Coaching Youth Athletes 101

Anyone who has ever worked with children will tell you that it can be either the most rewarding experience of your life or it can make you want to beat your head against a wall until Miley Cyrus’ music no longer sounds horrible. I find that the factors that determine the outcome of your experience will  depend largely upon the approach you take. What is unfortunate is that most individuals that end up coachingyounger athletes tend to be volunteers or parents -who care and are enthusiastic to help- but with little knowledge or experience in performance or athletic development. Because of this, they are often limited in knowing what to do with the athletes aside from what they were put through when they played.

Though their intentions always mean well, it’s not uncommon for these coaches to get lost in competition and lose sight of the true purpose of youth sports. From this, issues such as early-sport specialization arise and rob the athletes of what they really need: HUMAN DEVELOPMENT.

Notice that I said human and not athletic development. The reason for this is because we do not necessarily know what each child will go onto do with their lives, but we can safely bet that they will be humans. Sports teach individuals multiple lessons and skills that transcend the athletic realm and carryover into everyday life situations. By focusing solely on how much faster you can make your 9 year-old team limits how much you can truly help them.

Many coaches may be asking what they should be doing with their youth athletes if they aren’t focusing on making them better at their particular sport. You should be making them better at their sport, but you should be doing it with the bigger picture in mind. It’s for that reason that I’ve compiled this list of rules to help you do the best for your athletes.

*I'd like to use this sidebar and define a youth athlete as 13 and under. Obviously each age will need to be handled in its own way due to maturity, but the reason I associate it with this number is because that is the average age of which puberty hits and their physiology begins to change.

 1. Do No Harm

Seems simple, right? Wrong. The thing about sports performance and human development is that most harm done is typically caused by ignorance, and because of that, is seldom realized by the conflicting party. This means that a coach with the best of intentions, may not realize that what they’re doing may actually have negative effects in the long run. It’s for that reason, that most of the other rules that I will be laying out all come back to this one simple, golden rule: Do no harm!

2. Make It Fun

The secret to keep participation and enthusiasm high will always be to keep it fun for the kids. This is why our main priority for our youth athletes at SAPT is always to make it enjoyable for them. The second that a child loses interest in an activity or exercise, you can kiss goodbye the idea of them taking direction or cues effectively. Not only will they be harder to work with, but they won’t receive the full benefit of the drills due to their passive participation.

It’s also important to note that if a child can learn to enjoy sports and exercise at a young age, it goes a looooooong way in their life. Therefore, it's imperative in order to maintain an effective program going, keep the drills fun, keep your enthusiasm high, and remember that the occasional joke and fist-bump go a long way.

3. Focus On The Children, Not The Outcome

I like to think that everyone associated with youth sports is mature enough to know that winning isn’t everything. But, the video below suggests otherwise. This in my mind is a perfect example of a man breaking rule number one.

As Sigmund Freud has taught us, events and feelings that we experience in our childhood severely affect who we become. If a child is reprimanded in such an intense way as shown in the video, there will clearly be some negative feelings. The last thing we want to do as a coach is to be the source of these negative emotions or experiences associated with physical activity. This has the potential to cause the kid to no longer want to participate and can leave an impact on their self-confidence. And that is exactly what a country battling an obesity crisis needs: more individuals who grow up with ill feelings toward exercise *insert sarcastic tone here*

Focusing so much on the outcome can start to create a fear of losing amongst the athletes. This can start to overshadow any yearning for improvement and subtly inhibit their ability to take risks, which is necessary for them to learn from their actions. A good coach should instead focus more of their efforts on empowering their youth athletes and leave any emotions of frustration on the bench. If a player misses a shot, yelling at them will do nothing. Instead, the coach should give constructive advice for next time, wrap up with a small fist bump, and take note what to work on more at practice.

 4. Know What the Youth Athlete Needs

It’s not uncommon for me to be asked, “how can I get my 9 year old stronger and faster?” My answer is always: Let them play and move more. The reason for this is because children have different aspects to their physiology, morphology and adaptability as compared to adults. Many of their systems are still learning how to react to different challenges and situations within regards to motor control. For this reason, careful thought must be given to drills/exercises, when to give them and the amount of volume to give them in. Young athletes that participate in too specific of drills are often being limited in overall athletic performance.

The main systems of movement that I find large deficits within youth populations are often as follows: proprioception, the vestibular system, and cross-body coordination.

Proprioception is synonymous for body-awareness. We can all think of younger athletes that we know that move as if they're a new born giraffe. It's often not so much an issue of strength, but an issue of internal awareness that throws off their abilities. Traditional sport drills often consist of high-speed cone and ladder work or even skill-specific work. Do it all you want, until that kid learns where he's at in space, it's just going to turn poop into slightly faster poop. Drills that provide external feedback as to where the athlete is at in space are going to be your best bet. So controlled ground work such as rolling, tumbling and crawling work wonders for making an athlete more cognizant of where their limbs are.

The vestibular system works hand in hand with the body's mechanoceptors to help maintain balance. Often times issues within the vestibular system will show similarly to poor body awareness. The cochlea, a deep, inner ear organ acts as a gyroscope to help determine which way is up and syncs this information with the body's proprioceptive feedback to help determine how to maintain balance. If an athlete has poor balance, they're going to have poor weight shift patterns. If they can't shift their weight effectively, they can't accelerate or decelerate effectively. So thus, once again, sport-specific agility drills will be hard pressed for improvement. There are a variety of ways to challenge the vestibular system, my favorite once again is rolling as it can help to recalibrate the cochlea. Single leg drills, tumbling and up & go drills can also be helpful.

