Skill/Athletic Performance Pyramid

I’ve seen slightly different versions of this image from a few different sources, but decided to make a poor man’s version in Paint instead. What’s (poorly) illustrated below is the optimal balance that must take place for anyone planning to develop a skill.

What I noticed across the board through coaching at the youth and amateur level was that the best athletes were the ones with huge bases of foundation strength, the best movers, the kids who could somersault, roll, bear crawl, do handstands, hang, sprint, cut, and decelerate, among other things. They were not, however, the best ballplayers (or most skilled), but they were able to develop their skill much more quickly (!!!), in a safer manner, and their overall strength allowed them to actually perform well without necessarily having the skill to back it up initially. More importantly, they were usually the happiest and were looked up to by their peers.

I also saw the flip side – “academy kids” (see second image) who were highly skilled but could not perform very simple athletic movements, but played 150 games per year on 3 different teams… and we wonder why there’s a shoulder/elbow injury epidemic (not to mention the mental health fallouts). This demographic was obsessed with the short-term and completely threw caution into the wind in terms of long-term health or taking the necessary steps in the development process.

What’s the moral of the story? Get stronger and your skill improves regardless. Don’t train skill without having a base upon which to grow, as strength is the limiting factor in every movement. When your foundation improves, everything above it becomes more solid, and you can dedicate as much time to perfecting your skill as you’d like, in a safe manner.  And if you’re going to sign your kid up for private lessons, make sure he/she can balance on one leg, squat, bend, rotate, and push/pull all while breathing through their nose, or else you’re better off throwing your money into a volcano.

My interpretation of this “Performance Pyramid” is that the optimal athlete/mover trains with the intent to develop the following abilities (in order of importance):

  1. Foundation of Strength (primarily strength-endurance and quality of movement in areas such as squatting, stepping, lunging, pressing, reaching, etc.)
  2. Functional Movement (performance level of foundational movements, such as how much output/force is produced in a squat, 40-yard-dash time, vertical jump, etc.)
  3. Skill (“knack” or actual ability to perform a skill or sport)
Sports Performance Pyramid
Optimal – Skill built upon large foundation of functional movement and even larger base of foundation strength.  Most likely to perform a skill safely and to be able to dedicate as much time as possible to train skill to reach elite levels.
Sports Performance Pyramid Skill
Very skilled, poor foundation – Highly developed amount of skill built upon a very poor athletic base.  Most likely to suffer injuries due to lack of strength endurance, not training to correct imbalances caused by performing skill, etc.  (Sadly is very common due to the “private lesson” and “travel team” epidemic in youth sports, as we’re seeing highly skilled but un-athletic children.
SPM Func
Skilled and able to move functionally, but poor foundation – Highly skilled and able to perform at a high level in performance-based tests of maximal strength, but very low levels of foundational strength/strength-endurance.  Injury is highly likely and is usually surprising since the athlete “looks” strong, but actually just functions well despite poor base/foundation.
SPM No Skill
Great foundation and functional movement, no skill – Me at basketball.  A coach’s dream.  Hard worker, strong, fast, resilient, excellent at picking up towels and handing out waters to the taller and more skilled players.  Could safely spend hours upon hours practicing to develop the skills required to perform sport at elite level (if I wasn’t 5’8″).

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