Three Guidelines for Coaching Youth Athletes

TAGS: youth leagues, young athletes, teaching correct performance, realistic expectations, physical education, Gabriel Naspinski, four stages of competence, coaching children, gym


Not too long ago, another high school coach here in Florida sent me an email regarding training for both high school and elementary- and early adolescent-aged youths. He stated that he had two very young children, but he wanted to know about the proper progression to train his sons if and when they decided to participate in sports. This actually is a subject that has recently caught my interest, as my wife and I are expecting our first child (a boy) this summer. What the coach was concerned about was having a medium between making training interesting and enjoyable for his sons while also giving them proper feedback and realistic expectations. The purpose of this article is to take a look at three very basic but important considerations to make when dealing with young athletes. Some of these suggestions are not just limited to youths, but can be applicable to athletes all the way up to, or in some cases including, those in college.

Some Prior Knowledge

While it is known that I have worked with high school and college athletes, I should note that I also have experience with younger participants in both sports and physical education. When I was employed at Parisi, I trained athletes of all ages, from children as young as six years old all the way up to college students. In turn, when I was first employed as a teacher in Florida, I worked at an elementary school in Tampa teaching physical education. I also completed multiple field experience placements in college while earning a teaching degree in physical education. Through these experiences, I have developed a fairly broad perspective of long-term physical development.
What has interested me most about this is seeing the system (in America) from the beginning to what could be considered the termination (high school or college for the vast majority of athletes). In this case, understanding some of the ways in which the system is broken (or even void of being a system at all) help lead to the understanding of why athletes have injuries or less success later in life. The idea of this article isn’t to bang on the system (or lack there of); however, it does need to be briefly covered before moving on to the considerations.

Physical Education and Its Shortcomings

While working at the elementary school level, it was easy to see that we do not necessarily place much stock in our youths being educated physically. While it varies from state to state, most children receive only one or two PE classes a week, and each class usually only lasts around thirty minutes. In all honesty, the only reason they exist in a large number of districts is because they see it as a way to grant classroom teachers time to plan or have a break for thirty minutes. Couple their short duration with the fact that classes may be doubled, with around forty or fifty students and only one teacher, it doesn’t leave much time for actual instruction. This creates a culture of “just play.” Because of this, not many skills are being taught. If this isn’t enough of a problem, the curriculum that is supposed to be taught is less than adequate. Much of the skills revolve around ball games or manipulating objects such as balls, bats, rackets, bean bags, and so on. Fundamental skills such as running and jumping receive less attention than one would think. Finally, add in the fact that many teachers in this subject area are only evaluated if students can answer cognitive questions, it becomes obvious that the title of “physical education” is nothing more than a working title. With this becoming common knowledge, many parents have turned to other avenues of activity, such as youth leagues.

Youth Leagues and Their Shortcomings

With youth leagues, we usually end up with a few glaring problems. While it has been said to “allow a youth to play as many sports as possible” in hopes that he learns a large number of skills, youth leagues seem to run into roadblocks on the road to long-term development.
One problem with this approach is that many coaches in these leagues are not competent in the instruction of the respective sport's skills. Many are either parent volunteers or other members of the community that have little knowledge of how to teach or assess skills. The other problem may be that they do not understand the needs of the game or the youth; thus, they may do things that have negative consequences. This could include improper instruction of skills or improperly designed drills that may stress the wrong energy systems and can be dangerous for youths. In this case, proper learning will not occur. The other side of this is the opposite approach—early specialization. With as much as this has been covered, we still have those parents who are so caught up in their child being the next NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, or Olympic hopeful that they will have them practice and compete in a sport year-round despite the negative results this has shown. Of course, while these parents will have no problem with their child playing a contact or collision sport 10 to 12 months out of the year, they are still opposed to physical preparation. Couple this with those coaches who take approaches they may see at the college- or professional-level and try to apply them to children, and we are left with a recipe for injuries, burnout, and so on. An example of this is happening in my area of Florida. There are multiple 7-on-7 leagues for football, but now a new league of full contact year-round football has surfaced. An assistant coach on my staff told me that it started as an 8-on-8 arena league for youths ranging from elementary school all the way up to high school, but now it is transitioning to full sided 11-on-11. This spring, we had one of our players break his wrist in this league and another who skipped our off-season training almost every Monday because he was banged up from this league and its games that occurred on Sundays.  The worst part about this league was that they did not really practice. They simply showed up to play full contact on the weekends. While common sense shows that this isn’t a good idea, parents buy into this because many think the more games and competitions the better.