Cross-body coordination can also be a major hole within an athlete's movement vocabulary. So much of day-to-day life consists of movements within the sagital plane that it's no wonder that they can't integrate multi-planar movements amongst body parts. A cross-body movement is going to force contralateral limbs to coordinate and respond accordingly to the rest of the body. Anyone that has taught single leg cone hop drills, karaokas, or even A-skips understands just how hard it can be to get some athletes to sync their arm and leg swings accordingly. It's actually EXTREMELY IMPORTANT that we facilitate these types of movements within their extra-curricular activities. The reason for this is that coordinating the contralateral movements forces stimulation of the corpus callosum, an area of the brain that is responsible for communication between the left and right hemispheres. It also functions to maintain a balance of arousal/attention, tactile localization, and is active in certain eye movements. Needless to say, it's very important in athletics and should be constantly addressed. Any movement that forces focus on opposing limb coordination is great, but my favorite drill to fire up the corpus callosum is a SUPER SLOW cross crawl. It forces them to focus on the movement and the single leg element challenges their vestibular system. If needed, you can even have them do it supine.

A really cool point that I think I should make is that if you ever watch a child play, they are already working on these attributes. They roll down hills(vestibular), they climb trees(tension/body awareness/cross-body movements), they balance on things(vestibular/body awareness), they spin around until they get dizzy(vestibular) and much more! The best part is they enjoy it! It's literally written into their genetic, developmental process. It's funny how we try to intervene and institutionalize their movements to improve them when they could actually get more benefit from natural and genuine play. That is if we can get them out from in front of the tv...

Back to making them stronger and faster, simply focusing on these three aspects will improve almost any kids performance. Tension and ground based drills to help give body awareness, vestibular drills to utilize the body awareness and balance, and cross crawl movements to put it all together to locomotion, will significantly improve their movement and recruitment patterns. It's important to remember that at this age, it's very hard to actually increase fiber unit contractile properties. Meaning they're not going to get big guns or really develop the fast twitch fibers the way teenagers or adults can. What they can improve is the amount of motor unit recruitment within certain movements. So just by practicing quality movements with decent force production will get them better at recruiting more muscles within that movement so long as their body awareness, vestibular system and coordination are not holding them back. So a combination of GPP/natural play and sport practice should be fully sufficient to improving athletic development so long as they are kept in the correct ratios. Let them play and move more.

5. Know Their Limits

I'm going to start with this: YOUTH ATHLETES SHOULD NOT BE FORCED TO FATIGUE. Sadly, I see many coaches, instructors and even P.E. teachers missing the point of youth physical activity and just running kids into the ground. Having kids work up a sweat and burn calories isn't a bad thing, but putting on a P90x or Insanity video for gym class or practice is just plain negligent. Everyone that has dealt with kids knows that they like to move. Whatever program you run, if there's a game to be played, they will go all out and the sweat will be rolling. Making kids run for the sake of running or doing stupid, "workouts" violates rule #2 and can push into breaking rule #5.

Due to their smaller stroke volume and their noted inefficient ventilation, a child's heart rate will increase more quickly and stay higher as when compared to adults. Add this to the fact that their systems have a harder time regulating the core body temperature and therefore become more readily dehydrated, you have a pretty easy formula for fatigue. Even though children do bounce back and recover quickly, keep in mind the negative effects that fatigue has on skill and movement acquisition. At their young age, almost every movement is a skill, be it jumping, landing, running etc. Being purposely and constantly pushed to fatigue is going to create compensations and inefficiencies in the movements which can carry on into their future athletic endeavors(like when they actually should be competitive). It also runs the chance of mentally fatiguing them and burning them out, which again is not what they need.

Now don't get me wrong, I believe that our children should be fit and I understand that it is possible to create positive aerobic training adaptation amongst youth populations. The point that I'm trying to make is that this shouldn't be a priority for a youth coach. Make them run, drill and play games, even throw in a line touch or two. Just keep the quality skill acquisition objective number one and remember that they will take care of their own conditioning if you engage them right.

Lastly a Note For The Parents

I want to end this article with a note and some charts to any parents in the crowd about the importance of sport diversity. We've already written several articles on early sport specialization and even the Washington Post is catching on, but it's still an issue that we continue to run into and honestly, it's hurting your kids' chances of getting that future scholarship. Many sport coaches will tell you that your children have to train year-round to make it in their sport, but the research says opposite.

Above is the youth training pyramid from the NSCA. It's literally an association devoted entirely to optimizing athletic performance. I think they know what they're talking about when they say multi-lateral development(multiple sports and skills) is the foundation for high performance. The wider the base you make for your child, the higher the peak can be. Having your kid do the same movements over and over again throughout the year(I'm looking at you swimmers!!!) is only limiting their true potential. Take it from someone who teaches movement to athletes for a living, the multi-sport athletes are healthier and learn/progress MUCH faster than the kids who do the same thing throughout the year. Think about it and take an outside look at your child's activities.