I work mainly with the young athletes here at The Spot Athletics; a majority of my clients are ages 18 months to 10 years old. I love working with the younger kids because I get to watch a tremendous increase in confidence, cognitive development, motor skills, and overall growth into athletes.
Working with this age range, I have a huge opportunity for influence. Not to mention it’s not humanly possible for me to be in a bad mood when I walk into the lobby to a group of 3-5 year olds on a Saturday morning to hear a kid say “Coach Jess, we’re gonna have so much fun today!” or a mom tell me “My kid looks forward to Spot Tots all week”.
A lot of people think that coaching young kids is just “glorified babysitting” and then end up getting frustrated that the kids aren’t listening or can’t quite perfect a movement they’ve been working on for weeks. There’s a right way and a wrong way to coach kids.
I started writing this by going through multiple studies on topics like autonomy supportive coaching of youth athletes and training implications for young kids. While the science behind it is important, I realized during this process that sometimes using things like Self Determination Theory and assessment of the psychological needs of athletes overcomplicates the concept. So let’s simplify it instead.
When you break it down, coaching kids is a lot like coaching adults. Here are the three main things you need to know:
- Fun is #1
Yes, the motor skills, cognitive development, athletic ability, confidence building, and fundamental movement is important BUT these kids are here to have fun. Everything needs to be game-based. I spend 25% of the time teaching the kids a movement or health/nutrition fact and the other 75% of the time making a game out of that movement or fact.
Quizzing the kids for 30 minutes on what the heart does or how to get in a good base position is not my job and would be unsuccessful anyways. Kids will learn best when they don’t realize they’re learning. When you make a game out of everything, they stay engaged longer, work harder, and listen better.
On top of that, you have to get creative with the games. I can’t use the same game every week to teach similar movements and sometimes, games that I think will be fun end up being duds and I have to come up with new ones on the spot.
Motor skills, cognitive development, athletic ability, confidence building, and fundamental movements are important BUT these kids are here to have fun. Everything needs to be game-based.
2. Create a relationship with them
Working with or for someone that’s a friend is always easier than with someone you’ve just met or who doesn’t seem very emotionally invested in you or your success. It’s far easier and more natural to motivate yourself to do well and aim to please a boss that consistently shows they appreciate you and care about you. The same reasoning applies to working with youth.
The first thing I do in every one of my Tots and Minis classes is sit in a circle and have each kid tell me one thing they did that day, or answer a question about their favorite animal or game to play. If I were to bring the kids in and immediately try to make them work, they would be distracted, shy, and in their minds, have no reason to listen to me at all. Show the kids that you care. If you peek into the kids room during one of my Tots or Minis sessions, you’ll see me get unbelievably excited that 3 year old Ella got “Step-kick-step” down on soccer day or that 5 year old Oliver landed a cartwheel on both feet after telling me he’ll “never be able to do a cartwheel” and “they’re just impossible”.
Listen to what they need - Kids need to learn that they won’t always get what they want but I also have learned that writing off complaints just because they seem small to you pushes kids away. Tough love is great, but make sure you actually know what the kid is telling you. There are times in Minis classes here at The Spot, where kids will say they hate a certain movement or implement and refuse to do it when really, they’ve never tried it before and are afraid to fail. Maybe I didn’t teach them the movement yet or just poorly explained how to do the activity. Learn to differentiate between kids being stubborn and kids trying to show you that they need help with something.
Treat them like intelligent humans - because they are, even if they still don’t know what comes after the number five and get the colors red and blue confused. Those are small details. Kids are like sponges. They absorb EVERYTHING around them and notice more than you think. Always be aware of how you talk to kids and how you carry yourself around them. How you act around them and speak to them is how they’ll learn to act and speak.
Listen to what they need. Learn to differentiate between kids being stubborn and kids trying to show you that they need help with something.
3. Provide them with an environment to succeed.
I love to challenge my Tots and Minis to try new things that they’ve never done. The look on their face when they accomplish something for the first time that looks scary and uncertain to them is pure happiness. Most kids can do more than you think.
That being said, I’m not going to throw them on the rock wall and say “have at it, you're on your own”. I have to give them a boost for their first couple runs and maybe show them where to put their hands, the whole time encouraging them to keep trying even if it’s tough. The same goes with things like throwing and catching or learning how to skip without tripping over their feet. I don’t just toss a bean bag in their direction without first teaching them where their hands should be when they’re getting ready to catch or telling them to skip down the turf if they don't know that skipping is just a step-hop step-hop.
Instead of getting frustrated that kids don’t know how to do something that may seem simple to us, make sure they actually have a base of understanding to springboard off of.
So there it is, working with youth is only as hard as you make it and their ability to succeed is largely based on the tools you provide them with.
Working with younger kids presents a distinct set of issues. Challenges that may seem small to you can be intimidating or scary, but conquering those challenges is equally as exciting. Understanding how to motivate and encourage kids is as important as teaching them how to move. By being aware of the unique aspects of training a younger audience and creating/adapting programs tailored to their needs, kids (and coaches) are set up for success.