The Amazing Art of Coaching
Brian Grasso explains the importance of interpersonal skills when working with young athletes.
While it is true that you may research conditioning-based articles because you want to read about training techniques, strategies and exercises, I cannot help but point out to you that your ability as a coach is as much dependant on your interpersonal skills as it is on your ability in the biomotor sciences.
Sports psychology gets a fascinating amount of exposure in our industry - how to motivate athletes best. Challenge their innate senses of pride; draw out their inner champions. That stuff is great when you have a receptive athlete who not only wants to hear what you have to say on that level but also understands how to respond. With young athletes, the magic bullet does not exist. To me, the crux and primary issue of working with young athletes lie in pedagogical science as much as it does in the training application - may be more. Developing relationships with your young athletes is the most powerful thing you can do in the task of helping them create their sporting potential or adhering to a lifetime of physical activity.
It is not about 'beating the drum' through vocal inspiration with all young athletes. One of the biggest shortcomings I have seen with many coaches and trainers is that they play the 'vocal motivation coach' routine with every athlete they encounter. It is not prudent. The same way that not all exercise selection, arrangement or load is a one size fits all equation, so too is the same about the interpersonal relationship building sequence called coaching.
I have organized my thoughts into the following categories of athletes.
A. The athlete has low motivation and skill
You know this athlete. Shy, quiet and lacking both confidence and ability (one likely begets the other). This is not the young athlete that is going to respond to a 'rah, rah - go get 'em' style of coaching! In my experience, I qualify the coaching style needed in this situation as 'direct'. Indeed, you take the time to make this young person feel comfortable in your group training setting. More often than not, I do this by speaking very quietly and directly to him/her once I have sent the other athletes on a task. Young athletes like this typically do not enjoy being 'spoken to' or 'singled out' in front of everyone. That is why I call this coaching style direct. Direct your questions, suggestions and tasks to this youngster personally so that they do not feel 'on display' in front of the group.
B. The athlete has low motivation but high skill
Here is where the 'rah, rah' coach can be useful. The young athlete is good - he/she shows great skills and demonstrates wonderful technical ability. I have coached many athletes like this, and very often, their motivation is lost because they lack challenge. Things may have come very quickly to this particular athlete, and he/she just never felt challenged. The coaching system warranted here I call 'inspire'. In a positive and uplifting manner, challenge this young athlete to achieve more. Alter his/her set/rep/sequence design by adding an exercise or increasing the difficulty of the sequence. However, be wary of the young athlete who is talented, but lacks motivation because they have no interest in this sport any more. I have also come across that scenario many times. A promising, talented young athlete is 'bullied' into sports by his/her parents. That is where the interpersonal skill of coaching is key. You have to know whether you are 'inspiring' a young athlete who is just looking for a challenge or one is looking for a way out of sports!
C. The athlete has high motivation and skill
Simply put, 'delegate'. I have seen so many coaches and trainers try to 'corral' athletes made up of these traits - almost as if they want to take credit for the child's abilities. Sheltering young athletes like this and imposing your will and ideas on them is just not prudent. Young athletes like this need to be part of the decision cycle. Demonstrate and explain exercise selection to them; work at perfecting technical proficiency; have them understand the goals associated with programming - and then include them in creative development. Young athletes are smart people. While some need to be 'directed', others can and should be part of the coaching process. Talk to young athletes like this and get their feedback. Empower them to comprehend matters of technique and exercise progression and then encourage them to work with you on program design. The goal of coaching is to get ALL your young athletes into this category. That is the science and art that I call athletic development. The shy and quiet young athlete who lacks motivation and skill - artfully find a way to get him/her to this point. The young athlete who has loads of skill but lacks motivation - artfully find a way to get him/her to this point.
D. The athlete has high motivation but low skill
Your job here is to 'guide'. They want to do it. They work hard at getting better. They desire to improve. Guide them. Work hard with them on technical skills. Match their eager dispositions with an equally energetic coaching style dedicated to helping them learning and improve their skill level. So, there you go - four different, yet very common athletes, with four very different, yet corresponding coaching styles. Coaching is a beautiful art that you must strive to become better at. Far too often in this industry, we look at the scientific parts of conditioning only. With young athletes, that is not enough.
So, how does this ART of coaching apply?
Points to Consider
This is not only common but also almost impossible to avoid. Whenever you bring two or more young athletes together, you are bound to see more than one personality type (and therefore need to employ more than one coaching style). When coaching a group of 2 or more athletes, restrict the tendency to have each of the athletes performing the same drill at the same time. For example, during a standard warm-up for me, my athletes will do some basic range of movement (ROM) activities (typically through the hips and shoulders) and then proceed on to technical skills instruction. Let us say you have a group of four athletes. As opposed to each of them performing a hip circuit at the same time and then moving on to the next ROM activity, create four different exercises and segment them in such a way so that each athlete is performing a separate drill. To the casual reader, that may sound like a chaotic mess!! In actuality, it allows for a much simpler training session, an individualized approach to coaching and an important feature missing from many basic training sessions - instruction and explanation time.
Here's the Scenario
Athlete 1 (low motivation & skill) - requires a 'direct'
method of coaching
Hip Circuits - 2 sets/leg, 3 reps/exercise
Sequence & Flow
First off, bring the whole group together and explain what the task of the day will be. Address each participant individually by name and welcome them. Explain what the training session will look like for the day and encourage verbal and non-verbal compliance.
