How to ‘Cook Young Athletes Slow’
A few weeks ago, I spoke with legendary Strength Coach, Joe Kenn, about this very issue. Coach Kenn is as qualified, respected and ‘in-the-trenches’ smart as they come. He’s served for more than 20 years as a premier Strength Coach in U.S.-based Colleges and has worked with a litany of past and current stars from a variety of sports. During our conversation, he offered this advice to parents, coaches and fitness professionals when working with young athletes, “Cook ‘Em Slow”.
Although a rather funny way of saying it, Coach Kenn’s point cannot be ignored. Training young athletes isn’t about focusing on making them better right now as their biomotors will increase naturally when proper skill-based teaching is applied. What’s critical is to not char them in the process of making them better. Don’t ‘fry them’ on a high temperature. Don’t ‘barbeque’ them until they are crispy. Don’t try to ‘grill’ them to a golden brown. Instead, think of training young athletes as heaping them in a crock pot with a bunch of other savory ingredients and then setting the temperature on a low gauge. Let the flavors meld and the ingredients come together in their time. By the end, you’ll have a mouth-watering dish that contains flavors and layers of ‘yummy’ that you can’t get through any of the ‘quick cook’ methods.
The Ingredients Young Athletes Need
Sometimes, it’s beneficial to be given sample programs of what to do with young athletes in certain situations. Other times, it’s better to understand a philosophy of training. I have found that appreciating the concept of what to do with young athletes is tremendously more important than the former. With young athletes, knowing the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’ is terribly important. Moreover, understanding the universal laws of development that govern all human growth – and how they are applied to programming for young athletes – will allow you to create specific programs that are compatible with your given situation.
Sample programs allow you to see a system and implement it, but without necessarily understanding why it’s been created that way. It’s akin to being given a fish versus being taught how to fish. One allows you to be satiated for a day or week, while the other allows you to keep yourself satiated indefinitely.
When working with young athletes the acronym M.O.L.D provides a perfect backdrop for understanding what, specifically, are the musts of training this particular demographic.
- Open to Communication Variances
- Don't Train
For Young Athletes, Movement Must Dominate
‘M’ stands for one of the most important tenants governing young athlete training – Movement Must Dominate.
Although this seems like an absolute ‘no-brain’ reality, I am constantly amazed how many times it is breached within the fitness and sport training world with respect to young athletes. Kids and teenagers don’t belong sitting on strength training machines producing force. And they certainly have no business performing ‘cardio’ on static pieces of machinery, either. This is true for so many reasons.
Watch a young person in their natural environment. They move. Constantly. This desire to play, run, skip, hop, throw things and climb is not a product of ‘ants-in-the-pants’ or any other form of contemporary ‘illness’ as defined by modern society (ADD for example). The neurology of human growth and development shows that during the young periods of life, the CNS is in constant ‘gathering’ mode. As young people, we are constantly learning. Our bodies, governed by our CNS, are wired to explore movements, environments and situations. Kids don’t mean to ‘get into things’ – they are instructed to by an ever-changing, always-learning CNS that requires continual input. Not only should this reality be honored and respected, it MUST be enhanced within the training systems of young athletes.
If your training program for young athletes involves moving and producing force through an unregulated and free manner, then you are most assuredly on the right track. Run, jump, throw, kick, hop, skip…that kind of movement will propel young athletes and kids.
With Young Athletes, You Must Communicate
The second letter in our acronym, ‘O’, stands for Open to Communication Variances.
The ‘Lombardi-style’ coaching system doesn’t work. You can’t just bark orders and think that every young athlete will listen. With coaching, one-size DOES NOT fit all. Just like physical ability, size, relative strength and potential, the way a young athlete needs to be communicated with is specific to that child or teen.
Now, I’m no fool. I’ve spent nearly 15 years in the trenches and know full well that when you have a group of kids (say twenty 6-year olds) getting to know them and providing individual attention to them is a challenge. That doesn’t mean individualized communication isn’t possible, though. It just takes a system.
I have found that every one of the young athletes I’ve trained fits somewhere into the following categories:
- High Motivation/High Skill
- High Motivation/Low Skill
- Low Motivation/High Skill
- Low Motivation/Low Skill
A brief overview of the template that shows how to communicate with each of these young athletes follows:
Look to get the young athlete involved in the training and planning process. Have them lead warm-ups for the group but within the boundaries of your system. If they are older, have them help you co-coach your younger groups. Keeping this young athlete engaged is a critical part of keeping them excited about the training process and providing a perfect communication scenario.
This young athlete doesn’t require more motivation – they need to enhance their skill. Rather than trying to excite them positively (because they’re already excited!) slow them down and guide them through the process of increasing skill slowly. Breakdown complex exercises into specific steps and teach them in a whole-part-whole method. Communication will be automatically improved.
This young athlete is great at everything but lacks the necessary motivation to produce consistent effort (likely due to pressure from other coaches or parents). Don’t ‘ride’ them or even ask them to work harder – they will tune you out quicker than you can say TRX! Instead, talk with them about what inspires them. What gets them excited? We all have a switch on the inside that can turn on when the situation is a quality and inspiring one for us. Find where their switch is and help them turn it on.
Don’t put this young athlete on the spot – even in a positive manner. They crave autonomy and the ability to just ‘blend in’. So give it to them. Provide instructions for the group at large and then quietly be sure that they know what is expected of them in the up-coming exercise or drill. Once they realize that your communication with them will be non-threatening, they will deem your training environment a ‘safe’ one and start to open up. That’s where the fun will start!
Young Athletes and Learning
‘L’ brings us to learning. Just like with ‘O’, it is important to understand that young athletes learn in different ways and at varying speeds. Here's one quick and easy rule of thumb:
- Explain the exercise.
- Demonstrate it.
- Explain it again.
- And then ask them to explain it to you.
This equates to a ‘Tell, Show, Tell, Converse’ method of teaching and dramatically accelerates the learning process. It also provides a divergent way of instruction so that all the young athletes in your group can learn in the manner that best suits them.
DON’T Train Young Athletes
Sounds funny doesn’t it? Don’t train young athletes. But it brings us back full circle to where we started…‘Cook ‘Em Slow’.
The most important thing to remember is that your job is not to make young athletes better – it’s to enhance their skill. When quality skill exists, it can be built upon to introduce and produce even more skill over time. And just a quick word to those who may be concerned… If a Coach or Parent asks you if their young athlete will get faster or stronger with this ‘slow cook’ method of training, your answer is YES!!! Just because we aren’t focusing on enhancing the biomotors doesn’t mean they won’t improve. As I’ve mentioned already, kids get faster, stronger and more flexible automatically with skill-based training. Human growth and development has seen to that for us.
So that’s it. An easy philosophy that covers what you need to know about training young athletes. No more excuses. The training effects and increases will come. Just be sure to keep the temperature gauge locked on ‘low’!