Yesterday while out running with my Aussie Shepard I ducked into my local primary school to bust out some bodyweight gymnastics on the jungle gym – who needs a real gym when everything you need for a full body workout is freely accessible just around the corner from home? Monkey bars, balance beams, wobble boards- you name it!
As I struggled through my third set of pull ups I noticed a group of young lads practicing softball across the field, 9-10 year olds I’m guessing. There were half a dozen players working with a coach (or at least an adult yelling instruction), with a second adult helping out. Now before I go on, I’d just like to say that any adult or parent giving up their Sunday afternoon to coach young players is a legend. We need more of them. But as I caught my breath between sets I listened in a little more carefully to what was going on.
The ball was rolled out into play by the parent helper. The player closest to the ball took off, collected it and threw to first base (the coach), who then threw to second or third randomly. At this point the ball was called dead and the drill was repeated. Five or so minutes into the drill – by this time I had moved on to a few box jumps – I heard the coach yell “get down and give me 10, you’re all mucking around”. He was referring to push ups. Now the truth was, they were mucking around. One of the boys in the outfield was practicing his handstands and the third basemen were chatting to the shortstop, paying little attention to where the ball was (potentially) coming from. But considering that during the 5 minutes I had been watching each player would have been lucky to touch the ball 5 times (fewer for the outfielders), can you really blame them for a few shenanigans?
Young athletes play sport because it’s fun. Period. Therefore a coaches’ number one job is to provide that. With this in mind, here are 3 things you can do to change the session above (can be used for other sports too) to one that emphasises enjoyment while encouraging increased skill in your players. You may even stop them from mucking around in the process.
Make it about the players
In our softball example, the coach and the parent helper occupied the two key roles of the drill, most likely to ‘control’ the drill to achieve whatever training outcome they had in mind (this is what it is ‘supposed’ to look like). However, young players will improve faster if you take a step back and let them run the show, in short organised chaos is better. Even though it may get messy, players will learn more from making their own decisions and by having choice in their actions. In the process their motivation to stay on task will increase. Your job as coach is to set an environment that encourages curiosity and allows players to step outside of their comfort zone and take risks. Back this up by praising your players regularly for effort, and explore the reasons any mistakes were made at the end by asking questions.
Use more balls
Yes ‘actual’ softball is played with only one ball. But having to wait ages between touches on the ball gets boring quickly. Plus, how are you supposed to learn when you only get to catch and throw the ball once every minute or so? Different types of balls are fine. Just have plenty available so your players can get their hands on them often. Whatever sport you coach, consider how you can increase the number of touches your young players get on the ball. Small-sided games (e.g. 2v2 or 3v3) are a great way to achieve this – they don’t really even have to resemble the sport you’re coaching. Try a variety of games that include basic technical skills and require players to make regular decisions on and off the ball. Your players will love it, guaranteed.
Give enthusiastic, winning feedback
Focus on giving all your players enthusiastic feedback often, especially when they demonstrate improvements, and particularly increased effort. You’ll not only engage your players more, but most likely remove the need for physical punishment (i.e. push ups) all together. Physical punishments are ineffective at changing behaviour in young athletes, but more importantly, unless you have spent time teaching your youngsters how to perform a push up, or prone hold, or burpee correctly (AND they have adequate strength to do so), it is highly likely you’re doing them more harm than good. Any type of strength training with young athletes (which includes all bodyweight exercises) must be performed properly and programmed accordingly. If you do require a punishment, try using skills of the game you’re coaching. With the extra practice, your punishment will actually be helping to improve the player’s ability in the long run.
Do you have any suggestions for coaches working with young athletes? Feel free to comment below. I would love to hear from you.