The long-term approach to youth fitness and sport training is an essential ingredient and critical component of understanding how to work with clients in this very sensitive demographic. Fitness professionals must learn to appreciate that with young clients the goal isn’t to lose weight, increase speed, or gain strength—it’s to enhance skill. Increases in all biomotors (strength, speed, flexibility, and cardio-respiratory) will be secondary benefits that occur naturally and as a result of quality, skill-based training systems.

A few weeks ago, I spoke with legendary strength coach, Joe Kenn, about this very issue. Coach Kenn is as qualified, respected, and ‘in the trenches’ smart as they come. He’s served for more than 20 years as a premier strength coach in U.S.-based colleges and has worked with a litany of past and current stars from a variety of sports. During our conversation, he offered this advice to parents, coaches, and fitness professionals when working with young athletes: “Cook ‘em slow.”

Although a rather funny way of saying it, Coach Kenn’s point can’t be ignored. Training young athletes isn’t about focusing on making them better right now. As I’ve mentioned, the biomotors will increase naturally when proper skill-based teaching is applied. What’s critical is that you don’t char them in the process of making them better. Don’t ‘fry them’ on a high temperature. Don’t ‘barbeque’ them until they’re crispy. Don’t try to ‘grill’ them to a golden brown. Instead, think of training young athletes as heaping them in a crock pot with a bunch of other savory ingredients and then setting the temperature on a low gage. Let the flavors meld and the ingredients come together in time. By the end, you’ll have a mouth watering dish that contains flavors and layers of ‘yummy’ that you can’t get through any of the ‘quick cook’ methods.

The ingredients young athletes need

Sometimes it’s beneficial to be given sample programs of what to do with young athletes in certain situations. Other times, it’s better to understand a philosophy of training. I’ve found in my career that appreciating the concept of what to do with young athletes is tremendously more important than the former.

Sample programs allow you to see a system and implement it but without necessarily understanding why it’s been created that way. It’s akin to being given a fish versus being taught how to fish. One allows you to be satiated for a day or week while the other allows you to keep yourself satiated indefinitely.

With young athletes, knowing the ‘why’ behind the ‘what’ is terribly important. Moreover, understanding the universal laws of development that govern all human growth—and how they are applied to programming for young athletes—will allow you to create specific programs that are compatible with your given situation.

When working with young athletes the acronym M.O.L.D provides a perfect backdrop for understanding what specifically are the musts of training this particular demographic.

For young athletes, movement must dominate

‘M’ stands for one of the most important tenants governing young athlete training—movement must dominate.

Although this seems like an absolute ‘no brain’ reality, I’m constantly amazed how many times it is breached within the fitness and sport training world with respect to young athletes. Kids and teenagers shouldn’t be sitting on strength training machines producing force. And they certainly have no business performing ‘cardio’ on static pieces of machinery either. This is true for so many reasons.

Just watch young people in their natural environment. They move. Constantly. This desire to play, run, skip, hop, throw things, and climb isn’t a product of ‘ants in the pants’ or any other form of contemporary ‘illness’ as defined by modern society (ADD for example). The neurology of human growth and development shows that during the young periods of life, the central nervous system (CNS) is in constant ‘gathering’ mode.

As young people, we are learning. Our bodies, governed by our CNS, are wired to explore movements, environments, and situations. Kids don’t mean to ‘get into things.’ They are being instructed to by an ever changing, always learning CNS that is requiring continual input. Not only should this reality be honored and respected, but it must be enhanced within the training systems of young athletes.

If your training program for young athletes involves moving and producing force through an unregulated and free manner, you are most assuredly on the right track. Run, jump, throw, kick, hop, skip—that kind of stuff.

With young athletes, you must communicate

The second letter in our acronym, ‘O’, stands for simply this—open to communication variances.

The ‘Lombardi style’ coaching system doesn’t work. You can’t just bark orders and think that every young athlete you train is going to be listening. With coaching, one size does not fit all. Just like physical ability, size, relative strength, and potential, the way a young athlete needs to be communicated with is specific to that child or teen.

Now, I’m no fool. I’ve spent nearly 15 years in the trenches and know full well that when you have a group of kids (say 20 six year olds), getting to know them well enough and being able to provide individual attention to them is challenging to say the least. But that doesn’t mean individualized communication isn’t possible. It just takes a system.

Over my years working with kids, I’ve found that every one of the young athletes I’ve trained fits somewhere into the following categories:

  • High motivation/high skill
  • High motivation/low skill
  • Low motivation/high skill
  • Low motivation/low skill

A brief overview of the template that shows how to communicate with each of these young athletes is as follows:

  1. Delegate: Look to get this young athlete involved in the training and planning process. Have him lead warm ups for the group. Have him create the warm up within the boundaries of your system. If he is older, have him help you co-coach your younger groups. Keeping this young athlete engaged is a critical part of keeping him excited about the training process and provides a perfect communication scenario.
  2. Guide: This young athlete doesn’t require more motivation. He needs to enhance his skill. Rather than trying to incite him positively (because he’s already incited), slow him down and guide him through the process of skill increase slowly. Break down complex exercises into specific stages and teach him in a ‘whole part whole’ method. Communication will be automatically improved.
  3. Inspire: This young athlete is great at everything but lacks the necessary motivation to produce consistent effort (likely due to pressure from other coaches or his parents). Don’t ‘ride’ him or even ask him to work harder. He will tune you out quicker than you can say TRX! Instead, talk with him about what inspires him. What gets him excited? We all have a switch on the inside that can turn on when the situation is a quality and inspiring one for us. Find where his switch is and help him turn it on.
  4. Direct: Don’t put this young athlete on the spot—even in a positive manner. He craves autonomy and the ability to just ‘blend in.’ So give it to him. Provide instructions for the group at large and then quietly be sure that he knows what is expected of him in the upcoming exercise or drill. Once he realizes that your communication with him will be non-threatening, he will deem your training environment a ‘safe’ one and start to open up. That’s where the fun will start!

Young athletes and learning

‘L’ brings us to learning. Just like with ‘O,’ we must understand that young athletes learn in different ways and at varying speeds. Quick and easy rule of thumb—explain what the exercise is. Demonstrate it. Explain it again. And then ask them to explain it to you.

This equates to a ‘tell, show, tell, converse’ method of teaching and dramatically accelerates the learning process. It also provides a divergent way of instruction so that all the young athletes in your group can learn in the manner that best suits them.

Don’t train young athletes

Sounds funny, doesn’t it? Don’t train young athletes. But it brings us back full circle to where we started…‘cook ‘em slow.’

The most important thing you have to remember is that your job isn’t to make young athletes better. It’s to enhance their skill. When quality skill exists, it can be built upon to introduce and produce even more skill over time. And just a quick word to those who may be concerned. If a coach or parent asks you if their young athlete will get faster or stronger with your ‘slow cook’ method of training, your answer is yes!

Just because we aren’t focusing on enhancing the biomotors doesn’t mean they won’t improve. As I’ve mentioned already, kids get faster, stronger, and more flexible automatically with skill-based training. Human growth and development has seen to that for us.

So that’s it. An easy philosophy that covers what you need to know about training young athletes. No more excuses. The training effects and increases will come. Just be sure to keep the temperature gage locked on ‘low’!