Coaching young athletes isn’t as easy as it seems.
“Use your hips, not your knees!”
My 4-year-old daughter’s swim coach echoed this cue over and over as my daughter lay in a backfloat, churning water and going nowhere.
The swim coach, myself and the host of other parents at the pool knew what she was trying to say. Unfortunately, despite my daughter knowing what her “hips” where, her relatively limited experience as an earthling lent to trouble in deciphering what her teacher meant by “using” them.
Water continued to churn, my daughter didn’t move, her teacher looked defeated. My wife quickly shot me her “don’t make a scene” look as my inside voice screamed “Just tell her to make her legs straight!!!”
This communication disconnect is often a limiting factor in how positive or negative our interactions are with our youngest athletes. In all honesty, a majority of the time when kids don’t do what they are supposed to do, the communication breakdown is on our end, not theirs. Let’s face it, coaching young athletes isn’t as easy as people (who don’t do it) think.
It’s easy to chalk this disconnect up to:
- Kids don’t listen
- They don’t comprehend things well
- They’re unfocused
- They’re undisciplined
- They’re uncoordinated
- They have numerous physical and cognitive limitations
- Etc., Etc. Etc.
The list of the challenges associated with coaching young athletes could go on. The fact of the matter is that all of these have a significant element of truth. The good news, however, is that many of these limitations can be overcome when we focus on how to become better communicators with young children.
To create a more positive and less frustrating learning environment for everyone involved, consider the communication tips below.
“Pre-load” Vocabulary When Coaching Young Athletes
In the example with my daughter’s swim coach given above, she most likely had more experience working with older children. These older children could not only identify parts of their body, but also identify the different functions of these parts. On top of that, they were experienced in taking in auditory information and applying it to a motor task.These perceptual motor skills of body and auditory awareness, in addition to others, are not fully developed in most young children, particularly before the age of six. Their bodies, in addition to the many sensations, sights and sounds in the environment are still new.
Prior to introducing a skill or activity, consider the involved components. “Bend your elbow, drop your hips, point your toes, etc.” all sound like simple cues. However, to a relatively new and rapidly developing neuromuscular system, they are frustratingly novel, particularly when the child is attempting to integrate the multiple movements necessary to execute a skill.
When it appears that children are ignoring our coaching cues, the problem is often that they hear what we are saying but can’t draw the connections to recreate it physically. To overcome this issue with better communication, consider “pre-loading” important coaching cue vocabulary.
Decrease frustration by separating the anatomy and movement demands from the actual skill during the warm up.
Once again using my daughter’s swim lessons as an example, a better approach could be to have the children begin playing a “Simon Says” type of game on the wall, familiarizing them with the anatomy cues associated with the different ways they can kick in the water. Starting by identifying the body parts, then adding their function. In a few minutes, the children’s neuromuscular systems could be better prepared to receive information.
Below are two examples of simple activities to familiarize kids with body part recognition and function.
As mentioned above, children’s ability to absorb and process information is limited. Add loads of distraction and this ability to process information decreases further. We often forget that when young kids are performing a new activity, everything is conscious and manual. They are consciously governing each step and movement. In addition to this internal world, they are learning to navigate everything around them. This is why coaching young athletes is so different than coaching older kids. When we stand in the middle of a field with a whistle and bark orders to 7-year olds, we merely add additional layers of complexity.
If we want to help children by providing them instruction, it’s important that we eliminate as many internal and external distractions as possible.
One of the most effective ways to do this is to stop the current activity so the senses for absorbing information are maximized.
- If there is a group, bring the group together, within arm’s reach, so their visual field is focused on you as the instructor. Another option is to have pre-designated markers (cones, dots, etc.) for the kids to occupy. This eliminates the distraction of “where should I stand?”.
- Get down to the child’s level so you can make eye contact
- Do a quick auditory or visual activity (How many fingers do I have up? How many claps is this?) to focus their attention
- Keep instruction brief, preferably focusing on one cue
- Have them immediately practice the cue
- If they still struggle, consider refamiliarizing with vocabulary
While this is essential when coaching young athletes, it is an important element of coaching at all ages.
Identify the Obstacle
We’ve all experienced tossing an object to a young child and they flail their arms like they’re trying to swat multiple flies at the same time. Meanwhile, the object bounces off their head like a backboard shot in basketball. We’ll often try to correct this with the good ol’ “keep your eye on the ball” routine, to no avail.
In scenarios like this, we very well could be trying to coach things the child is literally incapable of doing. Using the catching example above, prior to the age of about six, children have an extremely limited ability to focus on objects as they move closer to them. Additionally, judging speed and direction are difficult when their eyeball doesn’t fully form its round shape until about nine years old.
When properly trained and practiced, these limitations can be overcome and progressed. However, significant regression is often required at the onset. When we understand that the obstacle to catching is the inability to focus on the quickly moving target, we may choose to introduce a target that doesn’t move as quickly. Striking and catching bubbles trains the eyes to track more efficiently because they move slower. They young eyeball has a better chance to take in useful information.
Other components of athleticism work the same way. Consider the acquisition of strength for bodyweight calisthenics. We already know modern children are inactive and overspecialized. They’re not out playing every day, putting their proprioceptive system through a wide variety of challenges. We then wonder why they can’t climb a rope or do 20 push-ups on command.
Yes, these children could be considered “weak,” however, this weakness comes from their proprioceptive system having very little experience managing the body’s entire weight. When a child goes into a push up position, the shoulder joint goes into significant compression. The untrained muscle spindles and Golgi tendons panic and focus efforts to alleviate this compression. Hips raise into the air or fall to the ground.
Understanding that this proprioceptive inexperience is a significant obstacle, we can do crawling, grip, and static work in the push up position. When proprioception is better trained, stability, mobility, and strength can be optimized. In a push up, the shoulder joint no longer panics and is able to respond appropriately to the acute compression. Similarly, just hanging from a bar for progressively longer periods of time can aid in removing some of the proprioceptive limitations associated with performing pull ups.
We often have to facilitate the activities kids used to do during play in order to build a foundation for skill.
The next time you are working with or coaching young athletes and want to pull your hair out while screaming “aren’t you listening??” take a step back. If you’re honest, it’s probably you, not them. Consider the tips above to create a positive, enriching experience that will empower them to perform for life.
Brett Klika is a youth performance expert and a regular contributor to the IYCA who is passionate about coaching young athletes. He is the creator of the SPIDERfit Kids youth training program and has run successful youth fitness programs all over the country. Brett is an international speaker whose passion for youth fitness has helped thousands of people learn how to create exceptional training experiences for young athletes.
If you want to be better at coaching young athletes, the IYCA Youth Fitness Specialist certification is the industry gold-standard for youth fitness and sports performance. Click on the image below to learn more about the YFS1 certification program.