Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Training Youth Athletes: The Essentials

I work with a lot of youth athletes throughout my day, and the field of youth training has become a major field and becoming more and more popular.  In fact, over 4 Billion dollars are spent each year on youth training and athletics. That's a lot of money being spent on the development, fitness, and training of youngsters. 

While there are many people, organizations, and groups doing great work in advancing and progressing this field, there still remains a great percentage of youth being poorly trained and coached. 

We can all objectively look at youth athletes and say they are not adults, but we see trainers training them like adults anyway. A youth athlete needs to be trained, progressed, and treated differently from advanced and mature athletes. There are basics and principles that apply to both populations, but the routines, intensities, and methodologies differ.

Let's look at some essential components that need to be in place for the best possible environment for youth development.

Training sessions with youth athletes is not going to look the same as training for mature competitive athletes. You need to understand that the structure needs to be altered in ways to cater to the uniqueness of youngsters. 
Hard-nosed, tough, intensive training doesn't work well with youngsters, they thrive on variety and fun. Finding ways to make training a by-product of playing and having fun makes the kids feel more involved, motivated, and captivated to your training. 
Kids need to play, it's as easy as that.  David Elkind, the author of The Power of Play says “Children are self-directed learners — they are naturally curious — and how they learn is through play."
Children learn through playing, through active exploration that feeds their imagination, not by always having others organize the world for them,” says Susan Linn, a psychologist at the Judge Baker Children’s Center and Harvard Medical School and the author of The Case for Make Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World
Play is a natural thing for all mammals, and no different for youngsters. During play, kids get the opportunity to use imagination, be creative, explore their physical and environmental boundaries.

To build a positive self-image structure so the kids have a string of success. Nothing builds confidence and deepens intrinsic motivation like small successes over time.

Just as with coaching, you need a training philosophy to guide you on your training path. Working with youth athletes requires having a little bit of a different philosophy than if you were training a high school, college, or professional athlete. You need to understand the different emotional, mental, and physical differences in youngsters. Understand they are at the very beginning of their exercise life, and their needs to be specific goals and guidelines to give them the best experience possible. 

This goes hand in hand with play, and it's simple, youth athletes need to have fun. 
They are kids, they don't have the attention span, mental or emotional state to be dedicated in serious, focused training. They can handle some sort durations of that, but for the most part you need to find ways to make your training fun. There are so many different ways to “hide” training into fun games and activities. 
The first question you should always ask when programming – Is this fun? The more fun you can make your training the more connected, motivated, and enthusiastic your kids will be to train.

DO NOT allow for the execution of poor form. If there is one area to be a stickler, this is it. At this young age it is essential to implement correct movement patterns and techniques. This will not only set them up for the long-term, but it will also reduce their risks of injury.

Moving incorrectly increases risk of injury and develops/reinforces faulty mechanics that might not be exposed right away, but during more complex movements and higher intensities it will rear it's ugly head.

The movements and techniques you teach in practice will be the same movements and techniques that athletes will use during competition or in a state of stress. Kelly Starrett likes to say – Practice Make Permanent! Make sure what your cementing and making permanent in your athletes is something you can stand behind and be confident in.

So overall you need to ensure they are in correct positions and performing the exercises to a high standard. Don't worry about adding weight or resistance, worry about the basic techniques and positions and hammer away how important it is.  

Training youth athletes is about the long-term NOT the short-term. 
We need to stop chasing increased vertical jumps or other testing numbers. Youngsters are in such a prime phase of growth and development that biomotor improvements occur naturally. 
Muscle growth is naturally taking place, hormones are often at peaks, youngsters get faster, stronger and more powerful all by themselves. Your goals should be to set-up your athletes for the long run. 
You do this by teaching the fundamentals in a fun and exciting manner. Your program should develop knowledge, motivation, and skills to engage in lifelong physical activities. The goal should be to created life-long athletes; give them the tools to continue with fitness because you showed them how enjoyable it can be. If a kid has a bad experience at the youth level, it will highly discourage them from fitness for the rest of their lives. So don't think you're forming professional athletes; you're forming the basics and fundamentals of exercise in a fun and engaging manner that will encourage the kids to continue to love fitness. 


Your communication needs to be clear, concise, and easy to understand.  As a performance coach, we all love to use fancy anatomical or biomechanical terms, but when working with youngsters, this often is not the best way.
Remember there are a number of different types of learners, and you're communication needs to address these different types.  You may have a couple of visual learners, some other auditory learners, a few kinesthetic learners, and finally some critical learners.  Know each type of kids thrives with different types of communication, and you need to pick up on that type and adapt it for each individual athlete.
When teaching an exercise use this progression
  1. Name the exercise. Use one name and stick with it throughout the lesson.
  2. Explain the exercise. Use simple terms to describe the exercise and tell the participants how the exercise can benefit them.
  3. Show the exercise. Demonstrate the exercise several times and from different angles so that all participants can see a full picture of proper execution.
  4. Perform the exercise. Ask the participants to perform the exercise and offer positive, constructive feedback on proper body position and technique.
  5. Observe the exercise. Walk around the exercise room and watch the kids strength training. Look for specific skills and ask participants to assess themselves and their peers.
  6. Discuss. At the end of the session, encourage kids to honestly talk about their perceptions of the day’s activities. This information will help you plan the next session.

This makes sure you hit all the different types of learners, and ensures your communication is effective. 
Secondly, remember youngsters need more positive reinforcement, and need to feel like they are making progress. Now this doesn't mean you have to sugar coat everything. No, you still need to be honest and strive for the behavior and exercise technique you want. Kids can see right through fake complements; give real, honest, positive feedback and they will respond positively.

You should be giving between 6-10 positive comments to every 1 negative comment.  A great tool to use is something called the sandwich technique.  This technique involves surrounding your negative feedback or coaching adjustment between two positive statements. 
For example you have a baseball athlete that is making errant throws because they aren't getting their lead leg pointed at their target.

A poor coach might tell the kid, “Come on, hit your target, stop making that mistake”.
Instead sandwich your desired technique and behavior change between two positive reinforcements. 
So a good coach would say, “Johnny, you're doing a great job getting your body into position to field the ball, but remember to point your lead leg at your target so you can make an accurate throw. I really like your effort and how well you're getting into proper fielding position.” 
Note the difference, and how you would feel if you were the kid. You understand the coaching point and you received a specific coaching point instead of something general. The athlete won't feel like everything is negative, they received positive reinforcement and will want to continue to receive that positive feedback. 

Famous UCLA basketball coach, Jon Wooden, used this same sandwich technique in a different form. He called it – Do this, Not That, Do This. He showed or described the desired technique, then a common mistake to be aware of, and finally again showing or describing the desired technique.   

Finally encourage your athletes to make errors and feel free to explore and be creative in the training environment. Make it clear it's ok to make mistakes, just make those mistakes while giving full effort.  Making errors can enhance the learning process and give kids the opportunity to learn and grow from their mistakes. It leads to feelings of progress and self-efficacy, which in turn leads to greater and deeper involvement.  You can control this feeling by how you respond to mistake.  Do you convey the message that it's ok to make mistakes and then make adjustments?  Or do you yell and punish for mistakes?
I believe that training young, developing athletes is one of the most important jobs there is.  As a coach, you can effect so many different factors of that kids development, from cognitive, emotional, and physical.  Ensuring these essentials can go a long ways in having a posiitive effect on your youth athletes, and giving them the best opportunity for growth.
Go Get 'Em!

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