Coaching at the youth level requires much more than what meets the eye. Coaches are responsible for total team development, from practice layouts and scheduling, technical and tactical skill acquisition, and even education of the sport depending on their working-age group. Often coaches are also responsible for the team fundraising, travel logistics, and keeping the parents satisfied. At this point, their plates are more than full, and the physical development of their athletes takes a backseat.
While not as important as excelling at the sport itself, the physical development of these young athletes is still a critical piece of their total long-term athletic development. Playing the sport for many of these athletes at a younger age may be enough. Eventually, just playing the sport itself or running them through what has just been performed will not be sufficient in the past. Suppose your athletes or child are active in an organized sport. In that case, they should also be active in a physical training program of some capacity. This will be situational-based, but if they are playing through the high demands of the sport, they should also be getting prepared for those demands in an appropriate training program.
An appropriate training program coaches can offer their athletes to sell their program to the parents and kids. This instills an increased buy-in factor and confidence in their abilities. Assuming it is well organized and appropriate for the athletes, of course. Adding in the physical preparation piece does bring on a lot of stress and can cause coaches to become overwhelmed. Requiring this of our sports coaches can be a daunting task to someone who already holds so many responsibilities.
Sports Coaches Outsource Physical Preparation.
This will allow coaches to free up more time and focus on the sport itself. Whether through an article similar to this or reaching out to a local sports performance company in your area. Getting advice and insight into your unique situation would be the best thing for the athletes. By working with a professional, the coach can gradually grasp a basic understanding of how to layout a physical preparation session and balance it with the practice demands. This is the ultimate goal, as education is the best tool for a coach to have. A small understanding of physical performance training can carry a long way in structuring a more efficient practice and optimal training environment.
Guidelines To A Team’s Physical Performance
If you are unable to or before reaching out to a professional though in your local area, here are a few guidelines to explore to help with your team’s physical performance.
The first thing that needs to be addressed is what is appropriate for your athletes? Exercises are not inherently bad or good, but rather more or less appropriate for the individual performing them. A training program for a 13-year-old AAU basketball team will look very different compared to a 16-year-old team or an 8-year-old team. I know this sounds like a no-brainer. Still, the exercise volume, intensity, and even the exercise selection are often not modified for the athletes.
Training youth athletes does involve a more general approach. You are working to build the base for the athlete and give them the foundation that they will need to help them perform later down the road as they mature and develop. Though general, there should still be some slight individualization. The program should be based on the athlete’s age, emotional maturity, and previous training history. When programming any physical performance sessions, the level of appropriateness is your compass.
Quality > Quantity
This is an overlooked aspect of youth development. With most things, people think more is better, but in reality, more is not better. Better is better. I would prefer an athlete to successfully complete 5 perfectly executed reps with the proper intention to have 20 sub-par reps of the same exercise with no intention.
Especially with youth athletes, less is more because they will get more physically out of the exercise. Their attention span will be better managed this way. This also makes everything better for the coach running the session, and time is a significant constraint of practice sessions. Focusing on briefer yet higher quality sessions can save coaches time and make more efficient training sessions a win-win for coaches and athletes.
Ensure Training Quality Remains High
Keep movement quality a top priority. If athletes aren’t performing movements right, whether from fatigue or technical ability, they need to be cut off from the rep and given a reduced set or a regression of the movement. Such as elevated push-ups instead of push-ups from the floor.
Keep sets and reps in a moderate scheme. Typically sets of 5-8 will provide a tremendous bang for your buck, and then you can add reps from there. It may not seem like a lot, but remembering the key is quality, and the more reps will lead to more fatigue, leading to poor reps. There is a time to go to failure and push boundaries, but not when athletes are just learning how to perform a push-up or bodyweight squat.
Set up small victories. Starting with a more effortless movement at first is a better way to gauge your athlete’s abilities before moving them on and help them build confidence with the movement by grabbing the low-hanging fruit first.
Rest is the most critical training variable a sports coach can manipulate. Whether during a performance session or within the sports practice itself, rest will dictate the success of the adaptation or skill that is trying to be developed. It is often neglected and sometimes can contradict what the goal of the training is to begin with. For instance, if training for speed development, full recovery will need to be obtained before performing another rep. If an athlete is trying to develop speed, but running rep after rep with little to no rest, then that is conditioning. It is the same with learning a new technical skill. It is quite difficult to coach and develop a new skill with your athletes if they are exhausted.
