Youth Sports Training: Do You Confuse Your Young Athletes?

Youth sports training with kids

You could open an interesting debate with respect to teaching sporting skills to kids.


I did last week during a presentation I gave to area basketball coaches.


Some trainers and coaches have decided that the skills required to achieve a certain task should be taught from the beginning.


Others believe in the concept of motor patterning – allowing the young athlete to find his or her own way of achieving a task.


The debate gets even trickier when you factor in the varying nuances and therefore objectives of different sports.


For example, in basketball, if the ball goes in the hoop, it doesn’t really matter how it got there.


But in diving, you know going in that once you jump off the platform, gravity will pull you into the water – the style in which you get there is all that really matters.


Where do you sit on this debate?


I asked the coaches in my audience the same question.


Should you teach or over-teach a certain style of execution to young athletes from day one, or should you allow the young athletes to learn the relative motor patterning via exploration and natural refinement?



The actual answer falls in line with a concept that I discuss constantly in my newsletter.


You have to have a system.


Effectively and safely developing a young athlete is not something that you can do in one practice or one training session at a time.


You must have a direction-based path that extends over several months or years.


This path must, of course, be dynamic in nature, but a "system of development" is what is lacking globally in the youth sports world at large.


Let me explain this by using the example of "form vs. outcome" as discussed above.


The central nervous system of a young person is very plastic – meaning i is explorative by nature and extremely sensitive to new stimulus.


The old adage "you can’t teach an old dog new tricks" really does have merit when it comes to learning the skills of a sporting task. The older you are when you experience a new motor skill, the less likely you will be able to cultivate that skill in an optimal way.


But, as a child, your ability to learn new skills and solve motor tasks is quite high.


The essence of this reality, however, is founded on the notion of free exploration. Kids seem to learn the best when they are given nothing more than loose instructions on how to accomplish a task, and then allowed to work at solving the objective in their own way.


This is especially true when the form of execution of the skill in question is not a critical as the outcome.


And this is the crux of the debate.


As you know, I am a huge proponent of teaching young athletes proper execution-based foundations…


…And here’s where the audience of coaches started challenging me.


"This doesn’t make sense, Brian"


"You are known as the guy who preaches about teaching first"


"Agree", I said. "But what do I always equate that to?"


"Training young athletes", the coach responded.


"Exactly! TRAINING young athletes. That is substantially different than COACHING young athletes to perform the skills of certain sports."


I went on to explain the difference.


"When I teach a squat, the outcome doesn’t matter to me. In fact, I think it matters TOO MUCH to most trainers.


"Too many trainers focus on how much they can get a young athletes to lift – all I care about it that they lift it well. The amount of force they can produce will be both proportional to and synergistic with how well they perform the movement."


The coaches were starting to get it.


"Shooting a basketball is not a form-based event, though. It’s an outcome-based event."


"You just lost me", responded the coach.


"Okay, look at it this way. Does anyone grade or evaluate the way a young athlete shoos a basketball?"




"Then all that really matters is that the ball goes in the hoop. You get two points for a successful outcome, and there is no scoring system in place that either adds points or takes them away based on the execution of that shot, is there?




"Then shooting a basketball successfully is nothing more than an outcome-based event."


"Are you saying that we should not be teaching how to shoot a basketball? Just let the kids have at it any way they want?"


"No. Learning the proper execution of a skill as it related to motor tasks such as shooting a basketball, throwing a baseball or hitting a tennis ball with a racquet are important to eventual success, but the style with which you do those things are directly related to solving those motor tasks," I countered.


And herein, my friend, is where I made the coaches finally understand everything…


"If you tell a young athlete that the goal is to make a basket, throw a baseball right over the plate or return a volley over the net, but at the same time tell them how they should do it, all you end up doing is confusing the young athlete in terms of what the actual goal of the event is."


‘Goal confusion’ is a term coined by researchers (Gentile, 1972) which explains the ‘form versus outcome’ debate.


It also forms the basis of the groundwork for the ‘system of development’ I referenced above.


Athletes as young as 6 and 7 are being taught and over-taught the specific skills and nuances of how to perform various sporting skills in youth leagues, camps and clinics the world-over.


And this is tragically counter-productive.


When training or coaching young athletes, you must understand and then categorize how you will introduce them to certain sporting skills.


More often than not, your task will be to tell them the outcome of what you are looking for and stave off your desire to teach them the form of how to accomplish it.


