Working with youth athletes can be tremendously rewarding for a strength and conditioning coach, but it's also undeniably tricky. Depending on the age group you work with, teaching athletes how to move well and correctly perform drills or lifts poses multiple challenges for their success. These problems are exacerbated further in group settings, as children develop at different rates in comparison to one another.
Coaching cues for older athletes usually don't pose as much of a challenge, as older athletes are more in tune with their body and have a broader experience level. Coaching cues for kids, however, can make you want to pull your hair out. For some reason, Tiny Timmy can't get into an athletic position and does not seem to understand English any time you say a word to him about it. As a coach, we need to remember that every athlete interprets and responds to coaching differently, and if you work with youth athletes, getting them to do what you need them to do can be a bit of a process.
Instead of just throwing every coaching cue and technique against the wall to see what sticks, I've found the three following tips help young athletes pick up moves more quickly both in the weight room and on the field.
1. Take the Athlete out of the Equation
If you already coach, you probably have realized that external coaching cues work better than most internal ones. The research backs this up. An internal coaching cue refers to the athlete's body. Think of telling a youth athlete to "extend your hips" or "use your hamstrings." Instrinsic cues, on the other hand, reference an action in relation to an object outside the body. Examples include "push the ground away" or "squeeze the bar."
Kids (especially those on the pre-pubescent side of life) tend to lack spacial awareness, coordination and general knowledge about their own body. Telling a young athlete to "load their hamstrings" isn't much good if they don't know what or where their hamstrings are. To get an athlete to do what you want, start by making references to things that are not a part of them. Use extrinsic cues. Use reference points such as a wall, door or something commonly known, such as animals or inanimate objects. Taking their body out of the frame of reference and replacing it with something tangible and common can help get them headed in the right direction. You'll see I do this in both of the cues I share at the end of this article.
2. Know The Athlete
Everyone talks about Brett Bartholomew's book Conscious Coaching and how understanding your athletes is crucial to their success, and for good reason (if you haven't read it, you need to). Kids are no different than adults or older athletes in this manner. Knowing your athlete is huge when trying to get them into good positions and develop as an athlete. If an athlete has no interest in basketball, telling them to hit a jump shot with the bar probably won't produce the push press you desire. Know their background and actions that they're familiar and capable with. Spending time to get to know the interests of a child can help you understand what reference points to use when trying to cue them.
3. Be Patient!
Coaching youth athletes is a very rewarding job, but it can also be one of the most frustrating jobs. We need to remember that having patience with an athlete will eventually yield the result you want while also building a positive relationship in the meantime. Young athletes will sometimes come in the day after a good session and it will feel like you're starting back at ground zero. They may not understand or remember everything or anything you've taught them, which can make it feel like all you did the day before was a waste. Be patient. The hope is that this athlete has a lifetime of training ahead of them, and you want to start them off on the right foot. Keep in mind that you are working with a child who is still developing and hasn't gotten to a point where they can consistently remember the feeling of a movement or how to get themselves into the same position every time.
There are lots of ways to get athletes to do what you need them to do, but since not every athlete is the same, keeping in mind how to cue each one makes a difference on the impact you have on their development. For youth athletes, simple cues will always be better. Detaching the situation from how they feel (because they don't know) and making frames of reference outside of their body will help get them thinking in the right way. Knowing your athlete can help shape your reference points and engage them more in the training. And having patience with them will help both you and your athletes enjoy each session.
To get a glimpse of this in action, here are a few cues that I've found work really well with kids.
1. Wall Drill (For a Hip Hinge)
- Have your athlete put their back against the wall, then take one small step forward. Feet should be even with one another.
- With hands on the head, ask the athlete to bend the knee a little and reach their butt back toward the wall (see photo above).
- When they get there, if they don't have a flat back, then ask them to show you the front of their shirt.
- Once they are off the wall and getting ready to Deadlift, Kettlebell Swing, or perform any other hinging movement, start by instructing them to reach their butt back toward the wall while showing off their shirt (see the athlete in the navy shirt).
Most of the time, this quick and simple drill will get your young athletes hinging very well!
2. Extreme Squat Fix
The Squat is arguably a difficult movement to learn. Especially in smaller groups or in individual sessions, using a box to sit to can help get an athlete to keep their feet flat on the floor. In extreme cases, no matter how many times you remind an athlete to "push their knees out," you get nowhere. By adding plates next to the feet, you can instruct the athlete to push the plates apart. Due to leverage and overall strength, the effort to push the plates apart will create the external hip rotation and get rid of any collapsing knees that is common among kids.
3. The Gorilla and the Prius
This one is my personal all-time favorite. Again, this is for the hip hinge. I always love to ask my athletes, "What happens if a turtle is in the middle of the road and gets hit by a Prius?" To which they all respond, "It gets crushed." I then flip the scenario by replacing the turtle with a "600-pound gorilla," which kids know will crush the car. From there I tell them that the weights are like the Prius, and in order to not get crushed, they have to look like a gorilla. With this reference to an outside animal's appearance in mind, kids will often figure out a hinge that needs minimal fixing!
Again, you'll notice all of these specific cues are built around external cues, not internal. By following these basic tips for cuing youth athletes, you can help develop their strength, athleticism and confidence with greater effectiveness and efficiency. And even better, they work great for more than just young kids, as these cue tips can serve as some universal rules for any individual new to training.
Photo Credit: alberto clemares exposito/iStock