youth athletes

Rule No. 1 with youth athletes: Don't steal their fitness, or their fun

My head is still spinning from the incredible quantity and quality of information that I acquired at the Complete Speed & Power Summit this past weekend in Tinton Falls, N.J.

Science. Physics, Rep Schemes. Periodization. New exercises … and new ways to program and execute them.

But as a professional coach who trains both adult and youth athletes — and as a parent — one anecdote will stay with me for a long time.

Coach Dave Gleason — owner of one of the top youth training facilities in the world, Athletic Revolution in Pembroke, Mass. — was working with a group of 12- and 13-year-old athletes at his facility one day. As any responsible coach would, he led the group through a strategic series of warmup and muscle-activation techniques to get them ready to train.

Then, something powerful happened. Something that every coach who works with youth athletes and every parent should hear.

“I just tossed a ball on the floor and said, ‘Now, play,’” Gleason said.

The response? Blank stares. Hands on hips. Awkwardness.

“They had no idea what to do,” Gleason said. “When I was a kid, we would’ve been like, ‘Awesome, what game are we not playing right now?’ We would’ve played kickball and soccer and hot potato and kill-the-guy-with-the-ball and you name it. But these kids, their fitness has been so over-programmed that they had no idea what it meant to ‘just play.’”

As coaches, we can have the best training methodologies in the world — programs, progressions, 4-week cycles upon 4-week cycles — but if we don’t develop a culture of fun, creativity and what Gleason calls “magical moments,” we’re not doing the most important part of our job.

Make it fun. Let them play. Watch them move, interact and compete … and then coach what you see.

“Coaches are teachers,” Gleason said. “And the best teachers allow kids to teach themselves.”

If all you’re doing is giving them exercises and drills to do, will you make them faster, improve their ability to change direction and jump higher? Of course; that’s why parents bring their kids to Athletic Revolution, or Max Velocity Fitness + Performance. They want their kids to move better and perform at a higher level in whatever sports they are playing. And as professional coaches with incredible access to the latest training techniques, drills, skills and programs, that’s what we do. 

But if it isn’t fun — if the kids aren’t learning how to interact, compete and get after it in a way that isn’t so structured, scheduled and programmed — then we’re missing the biggest opportunity of all.

Think back to the most recent basketball practice your son or daughter attended. Every drill is methodically drawn up and executed over and over until the kids get it right. Twenty minutes on V-cuts, followed by 20 minutes of pin-downs, followed by endless three-man weaves. Don’t run the drill well enough or fast enough? Suicides.

How about this instead? Get them warmed up, roll the ball onto the floor and say, “Now, you guys choose up sides and play.” 

“See what happens,” Gleason said.

Better yet, choose two captains and have each one draft players for the other team. Guess who’s going to be the last player picked?

“The best player,” Gleason said. “How many times has that kid been in that situation? That’s an opportunity to teach them, ‘Sometimes in sports, you’re going to be last. And last doesn’t mean less.’”

As the owner of a new training facility for youth athletes and adult fitness, I can’t wait to collaborate with the best youth sports coaches in the area — Bombers Lacrosse, DAC Marksmen basketball, Whitepoint Youth Football — and work with their kids. Can I make them run faster and jump higher? Of course; that’s what I do, and the information and techniques I absorbed at the Speed & Power Summit this past weekend will help me do that even better. The idea of fixing a 13-year-old basketball player’s acceleration technique, running mechanics and footwork is powerful stuff. If you can get middle-schoolers to run 30 feet just one-tenth of a second faster than before, they beat their opponent to the play by three feet. That’s a game changer.

But the real game changer has nothing to do with footwork, body position, arm action or push-off angles. It has to do with making it fun, tapping into their competitive instincts and giving them high-fives instead of making them run suicides. 

Sometimes, you just let them play and see what happens. As any coach or parent knows, they’ll often surprise you.