Maximize Your Young Athletes’ Time

youth football

Earlier this week I was asked to consult with a local youth football organization.


Ordinarily, these types of consulting services include me conducting conference call educational seminars with as many as 30 – 40 coaches at one time.


I present on the topics that they have requested as they listen and follow along with a Power Point presentation that I email to them prior to the call starting.


At the end of my presentation, we all enjoy a round-table discussion in which they are free to ask me anything they want in reference to how my ‘Grasso Methodologies’ can fit specifically into their league and respective practice schedules.


If I dare say so myself, it’s a great service.


Dozens of coaches get a chance to hear what quality youth sport development should look like, but also have the opportunity to ask me specific questions related to how they apply my concepts into the unique time-frames and scheduling of their own league.


You can’t get that kind of customization from a book.


The consulting work I did this past week was local, though – so I got the chance to actually present, discuss and customize the information live and in person.


In this particular case, the league has players aged 5 – 13 within its system and wanted to know how they go about developing practice plans and training routines for the kids.


What I’ve decided to do is share with you what I taught these coaches and how it has dramatically changed their coaching and training philosophy already.


Let me start with the 5 – 9 year old group.


The goal of working with 5 – 9 year olds is NOT what you think


This message can be summed up in two words:


Guided Discovery.


The whole point of athletic stimulus within this time-frame of life is to explore, in a self-regulated fashion.


One of the terribly inappropriate things I see constantly being done with children in the young pre-adolescent years is adults over-coaching them.


I touched on this concept over the past few weeks in articles related to Goal Confusion and Outcome versus Form practice habits.


The human body is at the height of its adaptability in the early years of life, and should never be over-corrected or conformed to a particular style of performing movement tasks (running, jumping, throwing etc).


Think about babies for a second.


It’s a generally held belief that when a baby is learning to crawl and eventually walk, the greatest possible ‘external reinforcement’ an adult could give would be to positively encourage and provide safe boundaries.


No one would ever consider stopping a baby from doing what he or she naturally is trying to accomplish – we understand that in order to develop proper motor functioning, a baby must explore and self-regulate.


They must try and they must fail.


They must learn from their own attempts and build a sense of ‘physical intelligence’.


As adults we must encourage and positively support. We must affirm with our tone of voice and body language for them to keep trying.


We remove any obstacles that would be dangerous from them to fall on and help them understand their boundaries (stairs are dangerous, the corner of the coffee table is dangerous etc).


We would however, not coach them on how to crawl, stand or walk, and then proceed to ‘drill’ them with exercises related to the proper execution of those exercises.


Nothing changes in the early pre-adolescent years.


Kids must be given boundaries (outcomes) but be allowed to explore, try, fail and learn.


It is the only way for them to develop proper movement skill.


1/3 of your practice should be based on athletic skill… no matter what sport you coach


It doesn’t matter what sport you coach or how badly you or your athletes want to win the league trophy this year, the entire purpose of early youth sport participation is to create a warehouse of athletic ability and physical intelligence.


5 – 9 year old athletes are not baseball players, soccer players or football players.


They are kids.


And they need (and deserve) responsible adults who understand human development.


Natural human development is based on an evolutionary process of gaining comprehension, skill and intelligence in a progressive manner over time – with the most basic and rudimentary lessons coming first.


No parent would declare their child to be a future history professor, mathematician or scientist at the age of 6.


More over, no parent would discard other forms of academic study in the early, formative years of their child’s life simply because it doesn’t match what they believed their child’s future to be.


“My child is only interested in math. He loves it so much! In fact, I decided to take him out of school and teach him myself. No more geography, English, history or social studies – it’s going to be all math, all the time. I mean, he’s going to be a mathematician so what’s the point of him learning English or history. I know he’s only 6, but…”


Just think about the consequences on your child if you actually did that.


He would become emotionally and mentally burned out because of the over-concentration on a single subject.


He would lack a certain degree of overall or general intelligence.


He would lack writing skills, cognitive reasoning skills, and communication skills.


And his ability to truly become a mathematician would be dramatically compromised because he lacked sufficient intelligence in the contributory skills that would allow him to progress on to higher levels of learning.


It never stops amazing me how simple and basic this concept is, but how grossly it is misunderstood in our over-zealous sporting society.


To be great at one thing, you must develop a certain level of skill and intelligence in all things.


That’s why in the scope of a 60-minute soccer or lacrosse practice, 20 of those minutes must be spent on the things that are important from a physically globalized intelligence factor.


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16 Responses

  1. Barrie J says:

    As well written as ever Brian, I couldn’t agree more.
    Its about letting the kids play and learn to make decisions based on what they see in front of them. Then you just upskill them where needed to help them make better decisions or aware of options that can make the game more enjoyable and contestable.

  2. I work with box an field lacrosse players from tyke to junior. During the winter gym sessions with the tyke and novice crowd, I try to make everything into a game, they just love games. One night I wanted them to get a feel for the ball in their stick. I had them lay on the gym floor with stick and ball and roll from one side of the room to the other, trying to keep the ball in the head of the stick. They had a great time and it even sneaks in a bit of core work.

