Getting a young athlete (9 – 13 years old) into the gym for the first workout of their life is one of my favorite experiences as a coach. To think that moment is their first experience doing any sort of exercise or fitness is so incredibly humbling and exciting that it is difficult to express in words. It is one of those rare opportunities to truly have a positive and lasting impact on someone’s life. It’s why I do what I do.
There is also a lot of responsibility on my part to make sure the athlete has a successful hour and wants to return for more. Although learning and improving as a coach is a life-long process, I feel that my experience so far has taught me a lot about what is important and what is not for those first few sessions and months of training.
When meeting a new young athlete, my first job is to make a warm introduction and get a read on the kid. Most of the time, the athlete will be very intimidated, nervously looking around the gym and trying to get a handle on their new environment. I usually don’t say much and just let them take it in. But very quickly, I try to get some kind of personal of connection going. It’s important to let them know that instead of some angry gym coach, I’m a friendly and approachable guy who is only here to help. I find making a joke at my own expense accomplishes this pretty well. After I get them smiling, we begin. This is a crucial step because I firmly believe that before an athlete will buy-in to any directive I might give, they’ve got to buy-in to me first. We don’t have to become best friends right away, but some personal connection must be made and they’ve got to like who they’re dealing with.
Praise Effort, not Skill
I can’t tell you how many mistakes I let slide in these first few sessions. And still, I am constantly yelling out “nice job!” and “beautiful!” all the time, even if the execution isn’t that great. But that doesn’t mean I’m simply giving praise for nothing. I reward effort and attention. If I see the athlete is making a real effort to do what I’ve said, they get a pat on the back, even if it’s not perfect. Athletic development is a long, long process. I really don’t feel it’s that important to to attain perfection in the first week. Right now I need to develop the habits that will lead them to that goal. We’ll get there eventually.
One Thing to Focus On
It is so easy to overwhelm someone in this situation. I really don’t give an athlete more than one thing to focus on for any particular exercise. Too much information overloads the system and will just cause them, and me, more stress and frustration. Simplicity is key.
Physical AND Mental Stimulation
Most kids have the attention spans of goldfish. They will get bored very quickly if they’re not given something that forces them to engage. I incorporate tons of balance and coordination work in those first programs not only because they are essential athletic skills, but because they are impossible to do without becoming aware of the body. They are also just tons of fun. And while I’ll be the first one to say that sweating a lot does not equal a “good workout”, I do feel that kids want to and should crank it up a bit. They want to work, they want to sweat, and in my experience, nothing puts a bigger smile on a kid’s face than giving them a high-five after pushing the Prowler around for a bit. That sense of accomplishment is important and they deserve it.
Movement Quality and Awareness
When it comes to the actual exercises, the only thing I really care about is quality of movement, or should I say, getting THEM to care about quality of movement. Again, I don’t go crazy on technique, but I do get the kid’s attention on how they’re performing each exercise, what feels right and wrong, and establishing some body awareness. I get them to understand that we’re teaching their body new skills, and it’s important to learn this stuff correctly before we hit the big weights when they’re older.
I feel it is very important to expose young athletes to as many different movement situations as possible. It is crucial that athletes learn to be adaptable and develop the ability to pick up on new motor skills very quickly. One sure fire way to stifle this is to expose them to the same exercises over and over again. In addition to their warm-ups, I usually prescribe between 6-8 exercises per workout, and change things up every 3 weeks. This could include traditional strength moves such as squats or pushups, or more complex tasks such as balance work, hand-eye coordination drills and spatial awareness tasks.
I love training, and I want kids to learn to love it as well. I want them to understand that a gym isn’t something you should associate with physical torture, but with personal challenge, growth, accomplishment, and good times.
What’s Not Important
Sets, Reps and Rest
Doesn’t matter. I could give a crap about the optimal rep range for strength versus endurance. In my experience, the normal rules of sets, reps, and rest just don’t apply to young kids at first. First of all, they are so weak and deconditioned that any set or rep scheme will lead to improvement. Secondly, I feel it is unnecessarily risky to load up a young athlete so much that they can only perform a couple of reps. As far as rest, I’ve seen 10-year-olds execute a program that would take me over an hour in about 20-minutes. Why? The little buggers don’t rest! They just go and go and go. And why is that? First because they don’t know any better (which is when I step in), and second because they are so little and weak that their bodies simply can not produce enough force to actually get fatigued. It’s really quite fascinating. My rationale for programming sets and reps for young kids is based on two considerations: safety and attention. I keep things very conservative and safe, and again, because of the “goldfish factor”, only give them what they can pay attention to. Simple and easy-to-remember is the key here, usually 3 sets of 5 or 10 for everything.
Again, I’m just not big on this for newbies. Most young athletes won’t even be using any weight, but on the off-change that they are, I pick a weight that is somewhat challenging, but not overly so. I just don’t care if they can eek out another 5 lbs on the next set, it’s not the primary goal at this stage in their training. Besides, research has shown that novice trainees can gain strength with loads as low as 60% of their 1RM. I stick to this principle until their bodies begin to mature and the potential for strength gain really increases.
Somewhere in the hallowed halls of strength and conditioning’s ancient archives, there is some law that dictates the optimal order of exercises within a session (speed before power, before strength, etc.). I simply don’t pay attention to any of that when writing these kinds of programs. The order of exercises and the program as a whole must be balanced and make sense logistically, that’s about it. Besides most of the exercises I have young athletes do incorporate multiple athletic qualities at once.