What do we mean by 'Athletic'? The 10 Pillars of Athleticism

Practitioners working in the realms of physical preparation, 'strength and conditioning', athletic development, sports coaching and sports medicine all share the desire that their athletes become more 'athletic'. Feats of athleticism can be readily recognised and appreciated. Yet observers and practitioners alike would struggle to describe with any clarity or detail what exactly constitutes 'athleticism'. Clearly we must first define qualities such as athleticism in order to understand how we might go about developing them. From a talent identification and talent development viewpoint, @@what do we need to identify and develop in a young athlete?@@ In this post we aim to elucidate what athleticism is, and explore the constituent parts that underpin athleticism.

@@There are many facets of athleticism@@. These various capacities and capabilities span and cross-over between the sensory, perceptual, motor control, and neuromuscular realms. Each of these components we will introduce in turn, and describe in detail how they underpin athleticism. 

1. Mobility. Clearly if the athlete's ability to achieve certain positions and ranges of motion is restricted or constrained by a lack of mobility this is not conducive to athleticism. An important distinction needs to be made here between mobility and flexibility. Mobility constitutes a blend of flexibility, strength and stability. Flexibility training is generally complementary to mobility; however, mobility is active, whereas flexibility is broadly passive. Mobility comprises the ability to move through ranges of motion in a dynamic fashion (often weight-bearing). Moreover, mobility demands that the athlete possesses the strength and functional capacities to maintain stability and postural integrity as they actively move through these ranges of motion.

2. Body Awareness. Practitioners often speak about athletes being 'body aware'. In this context, body awareness pertains to the degree and accuracy of the athlete's perception of position, orientation and sensation in relation to their body and limbs. This mind-body connection is rarely spoken about in the sporting realm, despite the importance of sensorimotor aspects in relation to motor control and coordination. The athlete's 'feel' for their own body and its interaction with the environment during a particular movement involves integrating a range of somatosensory input. The acuity of an athlete's perception in this regard tends to be quite specific to position and orientation in 3-dimensional space. For instance, an athlete might demonstrate good body awareness when standing upright and facing forwards with eyes open, but this is not necessarily be the case when placed in a less familiar position or orientation - for example, when hanging upside down. Developing 'global' body awareness ultimately requires the athlete to be exposed to a range of different postures, orientations, and movements in order to grow familiar with them and develop their acuity of perception in different contexts. For these reasons, @@gymnastics is a great tool for developing body awareness@@ in a more global way. Specifically, the athlete is exposed to a variety of positions and postures, moving through different planes and axes of motion (rolling, rotating etc), and body orientations.

3. Equilibrium. I choose the term 'equilibrium' over 'balance' for a number of reasons. The first reason is that there are a variety of components to balance (static balance, dynamic balance, dynamic stabilisation). Furthermore each of these respective balance components all involve weight-bearing. Equilibrium on the other hand encompasses not only the different components of balance in a weight-bearing stance, but also includes non-weight-bearing activities. For instance, equilibrium equally applies to the maintenance of posture and buoyancy in the water when swimming. Equilibrium also comprises body control in 3-dimensional space when moving through the air - for example when jumping, running, swinging, tumbling etc. Body awareness in different orientations as described previously is therefore a foundation quality.

4. Movement Dexterity. Dexterity encompasses aspects such as precision, 'touch' or 'feel', timing, rhythm in relation to fine motor skills. Dexterity is often spoken about in relation to the hand (manual dexterity). However, dexterity also relates to the remaining limbs and limb segments, for instance the lower limb when we are speaking about locomotion. Movement dexterity therefore pertains to all movement skills, whether global athletic movements or sports skills. Once again, possessing movement dexterity relates to precision, touch/feel, timing and rhythm when performing these various movement tasks. Movement dexterity thus comprises a host of somatosensory and sensorimotor qualities, which is far beyond what is normally considered with respect to neuromuscular control and coordination. Furthermore, these qualities and capabilities underpinning dexterity are demonstrated during both familiar and novel tasks. 

5. Mastery of Fundamental Athletic Movements. Elite performers clearly demonstrate mastery of the motor skills in their sport. In addition to these specific sports skills, a number of fundamental athletic movement skills can be identified that are common across sports. These include gait/locomotion, jump/land, squat, lunge, balance, throw, catch, push, pull, and twisting or rotation. Regardless of the sport, possessing true athleticism implies that the athlete exhibits mastery of these 'common' athletic movements. @@Even at elite level the degree of mastery of fundamental athletic movements skills cannot be assumed@@. This is particularly the case in complex sports with a significant tactical element, and among those who have lacked a comprehensive programme of physical preparation during their development years. The declining levels of fundamental movement skills among children has been highlighted previously; as such, this is likely to become an increasingly prevalent issue across sports, even among those who attain elite level. 

