5 Lessons I Learned About Training Youth Athletes at Endeavor Sports Performance
It’s been five weeks since my internship at Endeavor Sports Performance – the premier strength & conditioning facility for hockey players in the NJ/PA/DE area – came to an end.
During a typical week I had the chance to coach and work with dozens of athletes from various sports – mostly hockey players but there were some wrestlers, baseball, lacrosse and soccer players in the mix as well.
One of the teams I got to work with was the Philadelphia Flyers U20 team playing in the USPHL.
Prior to my stint at Endeavor, I had not worked with young athletes before, but being exposed to that sheer number of kids – ranging between 8- and 20-year-olds – over 8-12 hours every weekday quickly gave me some perspective on the current state of youth athletics.
Below are five things I learned about coaching <13-year-old athletes during my internship at Endeavor.
1. Quality Coaching Can Make a Huge Difference in Youth Athletics
When I look back at my own time as a young athlete playing two different sports, I have to chuckle at the stuff we were doing at the gym.
The focus was on training “the core” and the aerobic system, which meant numerous crunch variations and tons of running.
Exercise instruction was limited to “keep your toes and knees in line when squatting”.
We had no set program to follow… so must guys would huddle around the bench press station and go to work – leg training was naturally skipped.
When lower body strength was measured, it was done via a 1RM in the leg press.
Now don’t get me wrong…
The coaches we had were not bad people and actually were very knowledgeable about tactical stuff on the field. But when it came to designing effective strength & conditioning programs for sports, they were woefully inadequate for the job.
It’s just that they didn’t know any better. And from what I understand, things haven’t really changed that much in the last 10 or so years – the head coaches are still running off-ice/off-field practices in most youth sports organizations.
If you’re a team coach and want to maximize the potential of your young hockey/football/basketball/whatever players, you absolutely NEED to hire someone to be 100% in charge of the team’s strength & conditioning program.
Any other approach will be a remarkable disservice for your athletes.
2. Kids Have Horrible Movement Patterns These Days
Parents convinced their offspring will become the next Sidney Crosby are asking how their 13-year-olds should train to become stronger and more powerful, when the reality is, these kiddos are not ready for the type of heavy lifting and advanced training methods we see pro athletes perform in Youtube montages.
As Gray Cook is fond of saying – “Don’t add strength on dysfunction.”
You’d be surprised (just like I was!) how few kids at that age move well. What you’ll see is a lot of this…
… and this:
Now imagine placing a loaded barbell on an athlete whose knees keep collapsing in and back starts rounding before even reaching parallel in a squat.
Or have him do box jumps onto a 24″ platform.
Do that, and you’re setting the kid up for injury.
Naturally, the question then becomes: “How did you fix these issues at Endeavor?”
Three big keys were:
– Isometric holds before dynamic movements… teaching squat holds before progressing to full squats, and making sure the athlete can demonstrate good form (chest up, butt back, lower back flat, knees out) at all times
– Focus on proper landing mechanics when vertical/broad/box jumping before making the exercise harder
– Corrective exercises built into the warm-up and training program that increase hip and ankle ROM
3. Know Their Names and Be a Leader
I still vividly remember my first time coaching a completely new group of hockey players full of 13-year-olds high on sugary drinks, bordering on ADD.
I went in very confident in my coaching abilities… but soon found out that no matter how good you’re teaching exercises, if you never get the chance to get through to these kids, you will not be able to do your job effectively.
So what happened was these youngsters would test their boundaries with the new coach (a.k.a. me) – talking over me, grabbing and lifting dumbbells when the rest of the group were doing push-ups, skipping exercises…
As a result, I felt like I wasn’t in control of the group, which pissed me off big time.
After that small disaster, I asked Endeavor staff members Miguel Aragoncillo (who a few weeks later got hired by Cressey Performance) and Matt Sees for advice on how to better handle these training sessions in the future, and they gave me a few great pointers:
– Learn all their names as quickly as possible.
