by Mike Mejia, MS, CSCS, YFS-1, YNS
President of B.A.S.E. Sports Conditioning Inc
I love working with clients on a one on one basis. There is just something about being able to put my blinders on and give my undivided attention to one person’s needs during the course of a workout. I guess it is because I started out as a personal trainer, and to some extent, that is still where my passion lies.
That said, I also thoroughly enjoy working with groups of athletes…even entire teams. The only caveat is that in a group setting, it can be difficult to keep the level of movement quality as consistently high as I might like it.
That is just the nature of the beast when you are working with groups in general, and teens in particular. At times, attention will start to wane, which can be a huge problem for a population whose bodies are going through various developmental changes and who often lack the kinesthetic awareness to self-correct during the course of a given exercise. The other big factor when working with groups of young athletes is that commitment levels tend to vary… A LOT! In my experience, any time you are working with multiple athletes, you are going to encounter three distinct personality types with the number of each differing from one group to the next.
First up will be the self-motivated kids. These are young athletes who want to get better and are going to follow every instruction to the letter. They understand and appreciate the value of the training they’re receiving and intend to do everything possible to get the most out of each session.
I call these my “run through a wall” athletes, because they will basically do anything you ask of them. They are extremely focused, take coaching cues well, and are generally an absolute pleasure to work with.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have what I like to call the “tuned out” group. These are kids who typically do not want to take part in the team training session and are only present because the coaching staff requires them to be. They display poor body language and tend to talk or fool around when you are giving instructions.
Somewhere in the middle you’ll have your “tweeners”. I call them this because this group could go either way. They have not yet been bitten by the training bug, but seem genuinely intrigued. On the other hand, they are also easily distracted and can often fall in with the poor example set by the tuned-out group.
This is the group you will want to focus on the most, because it is where you can make the biggest difference as a coach.
Do not get me wrong; I am not advocating to give up on the tuned out group. Over the years, Ihave converted plenty of them into some of my best students with a little time and effort.
Nor am I recommending that you let that first group rely solely on self-motivation. Even driven young athletes need a little push and some guidance now and then. I am just suggesting spending the bulk of your coaching energy in the area where you can have the greatest impact in the shortest amount of time.
Because—as is often the case when working with groups—you may not have access to your athletes for a prolonged period. Once the season begins, training time is typically reduced as athletes and coaches focus more on skill refinement and conserving energy for competition.
So, the question is how do you effectively manage training sessions when presented with these three distinct personality types and you’re just one coach working with a group of a dozen athletes, or more? And, perhaps even more importantly, how do you do so while establishing the type of training culture that gets athletes buying into your system as quickly as possible.
Throughout the course of my career in working with young athletes aged 10 and up through the collegiate ranks, I have found that the following strategies work especially well.
1. Establish easily recognizable cues
While you do not necessarily want to bombard kids with tons of technical jargon (warning a young athlete about “placing too much valgus stress on their knees” when squatting, for instance, will garner you little more than a confused look), you do want to try and develop a “training language” that your athletes can easily remember and even parrot.
I find nothing more gratifying than listening to a couple of my athletes coach their teammates through different movements. Hearing them tell each other to “sit the hips back,” or “rip the floor open” during a squat lets me know that they understand the importance of what they are being taught, even if they may not be familiar with the exact anatomical mechanisms of why they are doing things a certain way.
2. Put out the biggest fires first
Even a form perfectionist like myself realizes that during the course of a rigorous team workout, there are going to be a few less-than-perfect reps. And while one or two athletes slipping slightly out of a good core neutral position during a plank is not the end of the world, allowing some egregiously bad form just to “keep the flow of the workout going” simply cannot happen.
If you notice an athlete or a couple of athletes really struggling with a particular drill, do not hesitate to direct a little more attention their way. Try to quickly ascertain where the problem lies (i.e. is it a mobility issue, a strength imbalance, or were they simply not paying attention to instructions) and work from there.
Sometimes a simple form cue and some personal attention will do the trick, while others might require slightly regressing the drill and/ or assigning some follow up “homework” (more on this in a minute). Either way, some type of immediate action on your part is necessary to help ensure that bad movement patterns are not engrained and so that athletes know they cannot get away with simply going through the motions.
3. Give homework drills
Sometimes you will not be able to offer a quick fix when you see an athlete struggling during the course of a workout. This is where it pays to have a battery of stretching, foam rolling, and corrective strengthening exercises on hand that you can assign to young athletes in need.
Whether in the form of a handout, a follow-up e-mail, or simply referring them to your website, giving young athletes access to tools such as these can make a huge difference. I also make it a habit to stay a few minutes after each session to answer any specific questions and work with individuals who may require a little more personal attention.
Now, not all of them will follow through. However, the ones who do heed your advice on a consistent basis can make some major improvements in a relatively short period of time.
4. Progress drills based on ability… not a desire for variety
Let’s face it; as motivated and “elite” as some of your young athletes may be, the bottom line is that they are still young. So as a coach, part of your job is to make sure these individuals are having fun while still working to improve things like systemic strength, speed, agility, and coordination.
And when you are working with young athletes, fun often means including lots of variety. After all, who wants to do the same drills over and over again?
That said, it is important that said variety does not come at the expense of first mastering basic movement patterns. Take the time to get your athletes’ movement mechanics “programmed” with staple exercises like squats, lunge variations, push-ups, rows, and planks.
While such may be easy enough to do with younger groups, what about older athletes who want to push hard and consider these exercises “too easy” despite often executing them with less than perfect form? Here is where a little communication and some coaching creativity can go a long way.
Point out any specific flaws you notice that may be impeding your athlete’s ability to perform these drills properly- such as poor ankle and hip mobility while squatting, or an increased lordotic curve during planks and push-ups. Then, offer up some simple form cues that may help correct the issue by getting them more aware of the mechanics of the exercise.
I like to call these “mini-clinics” where I take a group of athletes through a couple of quick troubleshooting strategies to correct common exercise mistakes. Doing something as simple as teaching them how to go into a slight posterior pelvic tilt during a plank(to help offset an exaggerated lumbar curve) or cuing them to maintain an arch in their feet during squats and lunges (to prevent excessive pronation) can often provide a whole new appreciation for how an exercise is supposed to feel.
Oddly enough, exercises that were previously perceived as being too easy suddenly become much more difficult. Add in a few static holds in the hardest part of the range of motion, or slow the rep cadence down significantly (this is where the creativity part comes in) and you have got a workout guaranteed to challenge without having to resort to assigning athletes drills that are beyond their current level of ability.
5. Make a Connection
Simply showing up and trying to run team training sessions like some type of drill sergeant rarely yields good results. While there may be a handful of individuals who respond to that type of approach, the vast majority do not.
If you want to gain the trust of your athletes and have them buy into your system, you have to show them that you have a genuine concern for their health and well-being. It does not matter how scientifically sound your workouts might be or how much knowledge you possess about the human body.
It is like the saying goes: “Your athletes will not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Follow up with them on a regular basis. Ask questions before and after training sessions and provide them with your contact information so that they can call, e-mail, or text you if they need a little training and/ or nutritional guidance.
Not only will it mean a lot to them, but you will find it to be an extremely rewarding experience, as well. Working with groups is not about the prestige of training a particular team, or the increased revenue potential it can generate. In the end, it is all about the number of lives you can impact.
If you wish to learn more about the Art of Coaching, check out our Youth Fitness Specialist Level 1 Certification. This credential will take your coaching and training to the next level!