A common theme in the strength and conditioning field is to talk about the x’s and o’s of coaching. You will see a lot of focus on program design with the goal to increase performance, prevent injuries, etc. This is certainly an important aspect of coaching and what I believe to be minimum requirements. If you are coaching youth athletes, every coach should be able to execute and design a safe and effective program.
However, what is going to set coaches apart and create real change is how they connect, coach, and interact with their athletes. This overlooked topic is often referred to as the “art of coaching”. This is where the real importance of coaching begins. Coaches have the opportunity to have a profound influence on a youth athlete's personal and physical development in a critical juncture of their lives. The goal of this article is to discuss how we coach, cue, and interact with our athletes to create positive relationships.
Take some time to think and reflect back on your years as a teenager. For most people it was a time of confusion, uncertainty, and the social pressure of trying to fit in. Pressure that stems from a fear of failure or not being as good as your peers is common with teenagers and creates an environment where kids become afraid to try.
Despite this, many coaches interact with youth athletes with an authoritative demeanor that includes constant cueing and correction. Doing things correctly and with proper movement is important, but constantly calling kid’s out in front of their peers is not the right way to do it. Even if their squat needs some serious work, how would you feel as a teenager if a coach started calling you out in front of your peers? Maybe a little self conscious, maybe afraid to give full effort for fear failing.
Rather than focusing on the negative, it is important to build a relationship and some rapport with your athletes. This can be done by positively engaging them. Asking about their day, asking about school, having conversations and genuinely caring about them and their feelings. From there once it is time to coach, correct, and cue, start with positive language. Focus on what they did well first and then give them something they need to work or improve on.
Next, put them in positions to be successful and build confidence. If you know they aren’t ready for a complicated movement like a back squat, start them with a simpler variation. This builds confidence initially and will continue when they are able to progress to the more complicated movements.
Not only will this help build self confidence in the athletes, but it allows the coach to establish a positive relationship where they become a source of information not a source of ridicule.
CATER TO MULTIPLE LEARNING TYPES
Most people have different styles of learning. The three main types of learning according to the VAK learning model are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. How does this relate to coaching? As a coach it is our responsibility to provide opportunities for each different learner. What does this look like in a coaching environment for us?
It typically starts with an auditory description that includes key points and what is expected on what we are about to perform. We like to follow that up with a visual demonstration of what we are doing and how to perform it correctly. This visual demonstration and auditory description can often be combined and you can walk the athletes through it as you show them how to do it correctly.
Once we have explained the movement and shown the movement, the last piece is to set the athlete free and let them try it. For our younger and newer athletes, we use a lot more kinesthetic learning where the coach is helping them get in correct positions. This helps them feel what it is like to do it properly. As the athletes get more repetition and experience, less kinesthetic learning and cueing is typically needed.
As a coach, this is another opportunity to build confidence in our athletes. Each learning type has been accommodated, and the athletes can feel confident that they know what they are being asked to do and how to do it properly.
SET THEM FREE
One of the biggest things I have learned while coaching youth athletes and beginners is that it is not going to be perfect. Our job as coaches is not to berate and cue them to death in hopes that it will improve their movement. Our job is to provide them with the opportunities to learn and then to set them free. Put them in positions where they won’t get hurt and then let them try, fail, learn, and improve. That is how growth and improvement takes place.
It’s going to take time and lots of repetitions and that is normal. Too many coaches egos get in the way or worry what others will think if their athletes aren’t moving perfectly. Don’t let the judgement or fear of what others think take away from the environment you are wanting to achieve with the athletes in front of you.
If you are looking to build a trusting and positive relationship with your athletes there is no better way than showing them you care about them. Go the extra mile to support them and what is important to them. Attending games, donating to team fundraisers, creating and finding ways to celebrate their success in the training space. It Seems simple and it is, but it goes a long way in creating, confidence, trust, and a connection that will last beyond their time as a youth athlete.
As coaches of youth athletes we are in a unique position to be the first role models they will encounter in the fitness space. If we are able to help foster a positive relationship with the weight room and fitness, we can accelerate their athletic development. But more importantly, we can create an experience for them that has the potential to benefit and impact them for the rest of their lives.