How do you keep athletes motivated and entertained? Simple. Toys and games. Olympian Gail Emms shares some of her favourite skill acquisition toys for budding sports stars.
Athletes are big kids. We love the fact that we can live in a Peter Pan world and suppress growing up by doing sport for a living. But training day in, day out can get tiresome and boring.
Athletes are competitive by nature so when I was training all the coach had to do was bring out one new and interesting gadget or toy and that was it – we all wanted to have a go and we all wanted to beat each other at Ultimate Frisbee or Dodgeball.
There was method to the madness of course. The coaches were giving us the tools to learn for ourselves, gain skills and get better at speed and accuracy by proxy.
The overriding idea is skill acquisition: allowing athletes to learn new skills, adapt and work out improvements.
Skill acquisition is taught right from birth. As parents we buy toys for our children to fine-tune motor skills. But the key to getting to the final stage where the skills become ingrained and automatic, requires the child being able to do this away from the parent or coach who has been teaching them.
If you give people the tools to allow feedback, they can then self adjust.
There is more and more pressure from coaches and national governing bodies on children to perform to their highest ability at a young age.
Sharron Davies, Olympic silver medallist in swimming set up Parents 4 Sport to help parents with sporty kids. It’s full of advice on nutrition, funding and managing time commitments – her own daughter Grace is a promising athlete.
Sharron says: “Constructive physical play is so important these days. Young boys in particular are bombarded with electric gadgets and it’s easy parenting to leave them to it. But if we want fit, coordinated children, making sure they do enough sport-based activity is imperative to their healthy development.”
I’ve chosen toys below that were part of my training as a professional athlete.
I do believe that if you have a child that likes sport and is looking to improve, these can help with the skill acquisition. You don’t have to be a coach, just be on hand to help. And if you are a competitive family everyone can have a go.
My 5 year old son Harry loves playing with this! At first it looks like a small climbing net, but throw a ball at it and you’ll see how it works. The ball can rebound at any angle making this a great game to play in the garden as well as practicing goalkeeping skills, cricket catches and general hand-eye coordination. As an athlete, this was a great warm-up tool to get the reactions going as well as getting the feet moving to catch those balls.
- Supido Speed Radar, £65.99
Who can hit it the hardest? This is a great device that can be carried around and used to hone many different sports skills. Harry takes this to his football sessions to see how hard his shot is, but it can be used across most ball sports. Great for measuring smashes in badminton – I have managed a 151mph but the world record smash stands at 226mph!
There will be times when friends are not around to play with or training isn’t on. I used to hit a shuttle on a brick wall to practice my backhand and defence growing up. Encourage children to go into the garden and practice on their own without friends and teammates to develop maturity in their sport. This is a great piece of equipment that can help ball control, improve reaction times with passing and retrieving the ball and can even help with goalie work and throw-ins. And the ball always comes back…
- Zepp Tennis Swing Analyzer, £80.99
This one is for children (and parents) who understand their ability and their sport well. It does appear that golfers, for instance, are getting younger these days and tools like this can help identify problems with the swing early on. As an athlete, I was aware of how to hit a shot but sometimes watching myself back on video and looking for ways to improve helped when I couldn’t work it out on court. Upload to your smartphone or tablet and watch back – you can even compare yourself to a professional.
- Kickster Academy Ultra Portable Football Goal, from £37.99
I was very good at getting a shuttle over the net and in the court, but so were lots of other badminton players. To get to the next level, I needed my shots to be accurate and precise: to be able to hit these shots from wherever and whenever I wanted. Target practices like this in football helps children think about where they are aiming rather than just kicking it as hard as they can. It can be a great motivator when targets = points = prizes.
Gail Emms MBE is a former badminton player. She won Olympic silver medal in Athens 2004 as well as World, European and Commonwealth titles. She has two boys, Harry, 5, and Oliver, 2. She lives in Milton Keynes and combines motherhood with media work, mentoring and promoting healthy active lifestyles for children and families. Follow Gail on Twitter