If you are a youth athlete, parent or coach, chances are you crave information on new exercises to improve strength, skills and speed.
The physical game of youth sports could not be more of a hot topic in today’s day and age, and for good reason. Physical fitness gives an athlete an edge over an opponent and makes them durable to withstand the demands of the game.
But let me ask you this: Have you ever thought about what is going on at the neural, or put more simply, brain level when it comes to training?
The neuroscience of physical activity is powerful, but it is often overlooked. Parents and coaches want their players faster. More conditioned. More explosive. Stronger. But have any of you thought about the other benefits of physical activity?
Oddly enough, the more I grow into my career as a performance coach, the more I realize what I’m doing extends far beyond the physical benefits of training. What I am doing gives kids purpose, confidence and creativity in life. The mental component, to that end, is so incredibly powerful and paramount for youth athletes, and it is something they can continue to rebuild their entire lives outside of sports.
To paint a picture, if you are a school teacher, ever wonder why your students return to science class sluggish and unable to process information on the blackboard? The growing lack of recess and outdoor play could be a major problem.
Or, if you are a youth sports coach, ever wonder why your players are lazy in warm-ups and cannot nail down a tactical formation drill? Them having spent the three hours prior to practice sitting on the couch and playing video games could be part of the issue.
Or, if you are a parent, ever wonder why your kids procrastinate their homework and lose focus? The sedentary, mechanical lifestyle you teach them could be the problem.
Or, if you are a parent, ever wonder why your kid has a hard time learning and retaining new information? The lack of exercise and free play to explore new environments outdoors could be the problem.
Although many sports parents are worried about how many points or goals their kid scores each game, we need to take a step back and focus on inspiring movement. Being more active and less sedentary will help us raise smarter and sharper kids, no doubt. But one type of movement, in particular, seems especially tied to the brain and motor learning—cross-body movement.
Recently, I became introduced to Dr. Carla Hannaford’s work on studying physical activity’s impact on learning, memory and focus in children. The neat thing about a kid’s brain is it is highly plastic, meaning, it has the ability to build a tremendous amount of neural networks through movement.
The brain works in magical ways. Movement allows it to rebuild neural networks, process new tasks and skills, and connect its logical and creative sides for optimal performance in school, sports and life. In a 2011 meta-analysis of 59 studies, researchers found there was a significant positive effect of physical activity on children’s achievement and cognitive outcomes.
If you read Hannaford’s book, Smart Moves, it provides loads of research and practical case studies. I highly recommend every youth coach, parent and trainer checks it out. Much of the book deals with the power of cross-body movements. In a nutshell, cross-body movements are movements that see the limbs cross the mid-line of the body. For example, the right hand touching the left knee. “Crossing the midline” has been found to be a crucial piece of the physical and mental developmental puzzle. Skills that require using the right and left side of our bodies in alternating, concerted fashion (such as crawling) can help develop our ability to “cross the midline.”
A 2015 study found that a short bout of practice with mid-line crossing movements helped children perform immediately better in a subsequent test of contralateral reaction time (a test of how quickly and accurately they could take limbs to a stimulus across the mid-line on command). Another group who played 30 minutes of video games instead of practicing mid-line crossing movements actually became slower in their contralateral reaction time compared to their pre-test results.
“It has been suggested in the motor learning literature that the ability to perform efficient midline crossing movements can contribute to skill acquisition requisite for successful physical activity and sport participation,” the authors write in their abstract. “Even after a short bout of deliberate laterality practice children who practiced contralateral movements significantly improved their ability to initiate complex, midline crossing movements; whereas the children who did not practice midline crossing movements did not exhibit any improvement in midline crossing behaviour.”
Cross-body movements connect the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The more these hemispheres perform an integrative dance together, the more a human will optimally perform any task. As an example, Lionel Messi may be known as a “creative, right-brain” player, but for him to execute his spontaneous skills, he also has to tap into his left brain for foot-eye coordination as well as technique and problem-solving.
How can we bring more cross-body movements into our young athlete’s lives and get their brain hemispheres working better together? These three movements offer an effective challenge.
Plank Cross Crawl
This is the ultimate plank progression and will better help kids develop proper core stability. The entirety of a child’s core must be durable, as it is the foundation for every sport specific movement, like running, changing direction and shooting.
Perform 2 sets of 8-10 reps on each side.
Bear Cross-Body Crawl
Bear crawling is a stellar way to introduce kids to total body strength with their bodies as resistance. It is a safe starting point if they are just getting into resistance training, but also, the opposite arm-opposite leg coordination teaches them to move in a contralateral fashion that will help them with sprinting efficiently. Perform 2 sets of 15-20 steps in each direction.
Dead Bug Cross Crawl
Dead Bugs are a staple movement for firing the anterior core and ensuring kids build a durable base. Perform 2 sets of 8-10 reps each side.
Standing Cross Crawl
This is one of my favorite movements for sprinkling in balance with cross-body coordination. After all, balance is a basic motor skill that all kids should hone so they can better perform sport-specific movements, like shooting, cutting and decelerating and accelerating safely. Perform 2 sets of 10-20 on each side. If you lose balance, start the reps over.
This video from long-term athletic development expert Jeremy Frisch also includes some great ideas:
There is more research to be done on the benefits of cross-body movements and their impact on tying together the hemispheres of the brain, but I urge you to check out Dr. Carla Hannaford’s work. Also, put the above exercises into your practice or warm-up to conduct your own research and see the positive impact it has on the kids!
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