Knowing their names instantly gives you power as you can call people out on bad behavior. Nothing stops an individual (young or old) on their tracks as forcefully as addressing them by their name with authority.
Which of these do you think has a higher chance of prompting a desired response?
“Hey you, stop that!”
“Greg, put that dumbbell away and get back into a plank!”
– Put the onus on them to step up and become better athletes.
You’re there as the expert, the coach who knows how to help them get better on and off the ice – whether a kid chooses to give his full effort or waste his time half-assing things is up to him.
– Develop a coaching voice.
You need to be able to get your message across the room verbally over regular gym chatter and loud rock music playing in the background without seeming like you’re shouting at the top of your lungs.
– Don’t be afraid to throw a misbehaving kid out of the training room.
You’re not there to make friends with these kids. You’re the adult, the authority who needs to put people back in their place if they step out of line.
Sometimes that means laying down the law and getting rid of troublemakers. No kid wants to be left out when all their friends and teammates are inside, practicing and improving their skills.
I came up with the “5 minute misconduct”, where I’d remove a kid from the room for 5 minutes, then let them come back if they promised they would behave. This calmed the entire group down as they knew I was being serious about throwing people out and not just full of empty threats.
4. Higher Expectations Lead to Better Results
Before jumping into the warm-up and training part of each training session, I would gather our group of 15-20 young hockey players together for a 5-10 minute chat.
We’d talk about how many games they won over the previous weekend, then do a short re-intro where everyone would state their name and their favorite hockey player/team/hockey memory/goal they scored in their career.
The purpose of this little routine was two-fold…
First, every kid had their 15 seconds in the spotlight where all the attention was on them. This gave an opportunity for the normally quiet ones to get vocal in front of their peers.
Second, while this proved a great tactic in helping me recall everyone’s names again, I’d like to think it also served as a quick team building exercise as the players learned something new about their teammates and shared a few laughs together before moving on to the more serious stuff.
Following that, I started setting the expectations for the day’s training session.
If the group did well the previous week or I had heard another coach praise their efforts, I’d let them know that.
If they had half-assed in training the last time, I’d remind them that today was a new opportunity for them to show me, themselves and each other they were better than that.
Funny thing is, whenever I began a practice session following this template, things turned out well.
If I skipped it, I felt the kids were more likely to engage in undesirable behavior (not listening to instructions, hitting their teammates, talking over each other) and consequently, I had much less control over the ensuing training session.
5. You Gotta Make Things Fun
Having said all that, you still need to be able to relate to these kids at some level beyond being a drill sergeant 24/7.
Around the age of 15-16, guys start thinking more about their future and whether they still see themselves playing the game in a few years. College (and the pros for the very best of them) is not that far away anymore, and the truly motivated and high-aspiring individuals will do everything in their power to get even better.
However, when dealing with 9-13-year-olds, the focus should be on enjoying the training process while simultaneously laying the foundations for long-term athletic development.
Fact is, you could be the best S&C coach out there when it comes to exercise program design, but if those kids don’t enjoy training with you AND within the training atmosphere you’ve created, they won’t live up to their full potential… over time they may even decide to stop coming in altogether.
For the 16-year-old stud hockey player, hitting a new PR on front squats may be all the reason he needs to keep looking forward to the next practice session.
But what keeps a 11-year-old coming back week after week will probably have less to do with his progress in the gym… at that age it’s all about the atmosphere and having fun with his friends.
And let’s face it – teaching a young athlete new skills is a helluva lot easier when he’s fully enjoying the process rather than if he detests everything you’re having him do.
As a coach, possessing the ability to crack a joke and share a few laughs, then immediately switching back to teaching mode and demanding more from your athletes when it’s time to get to business is a crucial skill that anyone working with kids needs to hone.
A big thank you to Endeavor President Kevin Neeld, and the rest of the staff – Matt Siniscalchi, Matt Sees and Miguel Aragoncillo – for everything they taught me during my stay at their facility.
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