Coaching youth in sports and other physical activities has never been more important. Childhood inactivity and obesity keep rising, while access to physical education keeps falling. Coaches can turn that around, becoming fitness mentors who put children on a path to staying active and healthy for life.
That’s not to say it’s easy to work with children. Young bodies and brains are in a perpetual state of development. Kids are quickly distracted and easily discouraged. If we want them to embrace physical activity for life, we have to make it an intrinsically rewarding experience.
If you coach younger people (age range of 5–11) or would like to start, these six guidelines will help you develop positive, enriching experiences that inspire a lifetime of healthy activity.
1. Let Them Play; Make It Fun
Pressures surround children from all sides. Academic, athletic, social and other expectations leave little time and energy for kids to be kids. While some compete in organized sports, many children find that sedentary interaction with technology is a release from the critical eyes of adults.
While direction and expectation are good for children, they also need the freedom to explore their world through play and fun. Physical play does more than burn calories and build strength; it can be a physical, mental and even social problem-solving tool. When children play, either alone or with others, they learn new ways to move, think and interact. They become better athletes and people, and they learn to enjoy the process.
When coaching youth, give them opportunities to be active without an abundance of rules and expectations. Let children make up their own activities. Create novel games that vanquish the hierarchy of talent and expectation. Let kids explore.
A great coach realizes that children must practice frequently to hone skills. Youth are more likely to improve a skill if they can turn their practice into play, and the crucial element of play is fun. When people enjoy an activity, nearly every metric of engagement, learning and performance increases. Children’s developing brains are always asking, “Do I enjoy this activity right now?” If the answer is yes, focus and attentiveness soar. If it’s no, kids go through the motions at best.
Coaching youth should not be a three-ring circus of pure entertainment. Still, look for opportunities to make both the tactics and the training environment fun and engaging. This could involve playing music or “gamifying” drills. For example, the throwing-for-accuracy drill involves aiming at a target. To make this more fun and engaging, use different-colored cones or rings at different distances and assign a point system. Offer bonus points if kids knock over a cone or get more than one beanbag or ball on a target. Using game-like criteria provides mini intrinsic challenges and improves engagement. Take time to learn which activities kids find most relevant and enjoyable.
2. Address Their Short Attention Spans
One of the first things youth coaches notice is children’s short attention spans. Kids are willing and able to pay attention—but only for so long.
To optimize learning, you need to re-engage children every few minutes. That doesn’t mean perpetually shifting from activity to activity. It merely means that to help children maintain focus, you must divide their mental energy into blocks. A good coach will provide an activity, reinforce it after a few minutes and then modify the criteria of the activity.
That requires understanding the subtle intricacies of skills. For example, a child can kick a ball with the inside of the foot, the outside of the foot, the shoelaces, etc. So, if you’re doing a kicking drill, you could introduce subtle changes in foot placement every few minutes.
Ideal timing varies with groups, activities and ages. Always be ready to modify training to accommodate quick shifts in young people’s attention.
3. Build Two Categories of Critical Skills
Children need a large toolbox of physical skills they can use throughout life. They used to learn these in recess, gym class and pickup ballgames. With much less access to physical education these days, kids aren’t developing these skills. The notable exceptions are youth who play organized sports. Unfortunately, parents and coaches often encourage these athletes to specialize in a single sport at a young age.
Doing nothing or doing too much of one thing can hinder a child’s overall development. Either way, youth reach adulthood with limited physical skills. Coaches can overcome these challenges by helping young people develop two major skill categories—perceptual motor skills and fundamental movement skills—regardless of the sport or activity.
PERCEPTUAL MOTOR SKILLS
To perform in sports, young athletes’ brains and bodies must respond appropriately to sensory inputs like sight, sound and touch. For example, a child who sees a ball in motion needs to be able to focus and track well enough to catch or kick it. All other sport skills are built from these foundational skills:
- body awareness: understanding the parts of the body and what they do
- directional awareness: differentiating right from left and up from down, and moving in all planes of motion
- spatial awareness: perceiving how much space one’s body occupies and where the various parts of the body are in relation to other objects
- temporal awareness: having a sense of timing and rhythm
- visual awareness: focusing and tracking objects while taking in a full, broad field of view
- vestibular awareness: sensing internal balance and where the head and body are in relation to gravity
- auditory awareness: accurately interpreting and responding to sound
- tactile awareness: responding to touch correctly and using it to interpret the environment
- proprioceptive awareness: sensing where the body and specific joints are in space, where they are in relation to one another, and what they are doing
As a coach, you don’t have to be able to assess these foundational skills professionally, but you should be aware of them and provide activities that allow children to practice with them.
FUNDAMENTAL MOVEMENT SKILLS
Building blocks for developing abilities in sports and other physical activities include these movement skills:
- stationary movement control: maintaining balance and center of gravity while at least one part of the body stays in contact with the ground; for example, calisthenic and strength exercises like pushups, squats and other stationary moves
- locomotion: transporting the body horizontally or vertically from one point to another; for example, running, jumping, skipping, shuffling and crawling
- manipulative/coordinative abilities: using the hands and feet to generate or absorb force from objects; for example, catching, throwing, kicking and trapping
Great coaches incorporate ways to practice these skills during warmups, drills and other training activities—even if some are unrelated to the sport they coach.
4. Help Them Feel Challenged Yet Competent
Children enjoy attempting difficult tasks, but if failure becomes a mainstay, frustration takes over and disengagement ensues.
Coaches have to work with children of disparate physical abilities, which creates a temptation to stray in two directions: marginalizing the least physically talented children or regressing the overall training experience to the point of boredom for more athletically inclined youngsters. The best coaches understand the variety in skill levels and figure out how to progress or regress activities to suit children’s circumstances.
Young children do not need to master a specific skill immediately, but they should progress toward mastery. Learn to identify where children are in their development of a skill and to choose the appropriate “step forward” or “step back” that lets them feel capable yet challenged. Finding the right balance can give both struggling and advanced children achievable benchmarks.
5. Set a Good Example
Coaches are role models for the children they work with. Even a volunteer coach who shows up to a field for 60 minutes once a week endorses certain attitudes, behaviors and actions.
Many coaches set high expectations for the kids they work with. The question is whether they are exemplifying these expectations. Consider the lessons coaches teach in a sport or physical activity:
- healthy exercise and eating habits
- effective communication
The list could go on. It’s relatively easy to demand obedience to these rules. But if you don’t exemplify them, the kids you coach won’t follow them, either.
6. Practice the 4 E’s
Even a few hours or minutes a week with a child can make a lifelong impression. One way to create memorable experiences is to do certain things at specific times. Think of them as the four E’s:
- When kids ENTER the training program, engage them immediately.
- While kids EXERCISE, provide an exciting, encouraging training environment that includes instruction, play, fun, progression and regression, plus strategies that inspire learning.
- When kids EXIT, send them home on a high note. At the end of each session, bring them together to reflect on the day and set goals for next time.
- EXTEND your impact as a coach. Use your positive influence to improve kids’ attitudes and behaviors beyond the training environment.
Adopting these simple strategies can maximize your positive impact as a coach and significantly increase the likelihood that kids you work with will succeed in sports and physical activity for the rest of their lives.
National Hydration Council. 2018. Hydration and water facts for kids. Accessed Apr. 23, 2018: naturalhydrationcouncil.org.uk/hydration-facts/hydration-and-water-facts-for-kids-2/.
Mullen, M., & Shield, J.E. 2017. Water: How much do kids need? Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Accessed Apr. 26, 2018: eatright.org/fitness/sports-and-performance/hydrate-right/