6 Random Thoughts on Programming For and Coaching Young Athletes

Over the past couple of years, it seems like our training is all over the place when it comes to training our young athletes.

The spectrum ranges from training kids like elite athletes, to treating them like Bubble Boy, and everything in between.

So whether you’re a parent, a coach, or maybe a little bit of both, here are six thoughts on training young athletes!

#1 – We’re Not Training Fragile Flowers…

Every time my son, Kade, comes into IFAST, this is the first thing he does:

(Now while I know there are parents out there that assume I’m some negligent asshole, I can assure you there’s nothing I care more about than the health and well being of my family.)

Here’s the thing my people – kids aren’t fragile flowers.

In fact, they are incredibly robust – often more so than we adults are from a physical perspective.

So why does our training essentially put them in bubble wrap?

The goal of a smart training program is to expose the body to an appropriate (and progressively increasing) amount of stress.

Let’s take Little Johnny, a 14-year-old athlete who has just gone into the 9th grade.

On one hand, it doesn’t mean that just because he’s 14 that he’s crossed some magical threshold and is now ready to “max out” on Day 1 of weights class.

But on the other hand, if you’ve trained like Johnny for six months and he’s still doing a suspension-trainer supported or plate squat to “improve his technique,” you’re doing that child a disservice.

Keep the training environment safe, but find ways to challenge every young athlete you train.

#2 – …But We’re Not Building Powerlifters, Either

One of the biggest issues with our industry is that it’s very hard to determine if a coach is doing a good job.

And unfortunately, one of the easiest (and only) ways to “measure” if an athlete is improving is by showing that an athlete got stronger in the weight room.

“Look! Johnny put 50 pounds on his squat max this off-season – I’m doing a great job as his coach!”

Now look – I’m definitely not going to be the person that tells you getting stronger is a problem.

In fact, a ton of young athletes would benefit from a basic strength program that builds them in a safe and progressive manner.

But there are two issues that I see here time and again:

  1. Just because powerlifters measure and base strength off of a back squat, a barbell bench press, and a deadlift, doesn’t mean our young athletes should do the same, and
  2. Getting stronger helps up to a certain point…until it doesn’t.

As for #1, I’ve written about this in the past. If you want to build what I would call more “athletic strength,” then definitely read this article: My Top 5 Moves for Athletic Strength.

Now with regards to strength training, here’s how I tend to look at things.

Most sports are played in situations where you can utilize the stretch-shortening cycle, and perform a movement in a somewhat fluid and coordinated state.

And while lifting doesn’t translate perfectly to sport, I think looking at the coordinative aspect of lifting in the gym should be accounted for.

For example if someone is squatting and everything looks crisp and clean, that should be encouraged. I would imagine this will also have some degree of carryover and transfer as well (although how much is something I’ll let the internet experts debate).

However, the second things move from crisp and clean to dirty and grinding, I think it’s safe to say we’ve moved from the realm of “lifting to improve performance,” into the realm of “lifting for lifting’s sake.”

I don’t know about you, but I only have two goals for my athletes:

  1. To keep them healthy and on the field, court or pitch, and
  2. To improve their speed, strength and power in their given sport.

By making the two points above the focus on your program, it gets infinitely easier to stop worrying so much about weight, and instead, focus on things that probably matter most.

#3 – Don’t Get Too Complex too Soon

Another way we, as coaches, try to measure our self-worth is by showing how much we know.

For instance, let’s say we’ve evolved beyond measurements like squat and bench press maxes to show how smart we are, so instead we feel compelled to do it via fancy (and far too advanced) training techniques!

Case and point: I’m a huge fan of Cal Dietz.

I think the guy is a genius, and he makes stuff that is truly complex sound very simple and easy.

However, if you’re using French contrast training with a 13-year-old athlete that has been lifting for exactly two weeks, well, you’re kind of missing the boat!

My guy Joe Kenn has a beautiful concept that he uses with his young athletes called Block Zero.

