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Eric Sung now teaches his students what he has learned about avoiding injury. (Lyle Stafford For the Globe and Mail)
Eric Sung now teaches his students what he has learned about avoiding injury. (Lyle Stafford For the Globe and Mail)

How to build a better athlete – starting in kindergarten Add to ...

The popping sound and the feeling of bone grinding on bone are burned into Eric Sung’s memory. He was in his driveway at home, doing a bunny hop on his skateboard when he landed at an odd angle, ripping all the ligaments in his right knee.

“It felt like my knee stopped and my body kept moving,” he says. “I could feel the tearing.”

He was 24 at the time, but Mr. Sung’s childhood phys ed teachers could be to blame. According to a growing body of research, the torn knees, twisted ankles and sore backs that plague so many active adults have their origins in the school gymnasium.

For more than 50 years, physical education has been rooted in competitive sports – badminton one day, volleyball or soccer the next. But despite all the jumping, kicking and throwing in games like these, kids aren’t learning good techniques for basic movement. And while they may make that jump shot, if they can’t land it properly, their joints will wear. Over time, even a routine move (like a dead-easy bunny hop on a skateboard or a five-kilometre road race) tips the balance and leads to injury.

About seven million Canadians over the age of 15 participate in sports regularly, according to Statistics Canada. And every year, millions of recreational athletes injure themselves enough to compromise their daily activities – in some cases, enough to wind up in the hospital. In Ontario and Alberta alone, more than 211,000 people a year are sent to the ER by sports-related injuries, at a cost of more than $54-million, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information. And that’s just for front-line care, before accounting for ongoing physiotherapy, pain management, surgeries or lost productivity during recovery.

To see how all these problems start, researchers have been looking at the way children move – measuring something known as movement vocabulary, or the physical skills that kids have mastered. The results are disappointing. A U.S. study of nine- to 12-year-olds found that only half could throw and dribble a basketball properly. Australian research looked at kids in a similar age range and found particularly poor basic skills among girls.

Comprehensive Canadian data presented in Montreal this month shows we’re doing no better: Researchers looked at Grade 4 and 5 students in Manitoba, and whether they had acquired 18 basic movement skills – such as running, kicking and hopping – all of which are laid out in the physical education curriculum. The results were dismal. No more than 10 per cent of the kids showed proficiency in any one of the movements. (As in Australia, girls fared the worst.)

The good news is that the fix isn’t especially difficult. Dean Kriellaars, a professor of physical therapy at the University of Manitoba and one of the authors of the study, says that as little as two or three hours a week on basic movement skills can boost kids’ proficiency dramatically and nearly eliminate performance differences between boys and girls. Most important, as another study co-written by Dr. Kriellaars has found, it can greatly reduce the incidence of future injuries such as Mr. Sung’s.

The bad news is that, while the curriculum pays lip service to fundamental movement skills, most gym teachers don’t integrate them into their classes in a meaningful way. Part of the problem: lining up to learn how to kick a ball is boring.

So Dr. Kriellaars advocates a different approach, one that builds something called physical literacy – not through sports or “just lining up and doing layups,” he says, but activities with purpose and meaning.

Instead of teaching kids to throw a baseball, for example, Dr. Kriellaars suggests giving them a pile of bean bags and asking them to fill a barrel as quickly as they can. Instead of coaching them on how to kick a soccer ball, he suggests tying kids together, as in a three-legged race, and having them work together to move a ball through a maze of obstacles.

To improve long-term outcomes, and build lifelong athletes, gym teachers need to make a philosophical shift as well. That’s no small thing, but it has happened before. Throughout the early 19th century, phys ed was about keeping citizens fit for soldiering and school basements were used for archery and military drills. It was only during the Great Depression that sports were integrated with school, as unions encouraged teachers to coach teams to improve public perception of the profession, according to Queen’s University education professor Theodore Christou. By the 1950s, gym classes were centred on competition and the development of character, feeding into the start-them-young approach to building Olympic champions.

But over the last few decades research has been bolstering the idea of the “whole athlete,” with training in a variety of sports rather than an exhaustive focus on just one. It’s an injury-prevention technique embraced by Cirque du Soleil, which has its acrobats learn all the parts in a given performance. Athletic superstars have also adopted this approach, playing sports in the off season that are quite different from the ones that make them famous.

Mr. Sung, meanwhile, has made a full recovery. Now 29, he has used therapy to learn new ways to move and protect his knees from further injury. When not on a skateboard, he is a gym teacher at Windsor School in Winnipeg, so he integrates physical literacy into his lessons to protect his students from injury as well.

On a recent Tuesday he set up plastic bowling pins in the gym and taught his youngest students – kindergarten through Grade 2 – how to roll a soft foam ball. Many had learned through birthday parties at the bowling alley to take a wide stance and swing the ball between their legs with both arms. Mr. Sung walked them through the long strides of a proper swing, and turned the skill into a game of tag, where students rolled the foam ball at each others’ feet.

The game was a huge hit – and the skills it reinforces will serve his students well later in life.

“It’s the simplest activity and they really love it,” Mr. Sung says. “It’s really easy to integrate this stuff in the early years.”

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