Why Games Are a Great Way to Train Youth Athletes

Give your young athletes a break from traditional drills and exercises.

If you work with youth athletes in any sport, you have probably realized the need for fun to be a key factor in their training.

Especially when working as a strength and conditioning or performance coach, getting kids to buy into training is crucial in developing the physical characteristics needed both in the short-term and long-term process of being a high-level athlete. Kids want to have fun, and rightly so, as fun is the original intent behind playing sports in the first place. We as coaches also want to feel the time we get with athletes is productive, so making sure there is an intent and purpose for everything we do is important, as well.

This is where fitness-based games can come into play. Well thought-out games offer the fun kids crave while still providing the stimulus that coaches are aiming for. Kids don't get enough play, so applying some principles of play to training is a great idea.

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If you work with youth athletes in any sport, you have probably realized the need for fun to be a key factor in their training.

Especially when working as a strength and conditioning or performance coach, getting kids to buy into training is crucial in developing the physical characteristics needed both in the short-term and long-term process of being a high-level athlete. Kids want to have fun, and rightly so, as fun is the original intent behind playing sports in the first place. We as coaches also want to feel the time we get with athletes is productive, so making sure there is an intent and purpose for everything we do is important, as well.

This is where fitness-based games can come into play. Well thought-out games offer the fun kids crave while still providing the stimulus that coaches are aiming for. Kids don't get enough play, so applying some principles of play to training is a great idea.

But how do we target the abilities we want to see through games?

Beginning with common games with simple objectives is always a great place to start—think tag, capture the flag, monkey in the middle, sharks and minnows, catch, ultimate frisbee or games that involve getting one object into another (such as a ball in a net or goal). But once you settle on the basic premise, adjusting the variables is where you change how the game is played and the demands you'll place on your athletes.

Understand the controllable factors of games: time frame, equipment, playing surface or space, and rules. These factors can be manipulated and formed around what outcome you want to achieve, and can help you break free from the traditional games kids already play for sport. By using these major controllable factors, you can create and shape games that not only develop athletic qualities, but can reinforce skills you have taught. It's all about introducing variables that incentivize kids to play a certain way, but still allow plenty of freedom. That freedom fosters an environment where athletes feel more confident experimenting with different athletic solutions, which is a key benefit of utilizing games as training. The game play itself also offers immediate feedback on the success of those different strategies, which can be a lot more powerful than a coach's cue or instruction.

For example, if you want to develop balance and stability, you can manipulate the amount of surface space available for the athletes to play on. A smaller surface can demand greater balance. It could also mean placing the athlete on a limited body surface like the hands or feet, such as games that are based around crouching positions or quadruped positions. A personal favorite that serves well as a warm-up for both strength, balance, and mobility is a game of "King of the Monkeys" in which kids try to push each other over from a crouched position (see video). The same principle could be applied to other common games like Tug-of-War, which becomes incrementally harder when played standing on a box or a board.

Another example is if you want to develop aerobic capacity, you can manipulate the time frame or playing area. The longer you play, the longer the heart rate stays up. The larger the space, the slower and more consistent the pace of play usually becomes. Those same principles can be inverted to create anaerobic games. You can also manipulate the playing space available to create harder or softer directional changes, with a smaller space usually requiring more aggressive cutting maneuvers than a larger space. A personal favorite is a game called "Rug-ball," which is a combination of the sports of Rugby, Ultimate Frisbee, and Handball played on a half-size or full-size soccer field (dependent on the adaptation you want).

A crucial component in developing these games, however, comes down to the rules and implements you utilize. Games with kicking involved become very different when a round ball is replaced with an ovular one, for example. As a coach and leader, you set the boundaries and parameters for the game by creating scenarios that put your athletes in positions you want to see. For example, if you want to reinforce change of direction positions and skill, create a game that requires get low and reach for something:

This can be done in many ways, both in a team setting, and in one-on-one formats. You may want to develop spacial awareness with athletes, in which you could play a game of obstacle tag by adding additional objects and variables into the game of tag (Google the World Chase Tag Championships). By manipulating the rules and implements you use for a game, you begin to control the adaptations that can occur. Although sports and skill coaches will use games that more closely reflect the sport at hand, they too can enhance their athlete's development by tweaking certain variables. For example, a small-sided soccer game where each player may only pass once per possession before being forced to dribble or shoot can help develop more confidence and competency in one-on-one dribbling situations.

Striking the perfect balance of fun and athletic development for your athletes may take some trial and error, but don't be afraid to get creative. The No. 1 thing you must not lose sight of is that the games should be fun for the athletes. Don't be afraid to ask questions and get feedback on the games you create, though it'll be fairly obvious when your athletes are really enjoying a game from the big smiles and laughter.

By understanding the controllable variables in a game, you can combine it with the knowledge of physiology and/or the knowledge of speed and agility skills you already have as a coach. If you understand those principles, then the only thing that will limit your ability to use games effectively in training is your creativity. If that is the case, you can take games that are well-known and manipulate the controllable factors in those games and see what that produces to create a variety of options to choose from.

Photo Credit: FatCamera/iStock

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Topics: YOUTH SPORTS