This much I know: Young athletes thrive off fun.
There is nothing more fulfilling than watching a kid leave a training session with a beaming smile before exclaiming to their mom and dad in the parking lot, "That was so fun! I want to do it again!"
This exuberance is what makes coaching so fulfilling and meaningful. It's a privilege to be able to impact young athletes for a lifetime, and to be able to birth in them pure joy for sport and fitness.
As a coach to young soccer players for the past eight years, the best moments have been watching kids fall in love with the game. Instead of seeing it as a chore or obligation, they see it as an escape. Instead of seeing it as a job, they see it is as a passion.
If a kid is having fun, they'll stay with a sport for the long run. If not, they'll likely look for any excuse to do something else.
Making training fun is paramount for a young athlete's physical and mental development.
And contrary to popular belief, it's absolutely possible to conduct an intense, educating session where the kids are also having fun.
I've found these four methods essential for making training fun.
1. Greet the Kids With Excitement
The most important moment of the training session is right when the kids arrive.
What is your body language? What is your facial expression? Are you slouched, walking around the field setting up and ignoring them? Are you greeting them with a droned, "hey guys," as you don't make any eye contact?
Or are you welcoming with a smile and eye contact? Are you saying "hi" with energy and passion behind your voice?
The way you greet kids at the beginning of each session is critical. It sets the tone. If you want them to stay engaged and excited during your session, you have to manifest that same energy.
Kids are smart. They respond to your body language, expressions and energy. Setting the tone right off the bat in an exuberant and positive way amplifies their focus.
It also makes them feel like the most important people on the pitch, which is how they should feel. After all, the training session is about them, not you.
2. Start with a Fun Icebreaker
Instead of jumping right into the x's and o's, the tactics and formations, the technical skills and drills, etc., start with something that gets them moving that's also guaranteed fun.
This could be anything from a reactive game, to a warm-up race, to a physical challenge.
As an example, before my middle school sessions, I will challenge my athletes to Monkey Bar Pull-Ups to see how long they can climb across:
It gets the blood flowing and instantly helps them focus on the task at hand. When I challenge them to beat me at the game, their intensity rises even further.
3. Use Games to Build Skills
With a little creativity and preparation, you can create a game that will help develop the skills you're after.
Do you want your players to work on balance? Have a contest to see who can stay on one foot the longest.
Do you want your players to work on hopping? Have a race that requires them to traverse a course only with hops.
Do you want your players to work on coordination? Have them come up with their own skipping and crawling patterns.
Do you want your players to work on quick thinking? Have them do a Rock, Paper, Scissors race (winner chases the loser and tries to tag them!).
Do you want your players to work on maximal speed? Have them chase one another.
Do you want your players to work on reactive agility and spacial awareness? Have them play variations of tag in a tight space. In this version, they're trying to grab the flag off the opposing player.
Think about what you want to accomplish, and then think of ways you can make accomplishing it fun, safe and effective.
Another key: kids don't like standing around. They get bored quickly. Games that involve many kids at once are great.
4. Get Involved
Coaching kids should also be really fun for the coach, because you are allowed to be goofy! Be care-free and get involved in the play.
Can you challenge the kids to some sort of strength movement, handicapping yourself as needed?
Can you have them chase you down in a race?
Can you have them navigate around you in an obstacle course?
When the coach gets involved in the action instead of always standing to the side instructing, the kids feel even more empowered. Being relatable goes a long way with young athletes, because the more they trust you, the more they feel comfortable approaching you and asking you for feedback.
Coaching kids is tremendously rewarding. It gives you the opportunity to create impact beyond the game. If there is anything you get from this piece, it is to ensure kids are having a blast and developing a love for what they're doing!
If you're seeing a lot of smiles and hearing a lot of laughs, you know you're on the right track.
Photo Credit: LeoPatrizi/iStock
READ MORE FROM ERICA SUTER:
- An Open Letter to Strong Female Athletes
- 5 Core Exercises Young Athletes Should Be Using Instead of Sit-Ups
- 5 Ways Young Athletes Can Reduce Stress and Anxiety