In the past few months I have gone back to coaching kids. It’s something that I haven’t done in quite a while, really since the early MBSC days 15 years ago. The sad truth is the higher level you work at the more spoiled you get. I’ve been spoiled by training primarily professional and Olympic athletes. I’ve always said that coaching great athletes can give you a false sense of your coaching skills. Dealing with athletes that have a higher training age and more athletic ability inevitably makes you take some things for granted. Dealing with better athletes can also make you think you are a lot better coach than you might be. Coaching kids brings you back to reality.
Presently I am working with players on my daughter’s hockey team that vary in age from 13-18. They are all reasonably good athletes but have a wide range of ability and experience. The majority had never been in a weightroom or picked up a weight prior to the start of our experience. As always though experience is the best teacher. And as always, the best laid plans go wrong. I must admit, I had grand visions. I am such a great teacher/ coach that I would whip this group into shape in no time. Well, maybe not. Instead, coaching kids taught or re-taught me some valuable lessons.
Things I Learned or Remembered
In-season Training– In season is a tough time to introduce any group to strength training. I was not fortunate enough to have a pre-season period. Because we were starting in-season both the girls and their coaches were worried about soreness, about muscle pulls, and about decreased performance. As a result we went with our old stand-by, the KISS principle. Keep It Simple Stupid. Trust me, it was me that looked stupid. Thank god no one watched the first few workouts. It was like herding cats without a whip. All I could think of was “thank god no one is watching this mess.”
In order to get the workouts done after practice at the rink we went as basic as possible with nothing but sets of dumbbells that we brought to the rink and stored. We had about ten minutes after practice to get our lifts in. On the bright side, we needed no warm-up as the players came almost directly from the ice. The program consisted of two sets of squat jumps, 2 sets of split squats paired with two sets of push-ups followed by two sets of 1 Leg Straight Leg Deadlift paired with Dumbbell Rows. Ten reps for everything except squat jumps which were 3×5.
Even in this simple setting it is tough for one coach to teach 20 girls in 10 minutes. On day two we established a rule. Don’t talk. Try to keep quiet and do your work for 10 minutes. It worked. Things began to slowly improve. Nothing I was proud of, but a system started to fall into place. After a few workouts we amended rule 1 to read “no talking to anyone holding a weight.” This meant they could talk between sets, but not to the person lifting.
We managed to string together 1-2 workouts per week and at least get acquainted with the basics.
Big lessons? Small goals, small victories. Rome was not built in a day. The big key for me was to not get frustrated and to keep the girls improving and engaged. I had my eyes on the off-season.
Fast forward a few weeks and we began our off-season workouts. I always say in-season training is like going to the dentist. Being an in-season strength coach is like being the dentist. People dread seeing you. You represent extra work, extra time, extra rules. Off-season is entirely different. Now, as a strength and conditioning coach, you are viewed as a person that can make a difference. We stayed with our KISS concept and continued to attack basic patterns. I quickly realized that pairs were going to be good and tri-sets bad. We could not focus on two things at once, much less three. Tri-sets were designed to get more rest between heavy sets on major exercises. Tri-sets allowed us to stay research based and get 3-5 minutes between heavy sets. If the workout challenge is neural/ motor learning, this isn’t an issue. For beginners, pairs make more sense. As coaches we can concentrate and focus on point 1 above, Keeping It Simple _________.
Basic patterns matter- we work on clean / front squat combos nearly every day. I don’t know if there are two more important exercises for young athletes. Please note, we have 15 lb bars and 5 lb training plates. Most of the girls are just getting to the 45 lb bar after about a month.
Three Big Lessons
Lesson 1- KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid. In my case the stupid one was me. In order to get any learning done we needed rules. Enforce rule 1- “You can’t talk to anyone else.” As I said, after day two I softened slightly and I amended rule one. “You can’t talk to anyone who has weight in their hands.” With kids you need to really work on focus and attention. It is a constant battle. Be positive, but keep emphasizing focusing on the work and minimizing chatting with kids.
Lesson 2- Design the program for the group, don’t fit the group to the program. Ask yourself questions like “ are they learning or lifting?” Learning takes lots of repetition. Lifting needs control of things like volume and intensity. Ask yourself another simple question. Is the motor pattern the challenge or, is the load the challenge. Fro most kids the challenge should be the motor pattern. You are working on teaching exercises, not strength training. There is a difference.
Also, forget mobility work and stretching if you only have an hour or less. Time is king and basics take time. Splits squats are mobility. Squats are mobility. A good basic routine is a mobility routine.
Lesson 3- When coaching kids, you might really need two programs. Program 1 is a learning program for beginners with a limited number of basic exercises done for more sets. Program 2 is a strength program. We have tried one-size-fits-all, and it doesn’t work. This summer our program will be based on proficiency and training age. Those who have been with us for multiple summers, and are proficient, will have one program. Beginners will have another. Proficiency in my book means “can they do a clean and a squat.” If they can’t, teach them. Limit variety and increase the number of sets. Nothing teach like repetition.
Side note- repetition and repetitions are not the same. We want more perfect sets. Not a few high rep sets. Create motor patterns, not stress. Three sets of five gives us fifteen quality reps, and three opportunities to coach. Two sets of ten might provide more volume but less coaching opportunity and more opportunity for technique to deteriorate.
The big takeaway? Coaching kids is tough. They will challenge all your coaching skills, and that can be really good for you.
Mike Boyle is the owner of Mike Boyle Strength & Conditioning and runs the popular web-site StrengthCoach.com. He has been the strength coach for the Boston Red Sox and Boston University. Mike has been called one of the most influential coaches in the industry for his ability to teach, coach and explain training processes. He has written multiple books and has spoken all over the world at conferences, clinics and seminars….and he also loves coaching kids. Mike was a guest on Episode 3 of The Impact Show – the official podcast of the IYCA.
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