When we see a 7 year old kid running a football down the field like a pro, we say, “wow—what a natural.” And although nobody would argue that genetics and emotional predispositions play a huge role in determining someone’s athletic potential, we often miss the rest of the picture: that the reason this kid is such an outlier has less to do with their athletic ability than with factors that are preventing other kids from expressing themselves athletically with that same ease.
What separates this “natural” football player from the rest of the kids is most likely not VO2 Max or aerobic capacity (which only grows significantly as we get older) but rather that they have a very strong foundation in what researchers call “fundamental motor skills,” or FMS.
The authors of the article in question write that “locomotor skills and object control skills are . . . the equivalent of the ABCs in the world of physical activity.” When a child acquires these skills at an early age, they are far more likely to seek movement opportunities as they get older, meaning that they will have much greater chances to develop the more complex skills necessary to participate in organized sports.
On the other hand, children that did not develop FMS (and consequently did not have these opportunities) tend to become more sedentary. According to the article cited above, not only do they judge themselves as being relatively less skilled than their friends, but they also don’t have the motor skill competence that would allow them to participate in the majority of sports.
The fortunes of the two groups of kids—those with a motor skill foundation and those without—begins to diverge right around here. A recent study showed that the development of aerobic fitness, which helps reduce risk of cardiovascular problems and associated illnesses, is linked to the acquisition of basic motor skills. As we would expect, the opposite is true as well: the lack of foundational motor skills correlates well with sedentary behavior, ultimately leading to obesity. In other words, we can’t just ask someone to go develop aerobic fitness.
Obesity compounds the situation: not only does the increased mass physically make movement difficult, but the roots of obesity and diabetes are is a dysfunction in how the body manages its energy supply—a condition known as “metabolic syndrome.” And since sustained athletic expression is all about correct energy management, it becomes very difficult for someone with obesity to make a lasting change in their health and mobility, particularly if we emphasize that the solution is to “get out more.” That’s not addressing the problem. It is the underlying lack of motor skills that must be changed.
While the genetic and environmental roots of obesity are well documented, these are merely conditions for the proliferation of obesity. They don’t guarantee obesity. Consider why obesity was so well correlated with a lack of foundational motor skills: if someone with every genetic predisposition towards obesity has an extremely strong motor foundation, they would find themselves making the most of every opportunity for athletic expression. The conclusion of the first article cited reads: “the degree of motor skill competence is a critically important, yet underestimated, causal mechanism partially responsible for the health-risk behavior of physical inactivity.” In other words, those predispositions would likely never manifest, much less turn into a full-blown case of metabolic syndrome.
The fundamental solution isn’t to get kids moving more—at least not when they are already in grade school. By that time, those who are getting left behind are already lagging in their foundational motor skills. We’ve all seen the effect that PE class has on certain kids: for those without the requisite skills, every class, every athletic situation, brings nothing but humiliation. That subset of children, along with a significant portion of those who are overweight or obese, won’t—or rather, can’t—benefit from the opportunity provided by PE class: not only is the social importance given to competitiveness and competence toxic to the motivation of someone who has neither, but also, their skills are often subpar in some important way.
Whatever the minimum standard for competence may be in that particular sport, they aren’t capable of meeting it. As a pitcher, they don’t have enough accuracy with the baseball to be confident they won’t hit the batter. As a soccer player, they don’t have enough gross agility or fine motor control of the feet to go after the ball, expect to win it, or know what to do with it if they did. And the problem—the unseen, unacknowledged problem—is not that they don’t have the skill, but instead that they don’t have the foundation they need for that skill to grow in the first place.
The reason this situation is so well-known to us, and why it exists as such a common trope in coming-of-age movies, is that its underlying causes are so damn opaque to the eyes of the typical athletic coach. Most coaches, even the good ones, just don’t understand what is happening: they focus on the lagging students and attempt to teach them the sport, and consequently destroy their motivation on a wall of frustration. All along, their focus should have been on the foundation. And even those who catch on to the fact that it’s the foundation that’s missing often don’t know where to begin.
Sports or physical education in the classical sense just won’t do the trick. Nor will your average coach or gym teacher. We need a more skilled, more inquisitive, and more creative specialist to deal with this situation. Already, the challenges that face most of these kids aren’t personal—they are systemic. It is not a lack of drive, or willpower, or audacity that stops them. It is their relative motor ability, the laughter of society’s persistent superego, and often, the mass of their own bodies. There is no effective way to address this problem, except at its roots.
And the effects of good motor ability reach far beyond the athletic domain. As recent research has shown, the ability to perceive objects as three-dimensional, and being able to manipulate them, grows alongside motor skill competence. In other words, developing a solid motor foundation has untold cognitive benefits. We owe it to these kids, to the very young kids (and to those who are already highly skilled) to make every motor opportunity available.
Enough of telling little kids to sit still and be quiet. Enough of expecting those same kids to know how to move under their own power two or three years down the line. Enough of forgetting (or never realizing) that the least skilled and least competent are often the most focused and driven. We need to be better than that, for everyone’s sake.