While it’s true that you may research conditioning-based articles because you want to read about training techniques, strategies and exercises, I can’t help but point out to you that your ability as a coach is as much dependant on your interpersonal skills as it is on your ability in the biomotor sciences.
Sport psychology gets a fascinating amount of exposure in our industry: how to best motivate athletes? Challenge their innate senses of pride? Draw out their inner champions? etc. That stuff is great when you have a receptive athlete who not only wants to hear what you have to say on that level but also understands how to respond.
However, with kids, the magic bullet doesn’t exist. To me, the crux and primary issue of working with young athletes lies in the pedagogical science as much as it does in the training application... maybe more.
Developing relationships with your young athletes is the most powerful thing you can do in the task of helping them create their sporting potential or adhering to a lifetime of physical activity.
It’s not about "beating the drum" through vocal inspiration with all kids. One of the biggest shortcomings I have seen with many coaches and trainers is that they play the "vocal motivation coach" routine with every athlete they encounter. It’s simply not prudent. The same way that not all exercise selection, arrangement or load is a one size fits all equation, the same can be said about the interpersonal relationship building sequence called coaching.
The following categories of athletes illustrate what I mean.
A. The athlete has low motivation and skill.
You know this athlete. Shy, quiet and lacking both confidence and ability (one likely begets the other). This is not the kid who is going to respond to a "rah, rah - go get ‘em" style of coaching!
In my experience, I qualify the coaching style needed in this situation as "direct." Certainly, you should take the time to make this young person feel comfortable in your group training setting. More often than not, I do this by speaking very quietly and directly to him once I have sent the other athletes on a task. Kids like this typically don’t enjoy being "spoken to" or "singled out" in front of everyone. That’s why I call this coaching style direct. Direct your questions, suggestions and tasks to this youngster personally so he does not feel "on display" in front of the group.
B. The athlete has low motivation but high skill.
Here’s where the "rah, rah" coach can be effective. The kid is good; she shows great skills and demonstrates wonderful technical ability. I have coached many athletes like this, and very often, their motivation is lost due to the fact that they lack challenge. Things may have come very easily to this particular athlete, and she just never felt challenged. The coaching system to use here I call "inspire."
In a positive and uplifting manner, challenge this young athlete to achieve more. Alter her set/rep/sequence design by adding an exercise or increasing the difficulty of the sequence. However, be wary of the young athlete who is talented but lacks motivation because she simply has no interest in this sport anymore. I have also come across that scenario many times. A promising, talented kid gets "bullied" into sports by her parents. That’s where the interpersonal skill of coaching is key. You have to know whether or not you are "inspiring" a young athlete who is just looking for a challenge or one is looking for a way out of sports!
C. The athlete has high motivation and skill.
In this scenario, you'll want to "delegate." I have seen so many coaches and trainers try to corral athletes made up of these traits, almost like they want to take credit for the child’s abilities. Sheltering kids like this and imposing your will and ideas on them is just not prudent. Kids like this need to be part of the decision cycle. Demonstrate and explain exercise selection to them. Work at perfecting technical proficiency. Have them understand the goals associated with programming and then include them in creation development.
Kids are smart people. While some need to be "directed," others can and should be part of the coaching process. Talk to kids like this and get their feedback. Empower them to comprehend matters of technique and exercise progression, and then encourage them to work with you on program design.
Now, before the emails pour in questioning me on this, the goal of coaching is to get ALL of your young athletes into this category. That is the science and art that I call athletic development. The shy and quiet kid who lacks motivation and skill needs you to artfully find a way to get him to this point. Likewise, the young athlete who has loads of skill but lacks motivation also needs you to artfully find a way to get her to this point.
D. The athlete has high motivation but low skill.
Your job here is to "guide." They want to do it. They work hard at getting better. They really desire to improve. Guide them. Work hard with them on technical skills. Match their eager dispositions with an equally energetic coaching style dedicated to helping them learning and improve their skill level.
Coaching is a beautiful art that you must strive to become better at. Far too often in this industry, we look at the scientific parts of conditioning only. With kids, that’s simply not enough. So... how does this ART of coaching apply?
Points to Consider
This is not only common but almost impossible to avoid. Whenever you bring two or more young athletes together, you are bound to see more than one personality type (and therefore, you'll need to employ more than one coaching style).
When coaching a group of two or more athletes, restrict the tendency to have each of the athletes performing the same drill at the same time. For example, during a standard warm up, my athletes will do some basic ROM activities (typically through the hips and shoulders) and then proceed on to technique skills instruction. Let’s say you have a group of four athletes. As opposed to each of them performing a hip circuit at the same time and then moving on to the next ROM activity, create four different exercises and segment them in such a way so that each athlete is performing a separate drill. To the casual reader, that may sound like a chaotic mess!! In actuality, it allows for a much simpler training session. Two important features missing from many basic training sessions are an individualized approach and ample explanation time.
Here’s the Scenario
- Athlete 1 (low motivation and skill) - Method of coaching: direct
- Athlete 2 (low motivation and high skill) - Method of coaching: inspire
- Athlete 3 (high motivation and skill) - Method of coaching: delegate
- Athlete 4 (high motivation and low skill) - Method of coaching: guide
- Hip Circuits - two sets/leg, three reps/exercise
- Prone Bridge with Leg Lift - three sets, five reps/leg
- Shoulder Circuit - three sets, four reps/exercise
- Hurdle Walk-Over - three sets, 10 hurdles
Sequence and Flow
First off, bring the whole group together and explain what the task of the day will be. Address each participant individually by name and welcome them. Explain what the training session will look like and encourage verbal and non-verbal compliance.
