Written by James Darley and Daniel Hechler
To be a strength and conditioning coach at any level is both a privilege and an honor. However, to be a strength and conditioning coach that helps develop and foster youth athletes is particularly meaningful. It is a role that carries significant responsibility since you have a profound influence and significant impact on a young athlete’s personal growth and development at a critical juncture in their athletic journey.
Despite the importance of this period, the main debate when it comes to long-term youth development seems to revolve around proper and safe programming. While this is important and should be scrutinized, a large portion of mentoring and coaching young athletes has nothing to do with program design. Instead, it has everything to do with understanding how to communicate, encourage, and enrich prepubescent and pubescent adolescents engaged in sports.
Psychologists and cognitive scientists have all aimed to study better ways to account for the differences in learning and to define the best methods to teach others. This has resulted in a variety of learning style theories since the 1970s. While these theories are valuable to understand, they are not without controversy and criticism. It is for this reason that this section isn’t full of science and theory. Rather than getting into a scientific citation duel and detract from the article, this section is merely observations and insights, which might prove useful in training youth athletes.
Insight #1 – Positive Reinforcement
Do you remember being a pre-teen and teenager? For most of us, it was a time of emotional, physiological, and psychological change. It was a time full of hormone-driven ideas, social pressure, and mixed messages. The social pressure of being included and not considered an outcast. A pressure that resulted in being afraid to try certain things for the fear of being ridiculed.
Yet despite this many strength & conditioning coaches that interact with youth athletes take on an authoritative demeanor, which includes constant correction. How are you going to effectively develop foundational movements with young athletes, if you start off by pointing out their error in front of their peers? Sure, their squat might be the worst thing you have ever seen, but does telling them that actually help? Of course not!
Instead, it is important to develop a positive relationship and rapport with your young athletes. Rather than opening your corrective and improvement communication with a negative, it is vital to indicate the positive. If the form is completely off, then comment on their energy or enthusiasm and only then suggest a helpful cue or tip. This not only helps build self-confidence in the youngster, but it helps you establish a positive relationship where you are a source of information and not ridicule.
Insight #2 – Use a Variety of Coaching Cues Using the VAK Model
Whether you are a proponent or critic of Neil Fleming’s VAK learning model, the truth is that many strength & conditioning successfully utilize a multi-dimensional approach of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning with youth athletes. As a coach, it is your responsibility to be competent in all three forms since different individuals within a group will learn in different ways. In fact, some may need a combination of cueing rather than just one form to retain a movement pattern or exercise.
So how does VAK work within a strength & conditioning context?
Visual Learners – The visual learner prefers to use images, pictures, and objects to organize and retain information. Typically, a young athlete that tends to be more of a visual learner will be shy when given auditory cues. This type of person will wait to see his or her fellow teammates execute a movement prior to doing it themselves.
For this type of individual, using primarily a visual demonstration along with minor auditory and kinesthetic feedback would be the best approach. What is particularly important is that the strength coach use precise form or movement that they want replicated by the athlete. As the visual learner will tend to precisely mimic or copy the movement used by the strength coach.
Auditory Learners – The auditory learner prefers to learn by listening. For a strength coach dealing with this type of athlete, it is vital to give organized, well-spoken, step-by-step instruction for the movement that they want performed. A good idea is to utilize external cues like “push the ground away” or “explode” and then associate that with a particular sound. This way in the future when you state the phrase, the auditory learner will have a context and be able to replicate the movement. Of course, both visual and kinesthetic cues should also be used in conjunction.
Kinesthetic Learners – The kinesthetic learner tends to be a tactile learner. They learn by using their body, hands, and sense of touch. In fact, kinesthetic feedback is a great type of learning model to use with young athletes since they tend to be more kinesthetically aware than non-athletes as they are used to learning sport-specific drills by repetition and doing it themselves.
Many strength coaches believe that a K.I.S.S model is most effectively with kinesthetic learners, but based on experience using a multi-dimensional approach and hands-on feedback tends to work the best. A combination of visual demonstrations, auditory cues, and hands-on feedback will elicit the best results in a short period of time. Once, the young athlete feels what the correct movement pattern is then they will be able to replicate it over and over with limited cueing.
