Where to Start With Youth Athletes

As a coach, there is nothing more exciting than welcoming a new athlete to your program.  Whether you are coaching at a school, in a private facility or training kids in the neighborhood,  starting a young athlete in a training program can be exhilarating. There are many ways coaches  introduce their clients to their facility and program. Here are some of the key considerations for where to start with youth athletes the next time a new client enters your program:

1. Needs Analysis
2. Evaluation
3. Goal Setting

1. Needs Analysis. A needs analysis is probably one of the most important things a coach can do for an athlete. The needs analysis is the preliminary part of the assessment and really helps lay the groundworkfor where the athlete needs to go post-assessment. This critical step focuses on a few factors that are needed in order to properly program for that individual athlete. While most programs follow the same guidelines, a needs analysis will allow you to make adjustments prior to the start of a program. A needs analysis should cover the following:
Needs analysis

 Biological vs. training age
 Par Q questionnaire/ physician clearance
 Level of athletic development
 Previous injury history
 Single sport vs. dual/multiple sport status

Biological age vs. training age refers to a comparison of how old an athlete is since birth (actual birthday age) on the one hand, to their training age on the other. Training age is simply how long they have been working out in the weight room or on a consistent training program. If they are younger than about 13, and may not have been exposed to weights before, you would consider how long they have been playing the particular sport for which they are now in training. Par Q questionnaire is a simple form that allows you to identify any medical issues the athlete may have, ranging from allergies to a previous injury with a physician clearance letter.

Level of athletic development must be determined from a very important and honest conversation you have with the client. Some clients mistakenly perceive themselves as an elite or advanced athlete. It is our job as coaches to make that call against parameters we set regarding what makes an elite level athlete in our program. Generally speaking, most youth clients will be novice to intermediate in terms of athletic development. That means that they will have a training age from 0-2 Years (novice) to 2-4 years (intermediate) with respect to training in an organized program. This is important baseline information to have so you can set up a strategic plan for how your program will evolve and which program methodology you might pursue with a novice vs. intermediate athlete.

Previous injury disclosure is very important as many athletes are never asked about this sensitive subject, or in some cases, will not be forthcoming or truthful. When asking about any past injury, you want to be as vague and general as possible because no minor injury is too little to matter. Even small injuries can lead to subconscious favoring of one side or one limb, and big movement issues that may need to be addressed. Knowing previous injuries up front will give you a good “heads up” about what to be looking for in an evaluation.

Single vs. multiple sport status is another key factor in your needs analysis. The proper classification of your client as a single, or multi-sport athlete will undoubtedly play a role in your program design. Understanding stress and how it may play a role in athletic development is important for the coach. As practitioners, you must recognize and adjust for stressors that are taking place for a multiple sport athlete, as he or she may not have the time to fully commit to a 3-4 day a week program. Thus, adjustments may have to be made to your program with regard to FITT (frequency, intensity, time and type). This involves many factors such as the number of days a week an athlete can dedicate to the program, how hard they are able to push without risk of injury, how long they have to train and finally what type of training can they do. These factors play a huge role in your program design for an athlete, as does continual monitoring of their training status, to make sure they are not being overtrained. For a single sport athlete, the relative simplicity allows for greater time with the athlete to complete an entire program sooner.

2. Evaluation. Evaluations are critical to understanding the athlete’s current status, where they need to go and it will help you make programming decisions. The assessment process also provides the first impression, not only of you as a coach, but also of the culture you where to start with youth athletesoperate in and are introducing your clients to during that assessment. There are many assessment protocols that you can follow. The IYCA Big 5 Assessment is a great tool for coaches and athletes to understand movement, and what skills need to be worked on. It also gives coaches the chance to begin coaching and allows the athlete the opportunity to experience your coaching. Your first impression forms from the moment you meet the new family. Remember, you are not only working exclusively with the youth athlete, but also with their family, as key decision makers for their son or daughter entering your program.

 Movement Screens
 Sport Specific Testing
– Power, speed, agility, endurance, strength,
– What numbers can tell us vs. what our eyes can see (Not all good numbers = good

Movement screens are a valuable tool not only for the athlete but also for the coach. Movement screens, much like IYCA Big 5 Assessment, examine the movement of the body. The benefit for the athlete is that it gives them a good sense of where they need to improve. For the coach, it provides a sense of where an athlete needs to improve in terms of movement, but more importantly, allows the coach to find asymmetries and help that athlete recognize movement patterns that need to be worked on in order to maximize performance and avoid possible injury. Selecting tests within the power, strength, speed, agility and endurance categories will allow you to assess the athlete’s physical abilities. Understand the demands of the sport, training goals and both chronological and training ages of your athletes to determine which performance tests you’d like to use. Having a baseline in these five areas will help you program to your individual athlete instead of assigning the athlete to a standard “one size fits all” program.

A Coach’s Eye is just as important as the numbers you get from assessments. A coach’s eye is having the ability to catch potential movement flaws from a more subjective point of view. A coach’s eye is mastered after years of coaching and is continuously fine-tuned throughout the career of a sports performance coach.

3. Goal Setting
 short term
 long term
 athletic and academic

Goals concept on blackboard

Goal setting is something not every coach does with athletes, but it is highly recommended. Goal setting allows the athlete and coach to investigate what the athlete wants from themselves and also what they want to get out of the program you are providing them. Teaching goal setting at a young age helps set them up for future endeavors in life. Our job as coaches is not only to help them in the weight room, but to be a mentor for them in dealing with things outside of the walls of our training facility. Short term goal setting is generally split up into quarters of the year, at 3 or 4 month increments. These goals should include academic and athletic benchmarks.

As coaches, you have to emphasize the importance of being both a good student and a good athlete because the two work hand in hand. Long term goals are goals for future years, or maybe the end of the current year. These goals are needed in order to provide the right context in which to create those short-term goals. Long-term goals allow the athlete to have a vision of what he or she wants to aim for in the future. This plays a key role in your programming and mentorship of the student athlete.

First impressions can make or break your relationship with the athlete and their family. The needs analysis is one of the most important relationship building things you can do with the athlete and family. If the athlete is younger, invite their mom or dad in for the whole meeting so they can hear the conversation and help their child be accountable. Beyond the needs analysis, evaluations are critical to ensuring your program is custom fitting the athlete and not forcing the athlete to fit your program. Remember, your job is to complement their strengths by decreasing their physical weaknesses. Finally, set those goals. It is so very important to drive home to your athletes how critical goal setting is in both sports and life. Starting off athletes in your program this way will prove beneficial, not only for the young athletes, but for you as their coach as well.

About the Author: Brad Leshinske is the founder of the Athletic Edge Sports Performance program in Chicago and an adjunct faculty member at North Park University. He has more than 10 years of experience training athletes of all ages and at every level of competition.

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