I have long maintained that every development program must begin with an introductory or assimilation phase for the young athlete. The bulk of your basic teaching should fall into this category. The teaching component at the beginning of each training session should be reminder based or build off of previously taught skills.
Take five to seven minutes to teach each of the four warm-up drills. Explain why the athletes will be performing these drills and why they are important (and yes, do this with even young pre-adolescents. You are building a long term approach to their development and need to invest the time to acquaint them with your system. Even young kids are "teachable" given the proper application of stimulus).
Once the teaching time is done, assign them each to an exercise. Now, you have the time to flow and work with each of them individually on correct body alignment, movement habits and exercise adherence. Because they are all doing different things, you can apply the proper style of coaching to each individual.
- Athlete 1 (direct) - Hip Circuit
- Athlete 2 (inspire) - Prone Bridges
- Athlete 3 (delegate) - Shoulder Circuit
- Athlete 4 (guide) - Hurdle Walk-Overs
- Athlete 1 - Get down to his level (which would be on your knees given the "Hip Circuit") and quietly let him know what a good job he is doing. Ask him if he has any questions about what he is doing. Chances are, if he did have questions, he would not have asked them when the entire group was together. The key here is the tone of your voice - be patient, relaxed and easy going.
- Athlete 2 - Examples of things to say include, "Seriously Jenny, that is even better than last week! or "You're making this look easy. Let me show you a more challenging method because I know you can do it!" Remember, she has low motivation but high skill. Encouraging and challenging are good methods to employ.
- Athlete 3 - Ask him what he thinks. "How’s it feel, Tommy?" or "You feeling good with that today or you want to switch it up a little? What do you think we could add to it?" Delegate some of the responsibilities of his training to him and help him make it work. Empower him to seek out and create new ideas.
- Athlete 4 - Verbally reward her effort and work to make her understand the movement better. "That looks great, Sally! Now, you see how your left leg is pointing out to the left when you go over the hurdle? How can we fix that?"
This flow and sequence of coaching can be taken through the entire workout, even through your movement and strength skill portions. Just create and segment the exercises, include a teaching component preceding each portion, and apply the appropriate style of coaching to each individual athlete.
Keeping these coaching principals in mind, how do you ensure technical development in your young athletes?
Where to Start
A young athlete's initial exposure to a new technique is critical. It must be presented in such a way that creates intrigue and excitement within the athlete but does not overexpose him or her to too much information or stimulus all at once. There is a fine line between teaching what is appropriate and can be retained versus what amounts to too much exposure of a given task and its progressions.
Too much exposure in the beginning of a training program is counterproductive to an optimal ending. Children can easily become overwhelmed by trainers, coaches and parents when they are taught complex technical skills in one training session or short period of time. The most critical problem in the youth training and sport industry is the overzealousness perpetuated by many trainers and coaches (and facilitate by many parents) in terms of gaining skill in a given technical exercise. We must create visionary based teaching methods that are scripted and systematically progressive and work towards instilling a lifelong adherence to a particular skill or exercise. Our culture is based on a gratification system - we strive to see results now even if the act of trying to create results in the short term proves to be contradictory to the science of motor development and blatantly less beneficial than a more holistic and long term approach.
The following list is a few suggestions to remember when creating an initial lesson plan to teach a new technical exercise:
Speed, Agility, Strength and Sport Skill
Be wary of the current state of fitness your athletes possess. We often look to "run" our young athletes through new technical exercises without being conscious of how tired they may be getting. This is a common mistake I see all the time - when the CNS becomes fatigued, attention to technical merit is reduced. It becomes impossible to learn and retain a skill set under the duress of fatigue. Remember that technical development in terms of speed mechanics, agility, strength or a specific sporting skill is a process of systematic acquisition. This acquisition begins with a foundational introduction and is then progressed more specifically to adherence on a very functional level, which includes increases in speed and external environmental considerations such as opponents and teammates.
Young athletes who are bored or too excited will not gain ability in a new technical skill on an optimal level. This is where your ability as a coach becomes important as does your capacity for creating well designed lesson plans. When the lesson plan is created with the physical skill and emotional temperament of the athlete in mind, it will have a "just right" feel to it. For example, young athletes who lack motivation and skill will not respond to being put on display in front of their fellow athletes, nor will they adhere to a skill that is presented too quickly or involving too many progressions. You want each of your young athletes to walk away from your training session perfectly comfortable and happy with what they just learned.
YOUR Physical Ability
Young athletes learn in a variety of manners. One of them is visual. Being able to properly demonstrate an exercise or skill is often crucial to a given athletes ability to comprehend and reproduce that skill. However, the key to this demonstration is the "relating factor" it has on your athletes. Far too often, trainers and coaches will demonstrate a skill in a way that their young athletes can’t relate (i.e., too fast). In one case I have seen, the trainer actually enjoyed performing skills at an increased rate as a means of "showing off" to the athletes he was coaching. Nothing positive is gained from this. Your athletes may admire you, but you have not shown them anything of value with respect to their skill development. In whole-part-whole methods of teaching, you certainly want to show what the skill looks like at high speed and with a flawless technical ability, but then you must break the skill down to its finer points and begin teaching from the foundation.
- Take a piece of paper and write out where you want your athlete(s) to be in one, two or 12 months. For example, techniques they should possess, poundages they should be lifting or sporting skills they should have acquired.
- After that, write out how many training sessions or practices you have with your athlete(s) over the next few weeks and begin creating a lesson plan for each session. In order for you to take your athlete(s) to X, what steps and skills must be taken now?
- Create your lesson plans based on a progressive system of development and in keeping with the items listed in this article.