Rest makes or breaks a session. An easy way to break up a practice from the physical performance side is to perform the session at the beginning of the end of the practice. This way, it should not disrupt the main task at hand of the practice. If performed initially, it serves as a warm-up or at the end, so it doesn’t disrupt any skill acquisition that was done beforehand.
A popular way to manage your practice and training load is the high-low approach. Essentially it’s keeping all of the high-intensity stressors together. All of the low-intensity stressors together, and then alternating between the days. If, as the coach, you give them an “easy” skills day and a “hard” performance session, it doesn’t conflict with each other and does not allow the athletes a true rest or recovery day. You would pair hard with hard and easy with easy.
Practice Layout Suggestions
Let’s say you play games on Saturdays. That is the highest stressor day. Your practice layout could look something like this:
- Sunday: Off
- Monday: High
- Tuesday: Low
- Wednesday: Off
- Thursday: High
- Friday: Low-intensity sessions, Walkthrough, etc.
- Saturday: Gameday (High)
This model was developed with more advanced athletes in mind, but I do want to give you a layout for the higher end of the spectrum, 14-17-year-olds. Train younger athletes or athletes with a lower training age. They can still make exceptional progress on the lower intensity days. High-intensity performance sessions may not even be appropriate for them. You want to do provide the least amount of stimulus to get the most return on adaptation. If you overpaid for anything else in your life, you would be upset, yet we overpay with the physical demands of practices and still don’t get as much in return.
Though you are training a youth team, you do not need any exercise equipment besides their body weight and the practice area you’re already in. Suppose you are fortunate enough to have access to additional resources. Even when teams have all the access to these additional resources, it is not required. Mastering the basic bodyweight movements will be far more beneficial and offer you more in return.
Utilizing the athlete’s body weight should be the number one priority with the training of younger age groups. It is limitless on its possibilities of movement pattern combinations, and it is free! When utilizing the bodyweight movements, you want to focus on the major movements such as push-ups, squats, crawls, and skips, jumps, hops, and bounds to challenge the athlete. Providing different movements that the athletes don’t see in the sport itself is also big. This should be a must for single-sport athletes since they are limited in their movement literacy by only participating in one sport.
Outside of bodyweight-only training resistance bands, and medicine balls are amazing tools because they can be used anywhere and are very versatile. If you are also on a tight budget with your team, these items will not break the bank.
If you are going to buy additional equipment for your team, keep in mind the versatility of the equipment and long-term use. The last thing you want to do is buy a specialized piece of equipment for your athletes, and they outgrow its use before the season even ends.
Exercise selection is a key aspect of physical preparation. As mentioned previously, you want to provide various movements to strengthen their movement competency while still meeting them where they are currently. You don’t want to prescribe movements or loads that they cannot achieve or maybe too advanced for them. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. This goes at all levels. Just because an athlete seems older and stronger doesn’t mean we should train them like miniature adults or pro athletes. They may seem to be advanced from a muscular perspective. Still, the tendon and joint strength are different matters.
Even at the high school level, athletes may be advanced regarding their sports skills but have a low training age in the weight room. Giving them too much too soon is not fair to the athletes. It can cause harm and severely disrupt their long-term development as they are skipping several developmental steps. Making it harder for them to progress later down the road continually.
Putting It All Together
Physical preparation can be much more complicated than it needs to at times. I’m not saying it’s easy by any stretch. Still, if you are already a sports coach and trying to balance so many different tasks, it’s best not to add any additional stress to the plate.
I would still ultimately recommend you outsource this side of the training, as it will be best for everyone involved. You will get more time to focus on the game itself and less stress, while your athletes will be in the hands of a professional. I understand though this may not be possible. Even if you should still talk with said professional and worked together to create an optimal training environment.
Following the principles listed in this article can give a coach a much better opportunity to handle this aspect of their team development. Firstly, find what is appropriate for your athletes, focusing on higher-quality movements to help build their athletic foundation and find what exercises. Equipment will be necessary. Finally, it will be implemented in a sound and structured way to best fit within the practice and game schedule for that week. As the coach, you are ultimately responsible for your athletes. Equipping yourself with the knowledge is the first step to creating a safe and successful program.