Do you Coach or Train?

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Do you Teach or Train your young athletes?

If you are like most coaches and trainers I am familiar with, you likely ‘train’ your athletes as a means to elicit biomotor improvement.

You work on various forms of sprints and jumping in order to develop ‘blazing speed’.

You lift weights or perform bodyweight exercises to increase ‘mammoth strength’.

You set out cones and have your young athletes practice elaborate movement drills as a way of improving their ‘stealth-like agility’.

These types of exercises in themselves are not problematic or bad per say…

But they are only quasi-beneficial and extremely narrow-scoped if you aren’t looking to teach your young athletes the skills they need to perform these drills and set them up to improve on the next level.

Early Years – Wrong Focus

We tend to overemphasize the whole notion of winning or succeeding in youth sports.

Translated into what that means from a training perspective – coaches and trainers often look only to this year when considering the growth and evolution of their young athletes. Instead of developing either specific or general skill in a teaching format that will lay the foundation for continued success and future improvement, many coaches and trainers take a narrow-scoped approach and look to make changes now… so that the benefit and gain is immediate.

Incorrect Assessment Styles

This is in large part due to the considerable attention we place on testing and assessing performance markers with young athletes. Many training facilities for instance, conduct both pre and post testing battery’s that will show the degree to which their training regime improved the basic elements of speed, strength and flexibility.

Young athletes, as are their parents, become mentally conditioned to ‘buy into’ a given trainer or facilities training program when they see improvements being made… Even in the pre-adolescent years!

What should become the goal of every trainer, coach, parent and young athlete is to learn and systematically improve on his or her skill levels.

I have long maintained my belief that we, as an industry, must move to a more pragmatic and reasonable method of both programming for and testing our youngsters. In that, I hold firm to the notion that markers for improvement should be monitored by using a system that allows the trainer to observe and record the technical ability of a young athlete during specific exercises.

Rate of Technical Ability

A simple way of doing this is to create and utilize a tracking plan that illustrates an athletes ‘Rate of Technical Ability’ (RTA). Develop a 1 – 5 scale that has technical performance markers evident at each ascending score. In a squat for instance, an RTA scale may look like this –

1 = Knees are valgus (inward)/lumbar spine is either rounded or arched/head is down/weight is on toes or ball of foot
2 = knees are valgus/lumbar spine is either rounded or arched/head is down
3 = lumbar spine is either rounded or arched/head is down
4 = lumbar spine is either rounded or arched
5 = Perfect form

Start with bodyweight squats and teach proper form and execution. Grade your young athletes on a piece of paper as to where they are on your ‘5’-point scale. Progress in volume or load only when they have reached a ‘5’.

This lays the foundation for future developed skill and allows for a safe progression.

Technical/Fun Development In Sport…

There are two relative types of coordination training; General and Specific.

General – This is the basic level of coordination and is based on versatility. In early pre-adolescents, spend a great deal of time creating fun exercises and games that establish a base level of coordination through exposure to all of its elements. Future sporting success and functionality in life will be dependant on developing a global foundation of general coordination.

Specific – Specific coordination is a means by which to improve or increase the ability within a given task or sport. By improving the basic elements of coordination that apply to a particular skill, you can increase the proficiency of that skill. Here are some examples:

* Unusual Positions – Throwing a baseball or shooting a basketball for example. In the early years of training, always teach unilateral skills using both sides of the body. Breakdown throwing and shooting motions into finite skill progressions and spend time teaching them with the non-dominant hand, foot or side of the body. This practice of non-dominance will serve to increase the kinesthetic understanding of the skill and improve the athletes’ ability to perform it with the dominant side and lead to an increased ambidextrous ability, which is very advantageous in sport. Another example of this would be to teach how to swing a bat from both sides of the plate in baseball.

* Altered Speeds – Change the speed of movements to increase an athletes understanding and control. Teach somersaults and jumping rotations to a competent level. After that, start developing exercises that ask for the young athlete to increase or decrease the speed of the turns. This control of speed variance will increase the ability of the young athlete to understand the complexity of the skill and be able to reproduce it with more precise detail and aptitude.

Added Movements – Add movements in the form of rotations, jumps and level changes (i.e. starting from one knee and then progressing into the skill) leading up to or following a standard sporting skill. Again, as with the other two examples, this increased sense of body control and awareness will improve the young athletes ability to perform the specific skill in question. For example, have a young baseball player perform a 360-degree turn with bat in hand before hitting a baseball off a tee. Have a young basketball players dribble a ball towards a basket and perform a jumping 360-degree turn before making a lay-up. Have a young soccer player perform a somersault and then a tuck jump in proper and seamless sequence before performing a corner kick. These elements can also be included in youth training programs. Have young athletes perform a forward roll or 180-degree jump before demonstrating a sprint start sequence.

Brian Grasso