Insight #3 – Use Both External and Internal Coaching Cues
One of the great debates in the strength & conditioning community is whether external or internal cues are more helpful when teaching movement patterns to young athletes, who have poor motor control and tend to be initially uncoordinated.
To give a frame of context, internal cues are classified as having the athlete focus on his/her body parts. An example would be telling an athlete to explode through the hips while jumping. Meanwhile, an external cue has the athlete focus on the outcome of the movement or how their movement affects the environment around them. An example would be telling an athlete to corkscrew their feet into the ground during a squat.
According to several research studies, external cues tend to outperform internal cues when teaching new movement skills to athletes. So does this mean that internal cues should be banished from the weight room? Absolutely not!
Just the way a good coach should study their young athletes and use all aspects of the VAK model, they should also use both internal and external cues when applicable. In fact, based on experience, we have noticed that internal cues tend to be slightly more effectively when working with young athletes rather than external cues.
What are some useful internal cues?
- Directly palpate areas of the body that should be the prime mover during a certain movement. Then tell the athlete to focus on that specific body part the next time that they perform the movement.
- Be hands-on during the teaching of new movement patterns. Help the young athlete get in proper position, so they can have an idea what the correct pattern feels like when performed.
Nevertheless, all of this should be used in conjunction with external cues as the athlete becomes more comfortable with movement patterns since being hands-on can be detrimental to performance in the long-run. As a strength coach, you want your young athlete to become independent of you.
All of this leads us to our practical K.I.S.S coaching model when it comes to coaching the big five foundational movements.
K.I.S.S: Coaching The Big Five
When working with the youth athlete population, it is very easy to over complicate program design. Misinformed coaches can fall prey to parents who insist their kids are the next “big thing” and need to train like the professional athletes they idolize. These coaches throw together all the “cool” components of training, hoping to wow the parents and kids.
We hate to break it to these parents and coaches, but to be successful in developing youth athletes, we must utilize the K.I.S.S. principle: Keep. It. Simple. Stupid. This is necessary, as most of these kids have never been in a weight room, let alone moved their body in the specific motions that strength and conditioning coaches demand.
Using K.I.S.S., the essential movements our kids must master are the brace, squat, hinge, push, and pull. These fundamental patterns make up the foundation for the rest of their athletic career and beyond. If we fail to properly teach these skills, we have failed them as a coach.
Learning how to properly brace should be taught first, as it is the core beneath every successful exercise. Teaching kids how to move their body as a unit will expedite their strength gains and reduce chances of injury. A great way to teach the brace in large groups is to have the athletes take their fingertips and dig them 1-2 inches to the left and right of their belly button. Once they are set, we will tell them to “push” their hands away from their stomach and hold like they will be punched in the stomach.
As a coach of a large group, this method makes cueing bracing more streamlined because we have created context for the kids. We can be across the room and shout “push my hands away” at an athlete doing any type of exercise, and that combination of internal and external cue will resonate much more than “keep your core tight!”
When working with a young athlete new to the gym, we initially focus on two main components of the squat. First, are the heels staying in the floor? Second, are the knees tracking out appropriately? Our goal is to get athletes’ depth to parallel or below; however as coaches, we have to prioritize and pick our battles during the teaching process.
Most people (not just kids) do better with a counter balance when learning the squat, which is why we use the goblet squat as our go-to loaded teaching tool. If the athlete struggles with heels to the floor, we will use the external cue “glue your heels to the floor as you come down and push them into the basement driving up.” Generally this will clear up most kids. However, if someone is still struggling to shift their weight back and keeps coming on their toes, we will use another tool.
In this next variant, we will wrap a very thin super band around a column and have the athlete step into it, positioning the band behind their knees to create tension on the band. This method is a form of RNT (Reactive Neuromuscular Training) and will pull them into the forward position we do not want. They will then squat down, focusing on the cue “do not let the band pull you forward.” They must resist the band, forcing them to shift their weight back into their heels.
Now with the heel position fixed, we can begin to tackle the knees tracking over the legs, while simultaneously teaching proper depth. We will place a mini band around the athlete’s knees and a box behind them. We will cue the athlete to squat down to the box driving their knees to the sides of the room, ripping apart the band, and keeping the rip as they tap the box with their butt, while pushing their heels to the basement to stand up. This method will help give context to the athlete in terms of proper knee tracking and the appropriate depth to hit.
