To put some context into this post, I am working with kids of varying abilities in both general fitness and skill from the ages of 7-18 years of age.
Attention! Number 1
Training youths is complicated, not solely because of the variety of skill level amongst a group, but due to the attention span of youths. It is very difficult to program/plan when you have to include a large amount of variety to maintain interest. When learning a new skill it is important to spend a significant amount of time on the task to cement new skill development.
One thought is that youths tend to get bored with some exercises and lose interest, focus and effort. The temptation as a coach is to change the exercise regularly to maintain interest in bringing about new enthusiasm with change.
While this approach is tempting, the amount of time spend learning the specific skill is reduced. They also realise then if they fail at an exercise then a change of exercise happens. This doesn’t build confidence in an particular exercise. Another problem with large amounts of variety is that long terms it creates a problem with expectations of constant variety changing focus and attention regularly.
I use a closed skill exercise with perfect practice followed by an open skill exercise to reinforce that skill learned to bring about enjoyment.
Closed skill drill - 6” hurdle non-counter movement jump and sticks
Goal - to jump with perfect technique over every hurdle and land at the end in a “stick” position.
A demonstration from the coach of everything they want to see; where to stand, hand position, jumping technique etc.. Followed by execution by the athlete.
Errors will be seen on a few points; they knock a hurdle, don't move their arms, poor landing, the list could go on, but if I don’t feel that have correctly given their best effort, then the drill gets repeated with specific feedback given to allow for improvement.
The same gets repeated usually for 5-10 efforts (depending on the kid and the complexity of the skill). If they’re still struggling then the athlete may expect change due to their failure. I personally don't until I see what I want to see. This may happen for 5-20 minutes, but the next time they come in the drill is completed much much quicker allowing you to move onto more complicated skills.
Broken Potential? Number 2
Too much, too soon is the classic overuse injuries in youths today. However, if their base level of fitness is equal to or greater than the demands of the sport then the athlete is appropriately prepared for the rigours of training and competition, dramatically reducing the chance of injury.
However, as a coach in a group setting this is incredibly difficult to achieve. When a group of youth athletes have high and low levels of aerobic and anaerobic fitness the individual differences are difficult to account for. What ends up happening is some athletes fail, drop out or get injured while others strive. It could be seen as some sort of “natural selection”, but is this process right?
Understanding where your kids are athletically is very important. If you’re lucky you’ll see kids for 2 hours per week which is a significant amount of time to impact their fitness. But it is very important to know where they are not and to benchmark future fitness standards. We complete fitness tests with kids from 8-18 years of age. The younger ones don’t get the “full works” testing, but numbers we think are important.
Mini Adults - Number 3
Putting youth athletes on an adult sport-specific strength training programs before the ages of 12 I believe is a mistake. What I mean by an adult training program is that of a typical “gym” exercises with specific overload through weight training.
I don’t believe this will benefit them athletically more than doing “movement exploration” on the field/court. There are exercises which can provide a significant stimulus to the musculoskeletal system without bringing indivduals into the gym. Plyometrics, small sided games and endurance can be developed with creativity and enthusiasm from you as a coach.
Keep the instructions short, use lots of demonstrations and always apply constructive feedback. Your enthusiasm will be infectious and the kids will let you know if they enjoy the session.