By creating only outcome-based events and exercises for young athletes and allowing them the freedom to solve the task on their own recourse, you will be fostering and enhancing their globalized athletic ability and taking advantage of the extreme adaptability of their central nervous system.


Over time, it will be necessary to change the goals or objectives of your practices or training sessions into more form-based events in which you begin to refine and improve the execution of the motor task.


And in a nutshell, that is the ‘system of development’.


Understand the importance of free discovery and its impact on the central nervous system.


Create less confusion in your young athletes life by remaining either form or outcome-based with your practices and training sessions.


“O.K. Now that makes sense”, the coaches agreed.



Click to learn more about a proven system for training young athletes and youth sports training



8 Responses

  1. Dan Purpura says:

    I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition when you’re talking form and outcome. In certain skills long term development and prevention of injury depend on learning proper form at an early age.

    A long career in a sport, even if it’s only making a high school team requires some competence in skill. If form is addressed after a player has been doing the skill with poor mechanics for a few years the chances of turning him around aren’t very good.

    Throwing and hitting are the examples I’m most familiar with. I do clinics and lessons for both and am also Level 1 and 2 YFS. The IYCA training has helped a great deal in teaching movement and coaching styles. Learning body position, shuffling and deceleration movement training has helped tremendously with both throwing and fielding.

    However, most kids don’t know how to throw or swing a bat. Sure the ball moves, sometimes consistently to their target. And the bat moves, sometimes hitting the ball hard, but rarely with mechanics that will allow the player to live up to his potential.

    I’ve found that the older the boy the harder it is to get them to improve form, especially the ones who develop physically at an earlier age and dominate with size rather than skill but run into trouble when the other kids catch up to them developmentally.

    Kids as young as 6 or 7 can be steered in the right direction learning skills which allows their process of discovery to proceed with more consistent outcomes. Of course this relies on the person coaching knowing what he is talking about.

    I think that’s where the art of coaching is huge. If you can simplify the movements gradually rather than overload a kid with too much form and outcome can proceed nicely.

    Too many kids can throw a strike with poor form only to discover at age 13 the plate is 15 feet further away and now his arm hurts when he throws.

    Or they find that the balls that used to be hits barely make it to the infielders.

    The bottom line is I think there’s room for both. There’s always the argument about having fun. For many the fun is being good at something or even just being less frustrated.

    It’s up to the adults to make sure there’s the balance to get kids playing a bunch of sports and not fall into the plastic trophy syndrome.

  2. Dr. Kwame M. Brown says:

    I also don’t think that form, enjoyment and creativity are mutually exclusive.

    It is true, that when playing basketball, if one is playing by oneself simply for enjoyment, it doesn’t matter how the ball goes in the hoop. However, when one is playing against a defense, learning effective form can actually INCREASE opportunities for creativity. In fact, if you look at the NBA players who have the most creative moves, they usually have sound fundamentals. Kids just need to engage in enough guided discovery to learn how one movement can chain to another, and to find those effective patterns, ie, when to do what. This actually makes the game more fun, because they end up truly being able to do what they want with the ball.

    I discovered that in tennis. The more fundamental skill I had, the more I could create. The better matches I had, and the more options I had.

    It should always be about creating the situation to develop “feel”. But remember, if the kid playing against others always shoots his / her jumpshot from a low position or off center, they will not enjoy the game as much, because they won’t be able to do consistently what they wish to do. Additionally, the shot will get blocked more often than not. That’s no fun!

    In closing, it is the MIXTURE of free exploration, knowledge passed down through the generations, guidance, and continued progressive success that breeds young happy participants in sports.

  3. Doug Parra says:

    Great points Dan, there is that fine line between having fun and learning skills without overwhelming someone with technique. It is interesting what certain young athletes consider fun, some are content and have “fun” with completing or or doing the task and seeing the result/outcome. But others do not seem to enjoy or have “fun” with what they are doing or learning unless they also see improvement with their technique or “how” they are doing it. That is what the IYCA has helped me become more conscious of, what kind of individual am I teaching and coaching? Identifying the different needs of youth athletes as some progress at different rates than others. Some youth athletes can take more technical coaching than others during the various stages of their learning process.