Teaching youth athletes how to hinge can be very challenging for coaches. We have all heard coaches tell their athletes “hinge back” when they’re going over the movement. Yet that is the worst possible cue for the young athlete, as it has no context for them. This is why we like to first go over the counter movement used in a jumping motion before diving into any dowel, barbell, or kettlebell work.
The counter movement is a much easier motion for kids to get down because they have subconsciously been doing it for years in their sport and play. By going over the counter movement before other modalities, we can establish context for them to grasp onto when they’re struggling to understand the difference between the squat and hinge. This is incredibly useful when implementing the other modalities. Instead of saying “hinge back,” we can give the athlete context and say “counter movement” when they’re struggling, giving them a life raft to grab onto.
There are many modalities of pushing that we could discuss, but the most important one our youth athletes must master before we can load them up is the push-up. A key mistake young athletes make is just falling to the floor and pushing away. The essential components they must learn are bracing, ripping apart the floor, and actively “pulling” themselves down.
The concept of ripping apart the floor is paramount for them to properly execute the pushup, but more importantly, they must learn how to use their lats during pushing movements. This will trickle down into all their future programming.
What we must first do is teach them how to actively engage their lats. We will do this by saying “protect your armpits from someone tickling you.” Sounds silly, but it is effective and makes the athlete laugh. Using humor with young athletes can be tremendously useful in getting cues to stick and creating buy-in. Utilizing lat engagement we will cue them to screw their right hand clockwise and left hand counter clockwise and “protect their armpits.” From here we will cue them to “push away my hands staying tight,” “pull themselves” to the floor keeping the screw, and then push away.
Vertical pulling movements get little love and are quite often left to be butchered in youth programs. The prime example is the body weight chin-up. This movement is essential not only for its full body potential, but also for keeping healthy shoulders over time. To cue athletes through the movement, we will use context developed from the push-up.
With their arms at the handles, we will cue them to “bend the bar apart,” while “pushing my hands away.” As soon as they initiate the movement, we will cue them to “drive elbows down and back.” For athletes that round at the shoulders, we will cue to “keep the shoulders as far from ears as possible.” One last point is to have the athlete in dorsiflexion during the movement. This will aid in limiting their swing and remaining tight. The easiest way to achieve this is to tell them to “point their toes towards their chin” during the whole movement.
The Summation Of Coaching
As strength and conditioning coaches, being able to develop the youth population is a gift. We are often the first role models they encounter in the weight room. It is our duty to develop their movement patterns appropriately, setting them up for success both in their athletic careers, and more importantly, for the rest of their lives. Only a small fraction of the kids we work with will go on to play in college, and an even smaller fraction will make it to the pros. However, we can have a profound impact on the lives of all of our youth athletes, whether they are in this fraction or not, and that is an honor we all must respect. By learning about the psychological aspects of coaching and applying it to the cueing and execution of movements, we can streamline the learning process for our youth athletes. If we, as coaches, can help our kids reach lightbulb moments faster, it will accelerate both their athletic development and their joy for the weight room.
 Porter, Jared M, Erik J Ostrowski, Russell P Nolan, and Will F W Wu. “Standing Long-Jump Performance Is Enhanced When Using an External Focus of Attention.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2010, 1746-750. Accessed August 18, 2015. http://www.researchgate.net/publication/44669056_Standing_long-jump_performance_is_enhanced_when_using_an_external_focus_of_attention.
Wulf, Gabriele, Janet S. Dufek, Leonardo Lozano, and Christina Pettigrew. “Increased Jump Height and Reduced EMG Activity with an External Focus.” Human Movement Science, 2010, 440-48. Accessed August 18, 2015. http://www.pubfacts.com/detail/20409600/Increased-jump-height-and-reduced-EMG-activity-with-an-external-focus.
Porter, Jared M., Philip M. Anton, Nicole M. Wikoff, and Justin B. Ostrowski. “Instructing Skilled Athletes to Focus Their Attention Externally at Greater Distances Enhances Jumping Performance.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2013, 2073-078. Accessed August 18, 2015. http://www.researchgate.net/publication/233880169_Instructing_skilled_athletes_to_focus_their_attention_externally_at_greater_distances_enhances_jumping_performance.