Although every athlete is unique and must be coached differently, as I’ve worked with more and more people I’ve noticed patterns among different groups and demographics. With these patterns there are obviously exceptions. But, across the board these are some key elements to consider when working with a group of middle school boys. Why do boys get their own article? Girls at that age are usually easy to coach. They listen, they’re not overly competitive, and they’re open to constructive feedback. In general they’re a delight to be around. Also, being a young guy, I feel uniquely qualified to talk about what’s going on in the heads of these growing men because I was there not long ago. I understand what they stress about, what they desire, and what they wish they spent their time doing.
Key #1: Have fun
To these kids, all time spent not in school or doing homework should be fun time. They do sports because they enjoy it. They play video games because they like them. So in the gym we do things that are fun. We do relays and play spikeball. We play sewer if there’s time before class. Many kids love to climb the cargo net or climb the ropes, so we do that too. We’ll set aside time for things that they enjoy, because I know that they’re much more likely to work hard on a drill if they like it. Additionally, we’ll shorten or skip some phases in a program in order to get to the fun stuff. For example, ideally an athlete who walks into our facility for the first time would work on basic running mechanics for the first 3 or 4 weeks. But, they’ll quickly get bored if that’s all we do for our speed training. So, we’ll add in drills like ball drops and short competitive sprints to keep things interesting, and encourage them to work harder. Of course the basics of running mechanics are essential to learn first without other variables. But, I’ll be aggressive with how quickly we move on to the next progression. Or, we’ll continue working on the basics but throw in a more advanced drill here and there. A 6th grader is often going to get more out of a ball drop than a regular ten yard sprint because he’ll be more engaged. He’ll have more fun, and be more motivated the rest of the session. We’ll give them a bone on the speed and plyometric work, that way when we do boring things they’ll be less likely to roll their eyes at me. As a coach, I have to put aside theories of progression and periodization and ask, “What will help them most today and in the long-term?”
Key #2: Do exercises where they can feel something
If they can’t see the value in an exercise, or don’t feel it anywhere, they’re much less likely to work hard at it. Some kids hate split squats, because they don’t feel them anywhere. Some kids like split squats because they feel their legs working. They understand that this feeling is what is making them stronger. Therefore one of the best ways to get buy-in is to be a good technical coach. Make sure they’re doing the exercise correctly, and feeling it in the right muscles. To help with this, start with exercises that are easy to grasp. Sled Push is a good example. Adults hate the sled, because it’s hard. A lot of kids will tell me that they like the sled because they feel their legs so much. To give another example, one day we were practicing flexed arm hangs, where you try to hold yourself at the top of pull-up. One young man switched his grip to an underhand grip, and said that he felt his biceps burning. Then, his friend said that he wanted to feel his biceps too, and so he switched his grip. A simple change like the grip position can allow them to feel it easier or in different places. The next day they both came in flexing their arms and telling me how sore their biceps were.
Key #3: Don’t yell, nag, or act frustrated.
They get plenty of that from parents and teachers. Listen to them. If they talk about how their math homework is keeping them up late at night, don’t tell them how ridiculous that is. Try to explain some basic time management strategies, like setting a timer for video games, or making sure that their homework is done first. Their stresses may seem so insignificant, because you know in the long run they are, but to them, they’re everything. Picture their perspective. They wake up to their parents telling them to get ready for school. The spend the whole day being told where to go and what to do by teachers. They almost all play sports with coaches telling them what to do. If you take a “do as I say approach,” everything you say will get thrown into their brain under the folder, “useless adult crap.” Be the coach who listens to them, who gives them a voice in the decision making process. “You guys want to do ball drops today? Okay.. I think we can squeeze that in if we’re focused and working hard.”
Key #4: Keep explanations concise
If you have to explain something, make sure you tell them the reason for that lesson as efficiently as possible. They don’t want a lecture. But, if you don’t give them the WHY behind something, it will go in one ear and out the other. Communicate to them as efficiently and clearly as possible. If possible, physically show them. One time I was asked why he had to stick his landings and pause between every hurdle jump. Instead of explaining the reason, I took a video of them going straight through, which showed their knees coming in on their landings. After showing him, he saw that he needed to focus on jumping and landing quietly with his knees in line first, before jumping in succession.
Key #5: Talk about things they like
Argue about baseball stats. Talk smack about their video game skills. Have a basic understanding of the things they like. If you understand and can talk about the things they like, it instantly builds rapport because most adults can’t. You don’t want to come off as trying to “fit in” with them. Just show that you understand their stresses and things they like and it will go a long way in building trust. What if you don’t know what your athletes like? How would you be able to talk with them? Well, if you don’t know what their interests are, then ask. Get to know them. Ask them what their favorite NBA team is, or who their favorite player is. If you know they’re Warriors fans, then notice next time Steph Curry has a big game, and bring that up with them. “Hey did you guys see Steph had ten three’s last night?” Show that you care about getting to know them, and it will not only build rapport, but you may also start to build great relationships with your athletes that you’ll begin to treasure.
The more I’ve been in the coaching world the more I’ve learned that the technical side of coaching is the easiest part. Anybody can learn how to properly plan a workout program, and how to coach most important exercises. What’s hard is communicating with athletes, to get them to put in their best effort. It’s about connecting, building trust, listening, and giving efficient coaching instructions. These are the skills that I’ve continually found are the most important. These are most important, not how precise the program in theory is. Being a handsome, smart 20-year old guy helps too.