6. Autonomy. Perhaps the most abstract of the pillars we have encountered so far, but athleticism requires that the athlete is able to operate autonomously. For an athlete to demonstrate true athleticism, they cannot be dependent upon external feedback or instruction to properly execute a task. An athlete must therefore develop the ability to utilise 'intrinsic' feedback derived from the task and their own sensation and perception in order to execute athletic movements. The quality of intrinsic feedback comprises elements such as body awareness that we have spoken about before. By extension, the capacity to self-correct involves the ability to 'review' and utilise this intrinsic feedback to (independently) refine movement skill execution between repetitions. This feedback loop and ongoing correction and refinement occurs both in training and in a competition environment. Practitioners must remain aware of this when coaching athletes; the aim is to develop autonomy, not to foster dependency.

7. Adaptability. The ability to adapt to different conditions is clearly important. The athlete must be able to execute athletic skills in different environments, and to adapt their movement skill execution to the environmental conditions faced at any given time. Once again this comprises the ability to utilise intrinsic feedback to modulate skill execution both within and between repetitions. However it also involves 'higher order' cognitive function - for instance, judging and evaluating the task environment in order to tailor skill execution to the conditions faced. @@Developing adaptive athletic skills once again comes back to coaching and the learning environment@@ in which skills are developed. As we have spoken about, the nature of coaching input can be a critical factor. Likewise, the timing and frequency of the provision of external feedback are also relevant considerations.

8. The Ability to Devise Movement Solutions. On an elemental level, an athlete's 'movement behaviour' in a training or competition environment can be conceptualised as a problem-solving process. In essence the athlete must devise satisfactory movement solutions for the given task encountered. The first step for devising these movement solutions involves perceiving the 'action opportunities' afforded by the task. These action opportunities, or 'affordances' for action, must also be evaluated in the context of the particular constraints associated with the task, such as the rules of the game or stipulations made by the coach, so this will narrow the range of options available. The range of movement solution the athlete has at his or her disposal will also depend on the size of their body and length of their limbs. Athletes therefore perceive their environment and the movement task within that environment in a way that is scaled to their body and limb lengths. Finally, the options available to the athlete will be based on their perception of their own capabilities or 'effectivities'. A virtuoso athlete who demonstrates extraordinary athleticism may therefore be able to come up with movement solutions that are not available to other mortals.

9. Perception-Action Coupling. Up until now the discussion of athleticism has encompassed 'closed skill sports' for which the task and environment are relatively unchanging, and timing of the performance of the movement skill is largely predictable and predetermined (examples include fixed target shooting, and the field events in athletics). However, for a large number of sports the execution of athletic movement skills occurs in response to a stimulus, so that perception (stimulus) and action (athletic movement) are coupled. This might be a simple reaction task - for example, reacting to the gun in a sprint event. In other sports, the process of perception-action coupling can be far more complex as the athlete must perceive and respond to a range of cues, and a task environment that might be constantly changing. Demonstrating athleticism in these sports therefore demands additional sensory-perceptual aspects underpinning the successful coupling of perception and action.

10. Strategy and Decision-Making. @@Expressing athleticism in complex sports is incumbent upon a host of sensory-perceptual abilities@@ to devise task solutions in real-time, and determine when to initiate an appropriate movement response. Using the example of an evasion sport, moment by moment the athlete must come up with a movement strategy as they go, and often then adapt in response to changing external factors and other players in the task environment. This encompasses not only perceiving a changing environment and constantly evaluating 'action opportunities', but also making decisions on when to act, when not to act, and which of the movement options available at that particular instant is most appropriate.

So, there it is - rather than comprising any one single quality, athleticism comprises a host of different components. In discussing each of the respective pillars of athleticism we have identified, it becomes evident that a number of the respective aspects are interconnected and many share elements in common. Identifying and developing the qualities that underpin athleticism is arguably relevant to all practitioners. After all, the benefits of possessing athleticism are widely recognised at all levels of competition; and this transcends across all sports disciplines. @@Identifying the pillars of athleticism marks an important first step on the path@@. Clearly the next step is to elucidate how we develop each of the constituent parts in order to improve athleticism. But that is a topic for another day...

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