students working on athletic development

How Can Health and PE Teachers Promote Long-Term Athletic Development?

As a health and physical educator, you’ve probably noticed changes over the years in your students’ youth sports participation patterns, as well as their overall athleticism and fitness. Research shows that kids begin sports earlier, specialize in sports sooner, and drop out of sports earlier than they did in the past.

The trend toward earlier specialization may improve sports skills in the short-term, but it is not leading to long-term athletic development.

Another unfortunate trend is that kids are not learning basic athletic building blocks like agility, balance and coordination — on their own or in most youth sport settings. Coaches have limited time with players and tend to skip ahead to the skills and strategies necessary to compete in games, instead of working on skipping and other critical locomotor skills.

Kids used to learn to run, jump, climb and move through hours of outdoor free play. The decline in unstructured play and increase in structured youth sports are changing the way kids develop as young athletes and not necessarily for the better: Seven out of 10 kids drop out of sports by age 13.

Physical education class remains the most likely setting for kids to learn key locomotor and athletic fundamentals that lead to long-term athletic development. Health and physical education teachers are well qualified to teach these important aspects of athletic development.

The challenge for HPE teachers is to better connect what is done at school in gymnasiums and classrooms to students’ youth sports experiences outside of school.

Physical Education and Long-Term Athletic Development

Here are some ways health and physical education teachers can promote long-term athletic development:

  • Share Facts
    Emerging youth sports research validates the importance of physical education (e.g. motor skills and fitness) on long-term athletic development. Share research with parents and students that shows how what you’re doing in PE supports athletic development outside of school. Check the guiding pillars supported by the National Strength and Conditioning Association to learn more.
  • Build an Athletic Foundation
    PE provides an ideal opportunity to learn and practice skills like agility, balance and coordination that help in most sports. Specifically, show students how agility helps in basketball or how balance helps in soccer. Highlight elite athletes who have mastered various skills and use them effectively in sports. A solid athletic foundation has also been shown to reduce injury rates in young athletes.
  • Develop Multi-Sport Athletes
    PE is a great setting to encourage sport sampling. Use a variety of sports and non-traditional activities to give students a chance to see where their interests and talents lie. Emphasize transferable skills between sports and activities. For example, when teaching defense in soccer, show how the footwork is similar to basketball.

    The consensus in the research is that specializing in a single sport is not necessary before age 12 (aside from sports in which athletes peak early, like figure skating or gymnastics). Provide suggestions and encouragement to play multiple sports throughout middle school. Also, remind students that “pick up” games are a great way to improve athletically and build intrinsic motivation.
  • Make Fitness Fun
    Whenever fitness units or concepts are taught in PE, be sure to make fitness fun. Students who enjoy exercise are more likely to do so outside of school — and apply that fitness knowledge from PE to youth sports.

    For instance, middle school physical educator Terence Leahy, uses TRX suspension training in his classes to teach his students fitness concepts which carryover to sports conditioning. He also uses well-known assessments like FitnessGram® as the basis of a school-wide Ironman and Ironwoman competition. The spirit of self-improvement and personal challenge cultivated in these PE units can transfer to youth sports as well.
  • Combine Fitness With Sports
    One trend in long-term athletic development is to incorporate fitness with sports and vice versa. Create functional activities that involve realistic scenarios. For instance, use mini ladders (or tape on a floor or chalk on pavement) to perform an agility drill before making a pass in football or taking a shot in floor hockey. Remind students that being fit is an important aspect of sports performance.
students working on athletic development in soccer

Health Education and Long-Term Athletic Development

In health education class, many curriculum areas can also be better connected to youth sports. Health and physical education teachers can provide examples and activities that demonstrate how valuable health is to long-term athletic development.

  • Nutrition
    During a nutrition unit, add content about sports nutrition, including pre-game meals, hydration and post-game recovery. Talk about supplements, reading labels, or other consumer skills that are helpful to young athletes.
  • Stress Management
    When teaching life-skills units, including stress management, reinforce techniques that can be helpful in sports too. The sport psychology literature has great lessons on relaxation, imagery, breathing, and more that can be adapted for health classes. Try Bring Your “A” Game for ideas.
  • Growth and Development
    Help students learn about growth patterns and human development. Encourage them to understand where they are developmentally and what the timeline will be like before they can reach their maximum physical potential. Reassure the late bloomers and support the awkward adolescents. Help all students to think longer-term about their own physical development and athleticism.
  • Sleep and Substance Use
    Teach your students how healthy habits can improve athletic performance. These habits include sleeping well and avoiding harmful substances. There are many examples in athletics to draw from, including the story of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps.

Promoting long-term athletic development in health and physical education will help both students and parents appreciate the many valuable connections between HPE and athletic development. A powerful message educators can convey to students is to “build good habits over time” in order to reach their athletic potential.

Additional Resources


Lynn Pantuosco-Hensch
Lynn Pantuosco-Hensch

Lynn Pantuosco-Hensch, DPE, is an associate professor in the Movement Science Department at Westfield State University. She is an active member of SHAPE America and MAHPERD, as well as a licensed soccer coach with the United Soccer Coaches Association. Her current research is on long-term athletic development, youth sport specialization, and active classrooms. Lynn can be reached at lhensch@westfield.ma.edu or https://www.lynnpantuosco-hensch.com. (She thanks Paula Leahy Welch for the editorial support.)