  4. Chris says:

    I totally disagree with the article’s premise. Too many times I have seen poor kicking form in soccer in U-12 kids. No one ever taught them proper kicking technique and now as an older kid they have muscle memory firmly established. What worked as a powerful kick in Muppets and U-8 doesn’t work anymore when they get to U-12.
    You need to teach proper form at a young age, whether basketball, baseball or soccer. The kids will enjoy the sport later in life because they are fairly good at it via good form, thus they will probably stick with sports longer and won’t quit when the competition gets more even.

  5. Chuck says:

    The ability to undersatd scope and sequence is essential to developing skill as well as keep interest. You cannot be on both sides of this issue. A quality teacher is also a good coach. A quality coach is not neccessarily a good teacher. Can you teach too much? How do you overcoach? When do you allow the athlete to increase intensity to improve on performance? I have been teaching for 30 years and let me tell you I am still learning and improving. I still believe in basic movement and motor patterns, but I am not going to teach a 7 year old the complexitites of a 18 year old. Sometimes that 18 year old has the mechanics of that 7 year old. Always teach efficient mechanics, but also allow for the athlete to have intensity and then come back to mechanics. I would not over correct during intense bouts of effort, you cabn always come back to the beginning at another time. I guess this is where style meets technique. This is always a good discussion.

  6. Frank says:

    I think proper progressions is the key. I seem to remember Brian talking about this over the years. The skill development starts out very general at the younger age, lets say a 7 year old soccer player. As he grows both physically and mentally, more finer details can be added to shape his skills. Right up to his early to mid 20’s the ages most likely for athletic maturity. Although, as a teenager, most finer skills will be noticed, appreciated, and graded for determing the athletes capable level of competition. I always thought, from the first time I read it, that this was the gist of the article.

  7. “Those that no not what they speak always seem to speak the loudest”

    I cry every time i read these types of discussions. They go nowhere and they’re not based on tested evidence.

    The problem in the sports industry, especially the team sports arena is the preposterous assumption that 5, 6 and 7 year olds even have to kick or do anything remotely adult like. As a professional development coach in soccer i see an outdated, inappropriate adult system used as the model for development.

    Of course they’re organised into teams and competitions and before you know it they’re in the insidious loop of being labelled a soccer player. Of course this comes with the baggage of looking like a soccer player, acting like a soccer player and of course playing like a soccer player.

    Go back 30 years, most every kid on the street could kick, run, throw, catch, climb and jump. We came to organised sports much later and fitted in nicely. Of course there was the occasional gauwky kid. What people tend to forget is that these kids weren’t 5, 6 or 7 they were older 10, 11 12’s

    We’re trying to imprint adult movement patterns on to very young kids not by bad coaching but by a terrible model handed down from the professional ranks that our kids are now stuck with today. The system is ingrained and everyone seems to be buying into it.

    “Did you see that Youtube video of that 4 year old. WOW what great skills” …and so it goes.

    Just a few things to think about how our very young young:

    1. Kids wear shoes and boots when playing sports – these inhibit development of proprioception and muscles of the foot.
    2. The attitudes of coaches and parents to a child’s performance is less than perfect, impacting subtly on self esteem and confidence. (way to go for a 6 year old)
    3. The size and weight of equipment is unsuitable. who thought of a size 3 football that weighs 425g is suitable for a 6 year old?

    I like the idea of not confusing kids. Outcome based for very young is definitely the priority.
    Outcome 1 – don’t get the kids injured
    Outcome 2 – for the kids to enjoy themselves as much as possible
    Outcome 3 – meet the kids needs not the adults.

    Lastly, and i know i used my quota, the perception that older kids can’t learn or develop is complete and utter pish posh.
    A few years back i took an uncoordinated, very poor specimen of an athlete and in three years he developed into a competent semi professional footballer.
    11 sessions a week for 3 years and this 18 year old transformed himself.
    The conditions with a kids body may be more pliable to learn at an earlier age but concentration to task is a powerful tool as well.

  8. David Walencewicz says:

    I believe it is important to teach youth the basic form and technique that is needed to perform a specific sport skill.The confusion lies with certain pro athletes who by virtual of making to pros are successful, but may not have the “correct” form that you would want to teach a young person. For examply Shawn Marion is a great 3 point shooter but his form is very unorthodox, he is like most pro athletes “freaks of nature”. 99.9% of the young athletes any coach sees will not make it to the pros!the majority of pro athletes do have good fundamental habits and form. One other point is that Older athletes are alot “stronger” and can perfrom tasks by overcompensations and this confuses young athletes who watch.

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