Working with young individuals and athletes is rewarding for a variety of reasons. Whilst often relative novices in a gym environment, they are generally eager to learn, respond well to coaching cues and have the self-determination to push themselves. Their physical development is easy to see over short periods of time, with huge changes noticeable where athletic development can be observed longitudinally. These are all desirable characteristics I am sure we all like to see. However, trainers and practitioners should be mindful that coaching this population is very different from working with those in adulthood.
Firstly, look to understand why a young person is seeking help or assistance with training. What are their goals? Are they sports-related? Do they wish to improve physical appearance, self-esteem or general health, or are they looking for rehabilitation from injury? Maybe they are doing it for fun and enjoyment. The goal of a 15-year-old student is likely to be vastly different than that of a 30-year-old rugby player.
Goals may also vary between young individuals. Pre-teen athletes are likely looking for fun and trainers should look to develop coordination, balance and performance of controlled movements through a variety of exercises and tasks when working with this cohort. Athletes in their late teens may be more concerned with mastery of movements, maintaining or improving mobility and development of speed, strength and power. Depending on their level it may be that their focus is more specific, although you should proceed forward cautiously if concentrating on specificity.
There may be times when you may not completely agree with our client’s goals, but nonetheless, seek to understand them. This provides an opportunity to discuss the goals openly with the athlete. It may be that they are uneducated on the topic and their goal needs to be changed or altered. It may be that in order to achieve their end goal, they need to achieve multiple smaller goals first, which they have not considered.
Once there is full understanding from both parties on what they wish to achieve, why and over what timeframe, plan out some goals together. This keeps you both accountable.
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Adolescents likely lack a training history, possibly resulting in a lack of knowledge of exercises and more importantly, technique. Not everyone will know what a deadlift is or what ideal form should look like. This shouldn’t be assumed. The same applies for terminology. Some athletes won’t know what a “Glute” muscle is, let alone how to engage them. Assume they know nothing until they prove to you otherwise. When introducing them to a new exercise, demonstrate the exercise and talk them through it in a language they understand. Get them to practice the exercises in front of you with no or minimal resistance. Depending on the complexity of the movement it may be necessary to break it down into a part-whole method. Adolescents will have positive physical adaptations to exercises with limited stimulus so don’t think this is a waste of time, no matter how much the athlete, or you, want to push on lifting more weight or additional repetitions.
There is a wealth of evidence to support the use of physical activity to promote mental wellbeing. We can foster mental toughness and self-fulfilment in our young clients, which will help them in other environments. However, be mindful of the negative influence training can have on young athletes if not done properly. This may be their first experience of structured training and they are probably nervous about meeting new people. Keep these interactions positive and make the experience enjoyable. Challenge them when the time is right, but don’t break them. This doesn’t mean that you can’t provide them with exercises which are challenging, but if you give them an hour of exercises they don’t enjoy, are they likely to complete the extra sessions you have provided them? Are they likely to come back next time? Ask them what they enjoy and what their favourite exercise is. If you can get the athlete to enjoy the session, they are more likely to return and achieve their goals.
About the author: Craig Barden, Sports Therapist
Craig works for Bristol Flyers Basketball Club and is the Head of Strength, Conditioning and Sports Therapy at South Gloucestershire and Stroud College in Bristol, working with a range of youth sports. Craig Graduated with a Degree in Sports Rehabilitation in 2010, is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and is currently completing a PhD at the University of Bath.