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Coaching & Training: Coaching Young Athletes

The excitement I felt for my first coaching job was on par with a small child waiting for Christmas morning. I was 19 years old, unpaid and had to drive 50 minutes each way to get to the school. It wasn’t optimal, but I didn’t think anything of it at the time. This was my chance to start sharing what I loved.

For the five years leading up to this point, I had trained 5-7 days per week, made myself strong for a kid and read 2-3 hours per day. The word obsession would be an understatement for my relationship with training at this point of my life. The only thing stronger than my obsession with training at the time was my misunderstanding of what I was walking into on day one.

I was fortunate to be involved with a great community, some excellent kids and a solid staff of respectable men, but I had the very naïve expectation that I was going to have a room full of prepared, motivated, ready to train athletes waiting for me on day one. 

Reality was much different than my expectation. There was no program in place, only 7-8 kids were there on the first day and many of them had not done a single physical thing since the football season had ended a few months before. None of the coaches were talking about accommodating resistance, special exercises or debating training methods. When asked about the previous off-season, I was told that they did the Ohio State program, but that program was never fully specified.

I had recently emptied my bank account purchasing bands for each rack and envisioned 30 kids blasting through crisp, explosive speed squats. After this first day, reality had set in. I was living in a bubble! These kids and coaches were not like the people that I interacted with every day. They needed something else.

I continued to push through what now I consider a cringe-worthy off-season. My idea of regression to appropriate methods at the time was simply removing bands and doing 5 rep maxes instead of singles. I was young, stupid, incorrect on many levels and horribly impatient.

Twelve years later, I am very thankful to say that the current training of my young athletes does not resemble my first year in anyway as far as programming, but I’m not going to be totally self-deprecating. There was plenty that I did right, even if it was accidental or unplanned. Below is a list of things that will always be part of any program that I am responsible for. 

Have Enthusiasm

              As a young coach, I was excited to be there every day. There were plenty of nights that I couldn’t wait to wake up the next morning because it was a coaching day. This was a good thing! Even after 12 years, I still tell my wife how excited I am for what we are doing the next day in the weight room.

When you are coaching young athletes, they don’t know if what you are saying is right or wrong in most cases, but they do know if you want to be there. Stand up straight, say hello to every kid that walks in the room, ask them about their day and then actually listen to their response. If you sit in a chair and yawn while barking commands, you are not a coach, you are something else. If you behave this way, you can’t expect the kids to behave differently.

I’m not a screamer or a cheerleader, but my kids will never see me yawn or look uninterested. If it happens once, you are at risk of never being able to regain the same status with your athletes. You are their coach and that is a huge responsibility.

Have Fun

              Fun is a word that doesn’t get used too often, but training is supposed to be fun. Young kids are not athletic machines that are being built to show community domination. Most of them are there to have a good experience with their friends and then move on to the next stage of their life. The will to work and the desire to win is very important in this process, but there are plenty of ways to have fun along the way. Have team and individual competitions, set goals and compliment kids publicly when they are going above and beyond.

Have Clear Expectations

              If I am positive of anything, it is that if you set a high bar, most kids will find a way to jump over it. The road will not always be easy and they may miss often, but eventually they will get there. When coaching kids, you can never forget that they don’t know all that much about life. They only know what their family, teachers, coaches and friends tell them. What you tell them and the expectations you place on them should be clear, meaningful and easy to follow. Start with these three.

  • Show up on time.
  • Show up every day.
  • Do everything to the best of your current ability.

I never get upset with a kid because they can’t do something. Respect in the weight room, especially when working with young athletes, should be based solely on effort and consistency. This creates clear expectations that everyone can meet.

Coach what you know. Use what you have.

I had a young woman recently tell me that a coach at her high-school asked a sixteen-year-old athlete what “RDL” stands for. The young athlete told the coach that it was a Romanian Deadlift and then went on to demonstrate a high-pull with a rounded back that ended with a shrug and lumbar hyperextension. Fifteen minutes later, when addressing the team, the coach had his team work up to a 10RM max on this “RDL.” This is not good! If you don’t know it, don’t coach it.

If you want to utilize some new exercises, get a solid grasp on them first before coaching them. Go to get coaching yourself, buy books, DVD’s or attend seminars. It’s 2019, go on youtube! There are probably 5,000 high-quality RDL videos there alone. Introduce the new exercises to a very small groups or individuals first. Other than that, use exercises that are easy to coach and that you are comfortable with coaching in large groups.

Don’t lose your mind if you feel ill-equipped in a team setting. A lack of quality equipment will limit what you’re capable of, but I have had kids pack on quality muscle doing bodyweight, dumbbell and partner resisted training with towels and ropes.

Part of coaching is adapting to your athletes, but also your environment. The best coaches will find a way.

Have patience. Have tons of patience.

If Coach A spends 45 minutes teaching a young athlete to squat correctly with bodyweight and Coach B throws them under a bar to grind through sloppy, agonizing sets of ten, Coach B is often praised for being “Hardcore.” If you do not take anything else away from this entire article, let it be this. Being hardcore means doing whatever needs to be done at the time, even if what needs to be done is the option that feels easier. That is discipline, patience and what creates long term success.

Volume

Young athletes need volume. None of these young athletes are going to be extremely strong on day one, so each rep they perform is not very expensive. Its hard to overtrain a young athlete that is doing sets of 6-8 on a pushup, but very easy to overtrain an adult that is benching 405 for sets of 6-8. If you spend months at a time only focusing on steadily increasing volume, your athletes will get bigger, stronger faster and increase their work capacity for future training.

 

Coaching young athletes will be one of the most rewarding experiences you will ever have if it’s done correctly. Take your time, build you own philosophy and enjoy working with these young people during a very important period of their lives.