What We Should Consider for Youths

Now that I am done bitching about what is wrong with physical education and youth sports, we can actually get to what we should consider for youths. I don’t believe these things to be the Holy Grail of early physical development, but these are some things that I have had success with. I also feel that these are valuable considerations to have in mind and serve more than one purpose. One is to help the athletes understand how to better themselves and also set them up for success. The other is to provide realistic goals as well as expectations of what a sport is about.

1. Teach correct performance from incorrect performance.

Some people here may be familiar with the four stages of competence (unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, unconscious competence). Within this framework, remember that many youths will have no idea if they are performing a skill correctly or not. What needs to be demonstrated at all levels is what is correct and what is incorrect. This allows participants to understand what is expected of them. Within this, feedback needs to be provided to help coach youths on what they are doing well, as well as what they need to work on. Understand that I am talking about performance in reference to individual skills and not in the realm of competition. Understanding correct from incorrect should be a teaching point early on in the process to help guide youths through their development. It should also remain a teaching point all the way through the entire process of an athlete’s development.

2. Reward correct performance/improvement, and structure teaching to reflect this.

While competition isn’t a high priority early on, being able to provide rewards to those who learn and display competency in skills should be something that we strive to do. Also, structuring the learning to be game-like while still requiring correct performance of skills can lead to a more enjoyable experience for young participants. However, this differs from the common PE setup of “just play” because correct execution will still need to be addressed in the “games” used. Additionally, look for improvement on the components that make up a skill and provide feedback to reflect on this so that youths understand what progress may have been made.

3. Set realistic expectations and focus on short-term goals.

The reason this is important is because in our age of entitlement, everyone feels like they are a champion/should be a champion/can become a champion or professional athlete. We need to help young participants set realistic expectations for themselves. We also need to have short-term goals that go hand-in-hand with the ideas of correct performance and being able to distinguish it from incorrect performance. We also need to teach youths to attempt to improve and understand what they need to work on. This is not just for the sake of the athlete, but also for the parents who believe they have the next superstar. However, by providing tangible evidence on the performance of skills, we can provide information for realistic expectations and also areas where improvement is needed. We need to also teach youths that not every person that participates in a sport will go on to play in college or in the pros, or that he is guaranteed playing time, etc. It is important to have information and data that can be used to show both athletes and their families the opportunities that may or may not be available. This becomes more important at the high school-level where some parents may erroneously believe there is a chance for their child to receive a college scholarship. However, all of this ties in to being able to assess correct and incorrect performance of skills. If we teach youths to understand this concept, the expectations of what is available to them becomes less of a matter of opinion and more of a factual observation.


When we look at the subject of youth training and physical education, we need to start treating it like any other subject that may be studied. Parents and students do not often have any problem admitting where they may fall short in the classroom. We do not see parents complaining that a math teacher was unable to convince a university to grant a scholarship to their son to study mathematics when he is failing algebra. However, we often see parents of high school athletes complain that coaches did not find a way to convince a college to take their son or daughter on a full athletic scholarship when the player may not have even contributed to their high school team. Also, we often hope that competing more will allow youths to become more successful at sporting activities that have a distinct set of skills that need to be practiced. This would be the equivalent of testing a student over and over again in a subject such as geometry without ever covering components such as theorems, formulas, or having them take more rudimentary forms of math. Testing does not lead to learning if the skills needed are not taught. This is the same in physical education and athletics. Just playing or competing does not cover the acquisition of skill or preparation in any one component that may make up a part of the whole process.

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