Coaching young athletes can be some of the most rewarding work a strength coach will ever do.
But at the same time, coaching athletes at this level can be hectic—especially if you're someone who takes the "my way or the highway" approach to programming. Having a plan is paramount to being an effective coach, of course, but it can be difficult to fully implement a routine with everything that young athletes have going on.
As a strength coach, our job is first and foremost about injury prevention. With that in mind, it's important to keep the lines of communication open with the athletes we work with. For example, I work with some athletes who are currently in their "offseason." The workout schedule for them has been chaotic at best and largely non-existent. However, I still make a point to ask them what happened that day (or the previous day) during their offseason.
Just last month I was prepping to start a session with an offseason group and I asked them what they had done that day. I fully expected to hear another answer of "nothing." Well, thank God I asked. We had a pretty heavy leg session programmed for the day, but I found out these athletes had to do 5x5's in both Back Squats and Front Squats just an hour or so earlier! Crazy, I know.
The point is the modern student-athlete has a ton going on—there's multiple sports to play, offseason training, club and AAU teams, pick-up games, school projects, school clubs, social stresses, even just all-nighters playing Call of Duty (it's more common than you might think). You name it, an athlete is living it. Your athletes have something going on to be sure. It's your job to figure out what and how that something might impact their training needs and capacity. Asking simple questions to figure out what's going on in a young athlete's life will go a long way toward the progress you ultimately want for them.
These are just some examples of why strength coaches must be flexible in their programming and daily expectations of young athletes. Again, having a plan is non-negotiable. Simply having one plan will put you ahead of many other strength coaches (unfortunately). But what separates the good coaches from the great is the ability to adjust on the fly.
Do you have the capability to tweak a session or even totally overhaul it depending on the needs of your athletes at a given time?
Did they have a surprise heavy leg day like some of my athletes did? Maybe do some upper-body and regeneration work.
Heavy Bench and Row day? Hit some legs and plyometrics.
Are they completely spent everywhere? Do some regeneration and let the kids go home early and rest. Sometimes that is the best option. It may cost you some money, but at the end of the day, the health of the athlete is what's most important. The nugget of wisdom every strength coach should follow is this: Have a plan, but don't be married to your program.
With that in mind, here are some simple on-the-fly adjustments you can make depending on the unique needs of your athletes.
1. The Athlete's Chest and Hamstrings are Spent Due to an Unexpected Full-Body Workout
Let's say your original plan was for an upper-body push and a lower-body pull workout. That's obviously out the window due to the fact that the muscle groups such a workout would target on the athlete are totally fried.
So what do you do instead? I'd change it to an upper-body pull and lower-body push workout, complementing the athlete's previous workout as opposed to hammering the same muscle groups. I'd also leave some extra time for regeneration such as foam rolling, trigger point, hydrotherapy, etc.
2. Bad Weather Forced Several Doubleheaders on The Athlete's Schedule, Their Legs Are Toast
You had a big lower-body workout planned for today. Then your athlete came in and told you he had to play a ton of games over the weekend due to weather rescheduling. Their legs are burnt out and they're a bit fatigued overall.
So what do you do instead?
Perhaps an upper-body workout paired with plenty of regeneration work (foam roll, trigger point, stretching, hydrotherapy, active recovery, etc.) The added benefit here is that athletes generally prefer upper-body workouts to lower-body workouts, so they should be more energetic and focused during the session than they would be had you forced them to train their already-sore legs.
3. The Athlete Feels Beat Up, But They Still Want to Do Something
You notice that your usually exuberant athlete seems foggy and fatigued. For the past week, they've been swamped with school projects and several "non-mandatory" (but still definitely mandatory if you want to get on the coach's good side) early morning practices. They want to do something, but the high-intensity plyometrics and lower-body routine you had planned is now off the table.
So what do you do instead?
Focus on something you know they'll enjoy. For male athletes, this could consist of a "Bro Day" that hones in on the biceps and triceps and perhaps a little core. For female athletes, you could do some core and glute work. When in doubt, just ask them what muscle groups they'd like to work on. The focus should be on getting the blood flowing and maybe achieving a nice pump (particularly if they want to work arms)—not on exhausting them. Once the quick workout is over, it's time to dial in on regeneration and help them walk out of the gym feeling better than when they walked in.
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