    There are those who would say, “keep drills like the game you play”. With the younger crowd, I say make it a game, period! Seems to result in much more socializing and feedback from the players.

    Cheers, LT

  3. Pete says:

    I and most people would agree with what expectations for 5-9 year old kids should be, but things change dramatically as they get older. Each step seems to an incremental jump in expectations to where coaches in high school now expect kids in their respective sports to be ready to play, especially in sports where they have to try out, such as baseball. There has to be a big transition from 5-9 to 10-12, and even more so at 13-14. 5-9 is an easy call, what should you expect at each jump. I look forward to your thoughts at those levels.

  4. Brendan Murray says:

    Do you know that at 57 years of age, I am learning, learning, learning and sometimes from the most surprising sources,

    Having just explained the necessity of counting your steps in the approach and the importance of which leg an athlete takes off, to a little lady age five, she looked at me blankly and said:
    “But I don’t want to do all that, I just want to jump”

    I laughed, thought for a moment and said to her: “Do you know, you are dead right, you go ahead and jump”

  5. Dave Gleason says:


    The second best thing we can do for the kids we coach is continually educate their parents in a non offensive way. Language that speaks of what is in the “BEST INTEREST FOR YOUR CHILD” is a great way to start.

    Pete: The jumps for 10-13 and 14+ are not as big as you think. I would argue that at times the smallest jump comes at 10-13. This is where you will find kids have a (generally speaking) high likelyhood of regression.

    I have also found that outcome based coaching works at ALL levels. 6-9, 10-13, 14+ and even the pro athletes that train at our facility. Layering in a bit more instruction to the 10-13 group works depending on WHAT YOU SEE combined with considering ALL VARIABLES present in a 10-13 year old’s life. Ditto for 14+. Another layer of coaching and instructing through incorrect movement patterns in addition to exploring new movement patterns that are merely immature because of lack of exposure or opportunity for the 14+ as well.

    There is a considerable increase in the pressure(s) that is/are placed on 10-13 yr olds in youth sports – that comes from parents and unfortunatley coaches as well. What I see on an everyday basis are these same kids that are being asked to perform at high level so they can win…without any basic or fundamental skill development.

    We need to stand up, stay strong and do what we know is right.

    Yes bear crawls, skipping tag, log rolls and team handball on a U10 soccer field will get a coach a lot of wierd looks and some negative comments…but whose kids will be better prepared for sport and for life in the end.


  6. Anon says:

    Dave/Brian. In soccer, the common wisdom is that if you don’t have all the fundamental skills down by 10-11 you are never going to be a very good player. The great soccer countries like Brazil are signing 7 year olds to professional clubs to play in what I think are very structured practices. This seems like the opposite of the approach here- which I like a lot better intuitively. But it seems like for soccer at least the weight of the evidence is on early specialization. Or do I have their developmental systems all wrong?

  7. Anon says:

    Here is an article on “youth” soccer in Brazil. its pretty awful from a moral standpoint, and from trying to develop a whole person. But the question is, is this what it takes to develop world class players?


  8. Brian Grasso says:

    Almost every person I know says the same thing…. “With my sport, [insert your sport here], early specialization is essential”. So, let me say this —– I would like proof that if you don’t have skills down by 10 – 11 you’re never going to be a good player. I ride the science rollercoaster carefully (leaning on both practicality and science for evidence), but I want the practical or scientific evidence that this is factual. It is hyperbole in the highest form as far as I’m concerned. Could someone provide me with a internet link to a newspaper article (or something) that shows a 7 year old signing a professional contract? I’m not disputing it, I just want to see it. Brazil and North America are very different animals when it comes to childhood opportunities and other related factors that have an effect on the rate of skill acquisition. Just something to consider. Lastly, what about the 7 year olds who don’t make anything of their ‘careers’? If in fact, 7 year olds are signing professional contracts, tell me what life is going to be like for them once their playing days have been deemed unsuccessful and are now over? Thanks for the post…. Just some food for thought for you and others!! BG

  9. Steven says:

    “Guided Discovery” is a great description of how to work with young kids. They need guidance, but that doesn’t mean they need to be given all the answers. By all means, let them figure things out whenever they can, because that is what is going to build the best athlete in the long run.
    Another key phrase to incorporate is “Windows of Opportunity.” There are important things that should be learned at an early age, but these aren’t the subtle or advanced points of sports skills. Young kids need to develop an all-round athletic framework, in areas such as general movement, speed & agility, and proprioception, without being tied into a single sport. Plenty of time for that later, but if the early focus is too narrow, the training at the age of 15 and beyond is going to be a lot of catch-up work instead of advanced skills and strategies.

  10. Nathan says:

    i don’t work with under 14 in general but I do work with my 9 year old God-son. I approach the agility tools I have as uncle Nate’s toys. We pull out the toys and we simply play. He stays very engaged has fun and gets (as well as gives me) an athletic workout without the pain and disappointment of being told what he doesn’t do right. He plays longer and requests to play again and again because he enjoys it. As for the staked cones for soccer drills well I put them up in a configuration and whatever pattern he chooses to run through them is fine by me.

