The fastest way to develop a dislike for something is to do it repeatedly without reward. What’s more, when there’s external expectation attached to the task you know you’re not going to meet, or social comparison that reinforces your inferiority, the experience is certain to be a negative one.

Our brains run on a system of threat vs. reward that heavily influences our thoughts and behaviours. Things that you perceive as threats are disengaging. When experiencing them, your natural instinct is to remove the threat as fast as possible, by avoiding or eliminating it.

Assessing fitness is a valuable part of an athlete’s development. Done correctly, it can help an athlete learn and improve in the areas most important to their performance.

But, unfortunately, too often fitness testing is perceived by youth athletes as threatening.

Generalised Testing, Too Often

Every season, and often across multiple teams, athletes are tested on their fitness. Then six weeks later, they’re tested again. High performance sport has been testing this way for years, and it’s filtered down into youth sport. Unfortunately, there’s been little consideration for the impact it’s having.

The problem lies in the generalised approach to testing that is taken. When you set the same battery of tests for every athlete, regardless of their individual needs, you lose personal relevance, which is so important when it comes to engagement. What’s more, subsequent training too often takes a one-size-fits-all, quantity over quality methodology, failing to appropriately address the competency of the test. And the result? Athletes who struggle to improve, and ultimately, disengage with the environment.

What Happens If I Fail?  

It’s a fair enough question. Dealing with threatening experiences is scary.

If you haven’t done the work, it shows you up in your testing. No one likes feeling vulnerable. And if doing poorly on the test has adverse consequences, like not making the team, being unfavourably compared to others, or having to test again in a short turnaround, the pressure to do your best is debilitating.

A More Effective Way

There are many ways you can change the testing environment to make it more rewarding for you athletes. Here are a few to consider:

  1. Test less. Don’t default to testing as something that always has to be done. Ask yourself: why are we testing? And how is it going to be perceived by my athletes? If you’re testing for selfish reasons, think again.
  1. Make your testing relevant. Identify what’s most important for each of your athletes to be working on to take the next step in their development, and asses that. More often than not this process requires considerate conversation with your athletes. What do they want to get better at?
  1. Let your athletes share in the decision on how and when to test. The more autonomy you can give your athletes, the more likely they will be to engage in the process. How would they like to monitor their development?
  1. Prescribe training that gives your athletes suitable opportunity to improve. For example, if you test vertical jump, how is your training going to reflect the development of leg power?
  1. Don’t test at all. Particularly for your younger athlete. When it comes to physical development, youth athletes are raw, which means that their ceiling for improvement is high. So, spend less time ‘checking’ that your programme is working and more time making your training an enjoyable experience.

Testing is a means to identify progression and reward hard work, not a mechanism to ascertain control.

Be the best you can be,