Mike Boyle: Three Lessons I Learned from Coaching Kids
Here’s a sad truth: The higher the level you work at, the more spoiled you get.
I’ve been spoiled by training primarily professional and Olympic athletes. Coaching great athletes is challenging and fulfilling, but it can give you a false sense of your coaching skills. Dealing with athletes who have a higher training age and more athletic ability inevitably makes you take some things for granted.
Dealing with better athletes can also make you think you are a much better coach than you might really be.
When I worked with players on my daughter’s hockey team, the athletes varied in age from 13 to 18. They were all reasonably good athletes, but had a wide range of ability and experience. The majority had never been in a weightroom or picked up a weight prior to the start of our experience together. As always, experience is the best teacher . . . and as always, the best laid plans go wrong. I must admit, I had grand visions, like: ‘I am such a great coach, I could whip this group into shape in no time.’
Well, maybe not. Instead, those young women taught or re-taught me some valuable lessons.
In-season is a tough time to introduce any group to strength training, but I was not fortunate enough to have a pre-season period. Because we were starting in season, both the girls and their coaches were worried about soreness, muscle pulls and decreased performance. As a result, we went with our old stand-by, the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
Trust me, it was me who looked stupid. I’m glad no one watched the first few workouts. It was cat herding . . . without a whip. All I could think of was, ‘Thank God no one is watching this mess.’
In order to get the workouts done at the rink after practice, we went as basic as possible—nothing but sets of dumbbells I brought to the rink and stored there. We had about 10 minutes after practice to get the lifts in, but on the bright side we needed no warm-up, as the players came almost directly from the ice.
The program consisted of two sets of squat jumps, two sets of split squats paired with two sets of pushups, followed by two sets of single-leg straight-leg deadlifts paired with dumbbell rows. We did 10 reps of everything except squat jumps, which were 3×5.
Even in this simple setting, it is tough for one coach to teach 20 girls in 10 minutes. On day two, we established a rule: Don’t talk. Try to keep quiet and do your work for 10 minutes. It worked and things began to slowly improve. It was nothing I was proud of, but a system started to fall into place. After a few workouts, we amended the rule to No talking to anyone holding a weight. This meant they could talk between sets, but not to the person lifting.
We managed to string together one or two workouts per week and at least get acquainted with the basics.
Big lessons? Small goals, small victories. The big key for me was to not get frustrated and to keep the girls improving and engaged. I had my eyes on the off-season.
Fast forward a few weeks and we began our off-season workouts. Big difference. Being an in-season strength coach is like being a dentist—people dread seeing you. An in-season strength coach represents extra work, extra time and extra rules.
As an off-season strength and conditioning coach, you are viewed as a person who can make a difference.
We stayed with our KISS concept and continued to attack basic patterns. I quickly realized that superset pairs were going to be good and tri-sets were bad. We could not focus on two things at once, much less three. Tri-sets were designed to get more rest between heavy sets on major exercises. They allowed us to stay research-based and get three-to-five minutes between heavy sets. If the workout challenge is neural or motor learning, this isn’t an issue. For beginners, supersets make more sense. As coaches, we can concentrate and focus on point one above by keeping it simple.
Basic patterns matter: We worked on clean and front squat combos nearly every day. I don’t know if there are two more important exercises for young athletes.
Three Big Lessons
Lesson One: KISS, Keep It Simple, Stupid. In my case, the stupid one was me. In order to get any learning done, we needed rules. Enforce Rule #1, You can’t talk to anyone else. I soon softened slightly and I amended it to, You can’t talk to anyone who has weight in their hands. With kids, you need to really work on focus and attention. It is a constant battle. Be positive, but keep emphasizing the focus on the work and minimizing chatting with other kids.
Lesson Two: Design the program for the group; don’t fit the group to the program. Ask yourself questions like ‘Are they learning or lifting?’ Learning takes lots of repetition. Lifting needs control of things like volume and intensity. Ask yourself another simple question: ‘Is the motor pattern the challenge or is the load the challenge?’ For most kids, the challenge should be the motor pattern. You are working on teaching exercises, not strength training. There is a difference.
Forget mobility work and stretching if you only have an hour or less. Time is king and basics take time. Splits squats are mobility. Squats are mobility. A good basic routine is a mobility routine.
Lesson Three: You might really need two programs. Program One is a learning program for beginners with a limited number of basic exercises done for more sets. Program Two would be a strength program. We have tried one-size-fits-all programming and it doesn’t work. Your programming should be based on proficiency and training age. Those who have been with you for multiple seasons and are proficient would have one program. Beginners should have another. Proficiency in my book means, “Can you do a clean and a squat?” If they can’t, teach them. Limit variety and increase the number of sets. Nothing teaches like repetition.
Side note: Repetition and repetitions are not the same. We want more perfect sets, not a few high-rep sets. Create motor patterns, not stress. Three sets of five gives us 15 quality reps and three opportunities to coach. Two sets of 10 might provide more volume, but less coaching opportunity and more opportunity for technique to deteriorate.
The big takeaway? Younger kids are tough. They will challenge all your coaching skills and that can be really good for you.
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