If you have ever seen a gymnast throw or catch a ball, you will understand what I mean when I say not all athletes are athletic. The same can be said for watching some of the great NFL quarterbacks try to run. Uncoordinated might be a word you would use. Yet, in their respective sports, these athletes have their required movements down to a science and can perform them with strength and grace.
Now, here is a crazy idea, what if we taught a gymnast to throw and catch, or a football player to flip over the vault table - would it make them better at their respective sport?
The research shows that athletes who play multiple sports succeed over those who specialize in a single sport for a multitude of reasons. Some of these have to do with decreased burnout and overuse injuries by varying movement patterns throughout the year. Yet a large part has to do with the ability to combine skills used in other sports, and the neuroplasticity (or increased brain development) that comes from learning a new skill.
As gymnasts age and progress, learning new skills is something that comes less and less often. Over the summer, there may be some time to play and attempt to get upgrades, but as the season rolls around skills become more repetitive and less varied. While I agree with this from a safety perspective (it is important to be confident in your skills before attempting to compete them) and from the idea that there is a finite number of skills that "make sense" to learn in the context of a gymnasts routines, there is something largely lost by limiting this play and skill acquisition.
It has been found that after learning a new skill, a human's ability to learn other new information or skills improves tremendously. It is for this reason that some new-age preschools tend to incorporate movement during learning periods, rather than having a specified "recess" or "gym class" time. The same works as we age. If gymnasts can learn one new skill, their ability to learn another is heightened for the next few days.
As I said earlier, in most sports as athletes advance, there is a finite number of new skills to learn. It is for this reason that cross training can be so beneficial. A gymnasts ability to learn a tkatchev or a football players ability to learn a new route can be enhanced by previously learning any new skill, not just one of the same tier in their same sport.
Take the gymnastics example, if you want to teach a gymnast a tkatchev while they are in an enhanced state, it would be much easier to teach them to throw a ball the day prior rather than teaching them a geinger the day prior, right? They can also have fun doing it and develop other skills that are beneficial from a joint health perspective as well as a mental one.
Similarly, we can take the gymnast back to basics and teach them a skill on their opposite leg, or non-dominant side. This type of play is so beneficial, but often neglected in favor of drilling and skilling what they need for routines. As we get back in the gym after COVID, it may be a great time to spend a few minutes each practice on "movement play" or practicing movements outside of their normal scope, it will both save their joints and make the rest of practice more enjoyable.
If you are interested in hearing more about this topic, I did a short video in my facebook group you can watch here. If you are interested in injury prevention for gymnasts and unique training perspectives be sure to join!