By Jeff King, MA, CSCS
In part 2 of my series on training kids for sports, I discussed the importance of injury prevention, and specific solutions such as increasing work capacity, improving stability through movement, and addressing muscle imbalances.
In this final installment I’ll talk about the keys to improving sports performance for young athletes. I’ll outline the 5 essential movement patterns that every child must master, and then I’ll address the 4 S’s of success for any youth sports training and conditioning program.
The Five Essential Movement Patterns
Dan John is one of the most respected strength coaches in the United States and someone who has helped shape my own coaching philosophy. One thing I have borrowed from him is the five movement patterns every young athlete should master.
I have incorporated these formally into my training over the past two years and have found great success focusing on these five essential movement patterns. The movements basically provide a strong functional base, which every athlete needs in order to maximize his athletic ability and improve performance
Below are the five movement patterns, along with a video on how to execute each one and some useful coaching cues to help teach each movement. Have your young athletes perfect these movements and they will be on the fast track to athletic success:
The Key Elements to a Successful Youth Sports Program
Every successful training program is based on a general philosophy. This is definitely true when working with young athletes. Every athlete that comes through the doors of Fitness Quest 10 is exposed to the same training methodology no matter their age, sport, or skill set.
In my 10 years of training youth, I have found commonalities in every successful youth program I have created. I call these the four S’s of success. Incorporating these has allowed me to create programs that are dynamic, fun, and effective. Learn these “S’s” and you will see how the quality of your training sessions will increase:
The Four S’s of Success
(1) Smile – This comes first because it is by far the most important ‘S’ when working with young athletes. If kids do not enjoy what they are doing, they will, more often than not, tune out their coach and not be attentive during the training session or practice.
Furthermore, parents will use the disposition of their kids after practice as a “thermometer” to gauge whether it’s worth the time commitment and financial investment. If the perception is that the kids aren’t enjoying it, parents are going to be reluctant to have them continue with the team or the training program.
All kids have the potential to learn and improve their overall physical ability. What they need is an environment that is both enjoyable and conducive to learning. There is a fine line, however, with how far you can go with this. It is NOT a green light for the entire practice or training session to turn into playing games and goofing around. Children still need structure and will benefit most from a systematic approach to training. Just don’t be afraid to show your personality and relate to the kids in your own unique way, which is one of the keys to fostering a positive, fun, and safe training and learning environment.
You can easily do this by using cooperative based games early in a training session or practice to get kids smiling and laughing while simultaneously setting the tone for the remainder of the day. By getting kids to smile and laugh, especially with you personally involved in the action, you’ll quickly earn their trust, which is essential to working with athletes of any age.
Positive affirmation is also very important with young athletes. While I encourage you to foster a competitive environment, a simple high five or “great job” can go a very long way in building trust. All kids should have the feeling of being loved and accepted in your environment, because only then will they positively respond to being challenged and pushed. When it comes to kids, the goal should be “intense positivity” with your environment and culture.
(2) Sweat – Just as training is the first “Pillar of Prep”, sweating is one of the top S’s of success for youth athletes. Because the goal is to prepare children for physical performance, they have to actually get physical! Additionally, parents want to see their kids sweat because it’s a good indicator that they are being pushed and exerting some level of increased effort.
One of the main goals when training youth athletes is to increase their ability to do more work (work capacity). It may come as a surprise, but this is accomplished by… wait for it… steadily increasing the amount of work they do!
It is perfectly fine if kids are pushed to a point where they’re breathing heavy and feeling uncomfortable. Learning how to get out of one’s comfort zone is an extremely valuable lesson that athletics can teach someone, and children are not immune from this.
(3) Smart – Having a positive and success minded attitude isn’t something people are just born with, it can most definitely be taught. In addition to teaching youth athletes the “how” and “why” of training, you have the incredible opportunity to teach them the requisite tools for success in life, not just athletics. Most children are actually very success hungry, and without experiencing it regularly, they get deflated, which can lead to their self-esteem being negatively affected.
This is NOT, however, a rationale for the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality that has permeated the culture of many youth organizations. Learning that failure is real and loss does happen is equally important for the overall development of a child. It’s about finding the balance in challenging them while at the same time creating opportunities for them to experience success on a regular basis. Success begets success; by having your kids experience it more often, it will increase their desire for more.
As for the learning experience itself, it’s important to fight the urge to interrupt a child’s natural learning process, especially for younger kids under 10 years of age. Children at this age tend to use auto-regulation, which means they will often self correct when given a good model, i.e. they are shown how to do an exercise correctly and told the desired number of repetitions.
While children at this age have the ability to respond and adapt to a multitude of stimuli over the long term, in the acute setting you’ll want your athletes to focus on one to two specific things that you want them to remember from each individual session. You have to guard against over-coaching and overwhelming their ability to process what you’re teaching.
(4) Snack – Nutrition is just as critical for children as it is for adults, if not more so. Since these are their formative years, the majority of a child’s nutritional habits will be set now. In addition to setting the foundation for a healthy life, kids need to learn that what they’re putting in their body can affect their performance both positively and negatively.
I teach this in the form of a post-training session snack. From the beginning of a camp or training cycle, we set the expectation that all of our youth athletes come to train with something to eat immediately after training. This has nothing to do with a magic post-training nutritional window: it’s so we can visually confirm that they are actually eating what they’re telling us. We also want to ensure that kids are learning about QUALITY nutrition.
“Snack” covers the recovery aspect of things for children, because devoting resources, energy, and time to advanced recovery methods isn’t necessary. Children have an almost incomprehensible ability to recover from session to session or practice to practice, especially younger kids. This is partially due to their lack of overall mass: they simply don’t experience the forces a full-grown person does. It is also because children aren’t exerting maximal levels of output even when they’re putting forth maximal effort. For example, when a kid sprints, his body is still in the process of learning to sprint- he’s not recruiting the same level of muscle activity that a more mature athlete would. This is also another area where they will utilize their ability to auto-regulate. When kids get tired or run down, they rest and sleep more- it’s almost automatic. You want to occasionally do spot checks on their sleeping and TV/video game habits, but as long as you focus on the four S’s of success, you’ll undoubtedly have your young athletes moving forward on the path towards success.
Consistency is Key!
Above all, the most important element for the success of any youth program is being consistent. At the end of the day, you want and need to do the above things consistently. Whether they know it or not kids do yearn for structure and discipline. Implement the above points and you will set up your young athletes for long-term athletic development as well as success in life.
About Jeff King
Jeff King, MA, CSCS has been a strength and conditioning coach since 2005 and is currently the Director of Athletics at Fitness Quest 10 located in San Diego, CA. Jeff is the co-author of Pigskin Prep: the definitive youth football training program and the ultimate guide to injury prevention, speed development and strength training for the “14 and under” youth football athlete. For more information please visit www.youthpigskinprep.com.