I have long maintained that every development program must begin with an introductory or assimilation phase for the young athlete. The bulk of your basic teaching should fall into this category. The teaching component at the beginning of each training session should be reminder-based or build off previously taught skills. Take 5 - 7 minutes to teach each of the 4 warm-up drills. Explain why the athletes will be performing these drills and why they are important (and yes... do this with even young pre-adolescents. You are building a long-term approach to their development and need to invest the time to acquaint them with your system. Even young athletes are 'teachable' given the proper application of stimulus). Once the teaching time is done, assign them each to an exercise. Now, you have the time to flow and work with each of them individually on correct body alignment, movement habits and exercise adherence. Because they are all doing different things, you can apply the proper style of coaching to each individual.
Athlete 1 (direct) - Hip Circuit
Athlete 1 - Get down to his level (which would be on your knees given the 'Hip Circuit') and quietly let him know what a good job he is doing. Ask him if he has any questions about what he is doing. Chances are, if he did have questions, he would not have asked them when the entire group was together. The key here is the tone of your voice - be patient, relaxed and easy-going.
Athlete 2 - 'Seriously Johnny, that is even better than last week!'. 'You are making this look easy, let me show you a more challenging method because I know you can do it!'. Remember, they have low motivation, but high skill - Encouraging and challenging are good methods to employ.
Athlete 3 - Ask him what he thinks. 'How's it feel?' 'You are feeling good with that today, or you want to switch it up a little?' 'What do you think we could add to it?' Delegate some of the responsibilities of their training to them and help them make it work. Empower them to seek out and create new ideas.
Athlete 4 - Verbally reward their effort and work to make them understand the movement better. 'That looks great, Sally!'. 'Now, you see how your left leg is pointing out to the left when you go over the hurdle? How can we fix that?'
This flow and sequence of coaching can be taken through the entire workout - even through your movement and strength skill portions. Create and segment the exercises, including a teaching component preceding each portion and apply the appropriate style of coaching to each athlete. Keeping these coaching principals in mind, how do you ensure technical development in your young athletes?
Where to start
A young athletes' initial exposure to a new technique is critical. It must be presented in such a way that creates intrigue and excitement within the athlete but does not overexpose him or her to too much information or stimulus all at once. There is a fine line between teaching what is appropriate and can be retained versus what amounts to too much exposure of a given task and its progressions.
The Problem in Youth Conditioning
Too much exposure at the beginning of a training program is counterproductive to an optimal ending. Children can easily become overwhelmed by Trainers, Coaches and Parents when they are taught complex technical skills in one training session or a short period. The most critical problem in the youth training and sports industry is the overzealousness perpetuated by many Trainers and Coaches (and facilitated by many Parents) in terms of gaining skill in a given technical exercise. We must create visionary-based teaching methods that are scripted and systematically progressive and work towards instilling a lifelong adherence to a particular skill or exercise. Our culture is based on a gratification system - we strive to see results now even if the act of trying to create results in the short-term proves to be contradictory to the science of motor development and blatantly less beneficial than a more holistic and long-term approach.
The following list is a few suggestions to remember when creating an initial lesson plan to teach a new technical exercise:
Speed, Agility, Strength & Sport Skill
Be wary of the current state of fitness your athlete(s) possess. We often look to 'run' our young athletes through new technical exercises without being conscious of how tired they may be getting. This is a common mistake that I see all the time - when the central nervous system (CNS) becomes fatigued, attention to technical merit is reduced. It becomes impossible to learn and retain a skillset under the duress of fatigue. Remember that technical development in terms of speed mechanics, agility, strength or a specific sporting skill is a process of systematic acquisition. This acquisition begins with a foundational introduction and is then progressed more specifically to adherence on a very functional level - which includes increases in speed and external environmental considerations such as opponents and teammates.
Young athletes who are bored or too excited will not gain ability in a new technical skill on an optimal level. This is where your ability as a Coach becomes important, as does your capacity for creating well-designed lesson plans. When the lesson plan is created with the physical skill and emotional temperament of the athlete in mind, it will have a 'just right' feel to it. Young athletes who lack motivation and skill, for example, will not respond to being put on display in front of their fellow athletes, nor will they adhere to a skill that is presented too quickly or involving too many progressions. You want each of your young athletes to walk away from your training session perfectly comfortable and happy with what they just learned.
Your Physical Ability
Young athletes learn in a variety of manners - one of which is visual. Being able to demonstrate an exercise or skill is often crucial to a given athletes ability to comprehend and reproduce that skill. The key to this demonstration, however, is the 'relating factor' it has on your athletes. Far too often, Trainers and Coaches will demonstrate a skill in a way that their young athletes cannot relate - too fast, for example. In one case I have seen, the Trainer enjoyed performing skills at an increased rate as a means of 'showing off' to the athletes he was coaching. Nothing positive is gained from this. Your athletes may admire you, but you have not shown them anything of value for their skill development. In whole-part-whole methods of teaching, you certainly want to show what the skill looks like at high speed and with a flawless technical ability, but then you must break the skill down to its finer points and begin teaching from the foundation.
Take a piece of paper and write out where you want your athlete(s) to be in 1, 2 or 12 months. For example, techniques they should possess, poundage they should be lifting or sporting skills they should have acquired. After that, write out how many training sessions or practices you have with your athlete(s) over the next few weeks and begin creating a lesson plan for each session. For you to take your athlete(s) to X, what steps and skills must be taken now? Create your lesson plans based on a progressive system of development and in keeping with the items listed in this article.
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About the Author
Brian Grasso is the President of Developing Athletics, which is a company dedicated to educating coaches, parents and youth sporting officials throughout the world on the concepts of athletic development.
The following Sports Coach pages provide additional information on this topic: