When kids are young and just getting started in sports and physical activity, it can be easy to get caught up in the rush of the game. You might start to put together a practice schedule, sign them up for team tryouts and urge them to focus on their favourite sport right from day one.
But there are some things to think about when it comes to training youth athletes, so before you jump in with both feet take a few minutes to learn about how you can best feed your young ones’ interests, and set them up for a lifetime of physical activity and a love of the game. Before going further, any coach or parent of a youth athlete needs to read Canada’s Sport for Life’s 10 Key Factors of Long-Term Athlete Development and understand the Long Term Athlete Development Stages.
Things to remember when training youth athletes:
1. Think twice about confining them to one sport
It may be tempting to push your young athlete to choose a sport and focus on perfecting it, but stats have shown that 88% of all 2018 NFL 1st-3rd round draft picks were players who played multiple sports in high school. So even though you might feel otherwise, encourage them to build a well-rounded sports portfolio.
2. Keep training developmental-age appropriate
Focusing on skills that are appropriate for the developmental age of the athlete is the best way to ensure they are capable of mastering the skills as they are taught. If you try to push skills too early young players are more likely to not take in the lesson, and also to reject the game itself, especially if they start feeling that they ‘should’ be able to do something but can’t.
3. They’re kids, not professional athletes
Remember that you are training kids- not professional athletes! Expecting them to be able to practice and perform with the dedication and seriousness that pro athletes have is just setting them up to grow tired of the game. Young athletes need to be encouraged to build good skills and habits now so that when they are older, and maybe even have become professional athletes, they are more able to shift into the role.
4. Focus on fun, learning will come naturally
The younger the athlete, the more that fun should be a main focus of the sport. If a child is having fun, they are more likely to stay engaged and be interested in continuing to show up for practices and games. Make it too serious, and they’ll naturally pull away from it.
5. Start with general skills before becoming sport-specific
Regardless of what sport an athlete is interested in there are some basic skills that should be built before they start focusing on sport-specific skills. Skills like teamwork, respect for coaches and teammates, discipline in regards to practice and skill development, and learning how to move your body for sport and exercise are imperative in any sport.
6. Use positive reinforcement
Though you may have grown to think ‘tough love’ is the best way to teach athletes how to strengthen up both on and off the court, the opposite is more likely to be true. Using positive reinforcement teaches players that you value building a good rapport with them, and that you’re there to support and teach them rather than to ridicule. Positive reinforcement also helps build their self confidence and communication skills.
7. Keep it Simple – Really Simple
When training young athletes, it’s easy to forget that they are still young and inexperienced and don’t yet understand some of the more complicated plays and theories that you might want them to. You may also catch yourself pushing them to practice more intensely than is developmentally appropriate for their skill level. It’s imperative to take a step back and remember that a house league level player doesn’t need to put in the same practice intensity that a select team player will want to. Pushing a player to learn more complicated theories and skills than they are ready for can result in them rejecting the game altogether.
8. Winning isn’t everything
At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember with all youth athletes is that winning isn’t everything. The more that players are encouraged to focus on overall skill development rather than the score on the board above them, the more likely they are to adopt healthy sports skills for life.
Having fun sets athletes up to be Active for Life
Helping foster a sense of achievement and a love of physical activity in your young athlete is the best way to set them up for a healthy life filled with sport and fitness. Whether they are interested in just playing house leagues or in growing into a more skilled, select team player, the habits you’ve helped them form as a young athlete will stick with them their entire lives.