    I have also educated his dad my friend of 25+ years on the importance of enjoying what he is doing and not to worry about drills. I know the team he plays on and the coach drills the kids they, also had a European pro run a camp which improved his game last summer but by this spring he had forgotten most of that stuff. Kids need to play not drill.

  11. Jesse Salinas says:

    Hi you all!!!

  12. Jesse Salinas says:

    Hi you all !!! I cant wait for speed&agility 2 and in person ,we are ready guys.AS FOR THE discussion at hand well; IT takes a little bit of both you know,guided discovery but also good planing.I TRY to keep things fresh by always shifting to different drills and games.We like to use suggestion as apposed to command.Allot of modeling and demonstration ,when it comes to proper mechaniqs .But hey KISS is my mantra.

  13. Chris says:

    I very much agree with Brian regarding the guided discovery approach, especially as his example pertains to very young children. But the approach never really goes out of style. The best and most enduring lessons are the ones we learn from trying, failing, and trying again.

    I think sport for young people is all about listening to your child and allowing them to explore their interests. If a child wants to sign up for every sport that comes into season, then great… sign them up and see what they like. If your child wants to play baseball from sun-up to sun-down every day, then great… sign them up and let them play.

    The important thing to remember about your child’s taste in sport is that you have to pay attention to see if it changes. If your child has played soccer every day since he was three, that’s fine… as long as it is the child who has made that choice. If one day when he’s seven, he decides he doesn’t want to play soccer anymore and would rather join the swim team… that’s when you as a parent come in. You have to make sure that you haven’t become so attached to the idea of your child the soccer player, that you don’t let them explore their changing interests. Even if that comes at the expense of their original sport.

    My son loves playing soccer. He plays outside, he plays inside, he breaks more than a few things as a result. But when he was six, he decided he didn’t want to play soccer one season. So we didn’t sign him up. A few months later the next season came around and one of his friends at school asked him if he was going to play. So home he comes and tells us that he wants to play soccer again. So we signed him up.

    My mother thinks he should play basketball. He loves to play the game with his cousins when he is around them. So every season at the beginning of basketball season, I ask him if he wants to sign up. And so far, he has said he would rather just play with his cousins. So I don’t sign him up. It’s about letting kids choose their own sport and letting them make decisions regarding their time.

  14. Dave Gleason says:


    I will let Brian comment on the selection process of Brazil as it varies around the world including the USA and he is well versed on the subject. My thoughts on the subject as it relates to developing “world class” players is this:

    Soccer is one sport and Brazil amongst other nations places soccer above all other sports. Kids play soccer from a very, very early age with no instruction or coaching of any kind. Just as we did in the USA – emulating our favorite stars like Larry Bird or Michael Jordan. The world class basketball players are primarily from the North America – why? Not from early selection but from creative play not only in the chosen sport but also free play, and participation in a wide range of physical activities including other sports.

    Back to soccer. One of the criticisms of soccer players in the U.S. is the lack of creativity during play. I attribute this to the emergence of club and select team soccer programs that do nothing more for kids than expose them to fancy drills. Case in point: Recently a 12 year old club level soccer player in one of my programs told me he had never learned how to pass the ball correctly.

    One could argue that this lends itself for the need for earlier skill development. My point is that this boy was “selected” early on and pigeon holed with no chance for long term success. A child who shows an aptitude for a specific sport at 6 years old will often display seemingly different skill sets throughout their development.

    Long term ramifications are even more crucial in my opinion. Far less than one (1) percent of all young athletes will rise to the level of a professional athlete. Do we want to equip our kids for those kinds of odds – or give them the tools to be active, robust movers for life?

    In the end, no matter how we try to change the process, the development of a child has been laid out. The fact still remains that the older they get the less plastic the CNS is and the more compensatory movements may occur because of lack of opportunity to develop fully. I think we have the obligation to not stand in the way of what the human body is designed to do. During sensitive and critical periods of development we must allow for discovery as much as possible. The success a child has as they mature depends on it.

  15. Brendan Murray says:

    I have posted part of this already, above, but now I include an important edit.

    Do you know that at 57 years of age, I am learning, learning, learning and sometimes from the most surprising sources,

    Having just explained the necessity of counting your steps in the approach to the long jump, and the importance of which leg an athlete takes off, to a little lady age five, she looked at me blankly and said:
    “But I don’t want to do all that, I just want to jump”

    I laughed, thought for a moment and said to her: “Do you know, you are dead right, you go ahead and jump”

    That was last year.

    Last Sunday this same little lady now aged six won her first medal in a U-8 long jump competition.

    Hey! Who needs a coach?

  16. Bernie Traynor says:

    I, an Englishman living and working in India, have compiled five training programmes for two local girls schools. The most advanced covers: Warm Up, Skipping, Abs, Athletics, Basketball, Bullworker, Football, Plyos.

    If I am satisfied with their week’s progress, on Saturdays we partake of any of ten games.

    We are not rich colleges but working class schools. I am very proud of my really fit girls, aged from seventeen to ten.

    Hope this may be of some interest to you.

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