How to Enhance Engagement When Coaching Youth Athletes
When coaching youth athletes, one of the biggest challenges is to keep them engaged and motivated throughout the training sessions and throughout the duration of the year. It is essential to find the right balance between pushing these athletes to help them improve, and making the training fun and enjoyable. This can be summarised by creating a high-challenge and high-support environment. Below are seven areas to focus on when you’re looking to enhance engagement when coaching youth athletes.
7 Key Areas to Focus On
1 / Challenging the athletes
When coaching youth athletes, one of the best ways to keep them engaged is by challenging them. This can be achieved in various ways, such as through competition, gamification, leaderboards, or testing themselves against their personal bests. The key is to provide them with a clear target and help them to track their progress. This will give them a sense of achievement and encourage them to keep pushing themselves.
Practical example / Movement Challenge – Table Top
Get into a table top position and try to achieve the bronze, silver, and gold levels.
2 / Listening to the athletes
Another important aspect to enhance engagement when coaching youth athletes is simply listening to the athletes. This can be done through surveys, leadership groups, or by simply asking them what they would like to see in the training sessions.
This is a great way to uncover insights and may address some blind spots in your coaching, or areas that can be slightly tweaked to bring great improvements. The athletes may have preferences that the coaches are not aware of, and by listening to them, coaches can ensure that they are delivering training that is enjoyable and relevant to the athletes.
Practical example / Readiness Monitoring Frequency
I asked the Arsenal Academy players how many times a week they would like to complete readiness to train monitoring. They suggested two times a week. I would have liked four times a week but we completed it two times a week and the buy-in and honesty were very good partially due to listening to the players.
3 / Creating a positive environment
The environment in which the training takes place can also play a key role in enhancing engagement when coaching youth athletes. Giving energy to the environment is hugely important. This can be done through music, including variety in the warm-up, and incorporating different games at different stages of the session. Coaches should aim to create sessions that are easy to follow with clear guides that can also help to keep athletes focused and engaged.
Practical example / Music
Asking players what music they would like to play in the hall or gym. This can help the flow and enjoyment of a session. They can create a playlist as a group.
4 / Making sessions fun and enjoyable
Following on from the previous point, when coaching youth athletes it is crucial to make the training sessions fun and enjoyable. This can be achieved by including sections of the session that are focused purely on having fun, such as relays or other fun games. This will help to break up the intensity of the training and keep the athletes motivated. An obstacle course focused on movement skill development can be a good option here.
Practical example / Connect 3 (Tic-Tac-Toe) on the Pitch
A simple game of connect 3 using grids and cones on the pitch in a relay format can be enjoyable but also active. The video below from the Football Fitness Federation YouTube channel shows Barcelona FC playing the game in training.
5 / Including variation
When coaching youth athletes, it’s important to vary the training sessions, especially if the athletes are with the same group for a long time. This will help to keep the training fresh and engaging, and prevent boredom from setting in. Coaches can vary the exercises, drills, or games to keep the athletes challenged and motivated.
Practical example / Hip Hop Dance Class
Arsenal Academy players were asked what they would like to do during their unload week. They suggested Hip Hop dancing. A dance coach was organised and it was enjoyed by the players and was a great example of the principle of variation during a long season.
6 / Balancing intensity and safety
Young people often like to feel like they have accomplished something difficult, and this can be achieved through intense training sessions. However, it is important to ensure that the athletes are performing the movements correctly and not pushing themselves to the point of failure. Coaches should strive to find the right balance between intensity and safety.
Practical example / Appropriate Conditioning for Youths
Running an appropriately designed youth conditioning session that is gradually introduced and loaded can challenge the players and give them the feeling of progressing to more young adult-type programmes.
7 / Giving the athletes a sense of leadership
Finally, coaches should aim to treat the athletes like adults, giving them a sense of ownership and influence over the training sessions. This can be achieved by involving them in the planning and execution of the training, making them feel like they have had an input into the session. This will help to enhance engagement and motivation, and create a sense of teamwork and camaraderie among the athletes.
Practical example / Leadership Groups
Asking a leadership group to decide the rules for the gym and the repercussions of not following the rules. They can also be given the responsibility of overseeing these rules. The responsibility can be shared with the whole group over the season and it should always be observed and guided by the coach.
In conclusion, enhancing engagement when coaching youth athletes is about finding the right balance between challenge, fun, and intensity to create a challenging and caring environment. By listening to the athletes, creating a positive environment, and giving them a sense of leadership and influence, coaches can ensure that their training sessions are enjoyable, motivating, and effective.
A great resource is the following YouTube channel, with many different options for cooperative activities and games for coaches – Team Building: Cooperative Activities/Games – YouTube
About the author
Des Ryan, Director of Coaching & Performance, Setanta College
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