in PE because he felt extremely uncoordinated. As I began to assess him, I was struck by his inability to perform very basic fundamental movements. These movements should have been naturally developed by the time he was five years old. This boy's movement skills were so dysfunctional that when I asked my colleague who was observing my evaluation from across the room what he thought the diagnosis was, he guessed a neurological disorder. As a matter of fact, there was nothing inherently wrong with this boy; however, he had never completely developed essential movement skills that are the foundation for higher level movements such as squatting, running, jumping, skipping...let alone walking.
This is not a new phenomenon, just one that is neglected and underrepresented. I am saddened by the significant increases in the number of young children entering my clinic for problems like low back pain, plantar fasciitis, tendinopathies, and other conditions typical in middle aged to older adults. These problems are purely a result of the lack of skilled movement, let alone all movement. These same kids grow up and enter sports, sustain multiple injuries at a young age, burnout, and equate movement as being painful and a chore. I have seen these conditions create negative feedback loops resulting in a lifetime of inactivity. Kids ages five to twelve should never have to be seen by a physical therapist. These kids are trying to be active, but as a result of our culture and environment, they are not physically literate enough to play at the park, participate in youth sports, or just play 60 minutes a day with moderate intensity, as recommended by the American Academy of Sports Medicine, without getting hurt.