The “Non-negotiables” for Training Young Athletes and Students


By Dave Gleason 

When creating and delivering optimal programming for young athletes in the 6-13 years age range, there are certain factors that are critical to ensure success. In order to have us thinking in the same context, please indulge me while I define success for the purposes of this article.

Success can of course be quantified by measuring your own criteria against the purpose of your training programs (much more on that at a later date, perhaps). As the popularity of sports performance training for children under 13 years increases, we will define success in terms of the following parameters in order of importance:

  • The needs of your clients/students based on the human developmental continuum.
  • The short, medium and long term goals of the training you are providing
  • The long-term success of our program, class, department or business.

Now that we have loosely defined how we will measure success, the second step in determining our ‘non-negotiables’ is to take a look at our priorities. By prioritizing based on internal and external factors, we can decide what the MOST important elements of our curriculum will be. With a clear vision of our priorities we can confidently create a template that will maximize effectiveness and efficiency.

Our priorities will be established by recognizing factors such as:

  • Individual session/class time allotment
  • Session or class frequency
  • Space limitations
  • Staffing requirements
  • Equipment/tools availability
  • Number of athletes/students

Various factors affect your priorities and will influence your non-negotiables.


With all this stated, there is not a one size all for the following list. Taking into account our purpose, criteria for success, and priorities for Athletic Revolution in Pembroke, MA, we have developed these non-negotiable elements to our programs for ages 6-18.

This list will not be specific with the inclusion of actual activities, but will act as a template for you to use as you wish.  These general principles are staples in each and every training session in our facility.

Expectations – Set, Guide, and Anchor the behavior, character, and activities in your programs. For the purposes of this article, I will briefly discuss setting expectations in terms of setting the stage.

Often overlooked, setting expectations prior to every session or class is critical to the overall success as well as building a strong culture. That said, this is non-negotiable for us and well worth the 3-5 minutes we dedicate for it in every session.  Setting the stage can take on a few forms.

Global expectation: “We are going to have a fantastic session today!”

Specific expectation: “We expect each and every athlete to listen when the coach/teacher is speaking.”

Another very important aspect of setting the stage for young athletes and students is explaining the rules or the technique required to complete a certain activity. Keep in mind that the delivery of the technical aspect of activities and movements will vary depending on the age group and ability level you are working with.

With a clear understand of expectations for both the student/athlete and the coach/teacher we can discuss the non-negotiable aspects of programming that deal with specific elements of physical training.

Movement Exploration and Discovery – Boys and girls ages 6-9 are still discovering how to move, and in some cases they are actually performing some movements for the first time. Within this discovery process, they require the opportunity to change elevation, roll, crawl, climb, skip, and run. 10-13 year olds are generally in a position to learn how to move better.

In either case, take advantage of the neural plastic nature of the CNS (central nervous system) by keeping your verbal, visual, and kinesthetic cues to a minimum.  An over-abundance of cueing can lead to goal confusion and frustration…both of which are detrimental to the physical culture and potential physical literacy of the student or athlete.

Object Manipulation – The ability to handle and control an object through space, whether weighted or not, is another critical aspect of human development.

Coordination Training – Not merely the coordination that we grew up with as either having it or not…coordination training will encompass balance, rhythm, reactivity, kinesthetic differentiation, and spatial awareness.

Systemic Strength – Opportunity to build head-to-toe strength is essential for any young child. Body weight, resistance bands, and appropriate externally loaded activities are acceptable means of training systemic strength. We take great effort to frame our systemic strength activities such that they are task-oriented rather than strict repetition and set schemes.

Game Play  – Game play is the most important element of our training systems. We utilize game play in several ways:

  • Reward for hard work
  • Transition (get them out of their world and into yours!)
  • Reinforce specific skills (transference to sport and life)
  • Reinforce general athleticism (transference to sport and life)
  • Just plain FUN

Game play is a non-negotiable when it comes to reinforcing your routines.

To recap, our non-negotiable list of training elements are:

  1. Expectations
  2. Movement Exploration/Discovery
  3. Object Manipulation
  4. Coordination
  5. Systemic Strength
  6. Game Play

Will these elements overlap? YES!

Your justification for classification in one category or another will depend on your purpose for the activity and your criteria for success.

What about Serial Assessment Strategies?

We do assess all of our athletes. However in the context of this article, assessment is not on the starting line up of priorities with the little time allotted to most of the coaches, trainers and teachers reading this.  We take 5-15 minutes every three months to assess movement capability utilizing a rate technical ability for five different movements…but that is in my facility and it works for our purposes and criteria for success.

What do you want to assess?
Will you assess value based data or movement based?
Will you utilized standardized testing protocols or develop your own?
What will you do with the information?
How will it affect your training program? 

These, and more, questions need to be answered prior to the onset of testing and evaluation of your young athletes or students.

Hopefully this short article offers insight as to just what elements of your training program or curriculum is negotiable or not. The art of coaching and teaching dictates that you decide what is optimal for your students and athletes on a short, medium and long-term basis.

I’m confident you will make the best decision for the children you serve!

Keep changing lives!

2 Responses

  1. Bernie Traynor says:

    A fascinating article, but I wish I hadn’t read it. I coach at an organization in India for orphans and children from very very poor backgrounds. I coach outdoors, which is not easy in the rainy season (4 months of the year). I have bought all of the equipment we use and am unpaid (by choice). My children,boys & girls are aged 9 to 11.
    I have a little bit of money which I am willing to spend! Please let me know if we can work together.
    Bernie Traynor

  2. Greg Perez says:

    Great Article, I was very pleased with the outcome as it is very specific to the youth from 6-9 years old as well as objective. I would like to see what some of the differentiated non-negotiables would be for High school aged athletes. I really enjoyed the assessment piece, I know it can be difficult to get caught up with assessments. I am in the process of shifting my philosophy about assessments. Simple formative assessments such as a simple checking for understanding with a thumbs up or an exit ticket is enough for a brief assessment. Every day our kids should be learning something new. Kudos to the IYCA for a great article.

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