In Block Zero the goal is to build all of the basic movement patterns – squatting/hinging/lunging/pressing/etc. – and master them.Then, once technique has been dialed in and refined, you can progress to variations that are more complex, or that allow you to increase load.

Remember, the goal here isn’t to see how fast we can get a young athlete from A to B, but instead, to give them the tools they need to be successful both now and in the future.

#4 – Use Deceleration to Build Eccentric (and Contextual!) Strength

Outside of Bill Hartman, Lee Taft may be the guy that has had the biggest impact on me as a performance coach.

One thing Lee always used to say was that it’s not so much about deceleration, but re-acceleration, that’s truly critical in sport.

And while I loved the statement, for some reason it made me feel like deceleration wasn’t that important – when I still felt like it was.

So when Lee made this statement in his Speed Insiders course, it really stood out to me:

Deceleration training is really eccentric strength training.

Now THAT, my friends, is a really lucid point.

And I’ll take it a step further – the great thing about deceleration training is that it’s eccentric strength training in positions that are contextual to sport and movement!

Now look – I’m all for playing around with tempos and such in the gym, but we need to realize that everything we do in the gym is general.

Squatting, deadlifting, bench pressing, chin-ups, pull-ups, lunging – all great stuff.

But all general in nature.

If you train and coach young athletes, find ways to incorporate more deceleration training into that of your athletes, especially early-on in their career.

I guarantee it will make a big impact!

#5 – Find Ways to Make it Fun

I’m not sure if you had kids (or how long it’s been since you’ve been a kid), but coaching at virtually every level of sport has taught me one thing:

Being a young athlete isn’t easy.

Our kiddos today are constantly being bombarded by expectations, whether it’s from their peers, their coaches, or worse yet, their parents.

Luckily for me, I was an average athlete growing up and never had any massive expectations placed on me, so for the most part, sports were always fun for me.

An outlet.

I think it should be our goal as coaches to make training with us fun and engaging for the athletes.

Smile and high five them when they walk in.

Find ways to make the training environment fun and competitive.

And when appropriate, be self depreciating and make fun of yourself (this one is easy for me!)

Now keep in mind – I’m not telling you to be soft, or not push them. That’s not the goal whatsoever.

But I think if you can find that mix of fun and engaging yet challenging, you’ll find that your athletes really respond, and tend to get more out of every training session.

#6 – Be a Real, Caring Person

This last one should be common sense, but as we know today, common sense is everything but common in this day and age!

At the end of the day, coaching isn’t about the X’s and O’s of program design or exercise technique.

Sure, those things absolutely help – but if you’re a total asshole the entire training session and your athletes hate you, I’d venture to say you’re probably not going to get the results you’re looking for.

Now this stuff isn’t rocket science, but let’s start with a short list of things you can do:

  • Smile and greet your athletes by name,
  • Give them a high five, fist bump, dap or hug (whichever is appropriate),
  • Ask them how their day went,
  • When they answer, genuinely listen (and care about what they’re saying!),
  • Coach them like they’re your kid,
  • Take care of them like they’re your kid, and most importantly

In other words, be a coach.

Be a role model – someone they can look up to.

If you can find a way to bring your A game every single day and follow that list to a “T,” you’ll never have issues with buy-in,


So that’s my piece for today – 6 simple thoughts on coaching and training your young athletes.

But those are just my thoughts, and I’m just one guy.

What are your thoughts?

What would you add to the list?

I’d love to hear from you, so please leave a comment in the section below. Thanks!

All the best,

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  1. Great post coach. I can’t agree more on ‘making the training fun’ part as i coach youth soccer players in groups of 10~14. Making the training fun definitely helps kids engage more in the program. Another great way to do so is to make it competitive. Kids really hate losing! However we should make the drills or the exercises really clear in terms of performing it correctly as kids’ over competitive minds often make them cheat on the drills/exercises which can possibly hurt them or diminish the effects of training.

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