5 Lessons Why A Pro Approach Will Fail When Coaching the Youth Athlete

Today's guest post comes from a Cressey Sports Performance former intern, John Dusel. John is a fantastic young strength coach who would like to offer some advice to other young coaches who might be struggling to gain the attention of youth athletes. Enjoy! 

Source: By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA - Stephen Curry, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46777220

Source: By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA - Stephen Curry, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46777220

My current internship is with the Golden State Warriors and thus affords me the opportunity to work with professional, athletes. However, I was asked to help out with a youth event on two separate occasions in two different cities that provided insight into the “other professionals” in sports, highlighting a variety of careers, including strength & conditioning. 

My goals for the event was to provide some education about my career but mostly I wanted to get the youngsters moving and introduce them to some foundational movements. This sounds easy enough, however, I found the attention of a social-media influenced grade school to middle school aged crowd is much more challenging than earning a re-tweet or like on Instagram. 

The first weekend did not go as planned and in preparation for the second time around, I sought out the advice of Nancy Newell. Nancy is an expert when it comes to capturing, engaging and motivating young minds. With some guidance from “Momma Nance” I was able to put together a plan for the event. If haven’t yet read her article on the laws of youth training, make sure to check it out here. While the event was overall a success, like a team or a coach reviewing game film after a win, I still walked away having learned a few lessons. 

Lesson 1:  Always go in with a game plan

With the event taking place on two different Saturday’ s in two different cities, one major change I made from one week to the next was putting my plan to paper, creating an outline for the second time around. Without a plan that the first weekend, I found myself getting caught up in the initial receptiveness the youngsters showed to a certain activity. If they weren’t super excited about it at the beginning or it didn’t go well, I panicked and changed my mind. This led to confusion, disorganization and borderline chaos that an onlooker might mistake for an awkward middles school dance. In contrast, the second week with the help of Wonder Woman Nancy, I put together an outline that was written yet could be modified on the fly. This led to much more success, with everyone in coordination like the New York Rockettes. 


Week 1

Week 1



Week 2 

Week 2 


Lesson 2: Take Interest, in their Interests


Many fitness professionals and millions of others have read the book “How to Win Friends & Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. However, if you take some advice from this book and apply it to youth training, the title could easily be changed to “How to Make Kids Listen & Follow Instructions”.  If you simply “take interests in others interests” or in the case when dealing with children “ask questions about their interests” it will go a long way in earning the trust of a young athlete. If you watch Nancy for more than five minutes coaching at CSP, it is almost a guarantee you will hear her ask the client/athlete she is talking to a question, particularly if she is working with a younger athlete.  Often times it is a non-training related question about their life beyond training and sports.  As Nancy describes it, she is trying to find what topic “lights them up”, getting them to articulate beyond the “School was good” response.  
This is a skill I inherited from Nancy and something that I made my priority this youth event with the Warriors. Even if you have no knowledge about a kid’s interest whether it is the latest show or social media trend, instead of responding with the classic “when-I-was-your-age-I-played-with rocks,” simply ask a question! The young athlete would be more than happy to answer and as result of earning their trust, they will be more than likely to listen to you in the future. 


Lesson 3: Do exercises for time, not reps

Prescribing an exercise for time instead of reps inherently heightens the level of healthy competition within a group of individuals, regardless of age. The dare I say it healthy peer-pressure provides the motivation.  Everyone can recall a time when they were a part of a team or even gym class, where they were told to do an activity/exercise for a prescribed duration of time. There is an almost innate feeling among many, that they CAN’T be the first one to be done. Like all the exercises in your library when it comes to youth athletes, exercises prescribed for time should be low-risk foundational exercises (i.e. eccentric only pushups, planks, short – side bridge, in place static lunge etc). 

Lesson 4: If you think you can teach them six exercises, do three

With a group of Twenty-Five  8-14-year-olds, I thought it wouldn’t be too challenging to teach them six foundational bodyweight exercises. I couldn’t have been any more wrong.  Scanning the crowd, I could see that about roughly 40-50% & of the little nuggets (as Momma Nance calls them) could adequately demonstrate the exercises based off of my demonstration and auditory cues.  These nuggets were mostly visual and auditory learners. However, especially at a younger age, a good majority were predominately kinesthetic learners. This rough estimate is backed by findings by learning-style professors Rita & Kenneth Dunn who claim that 30-40% of school-aged children are in fact kinesthetic/tactile learners. Click HERE to learn more.

With a high athlete-to-coach ratio and the inexperience level of the athletes involved, it was next to impossible to demonstrate, cue and then put the predominant “kinesthetic learners” in the correct position. I was in way over my head teaching six new exercises in twenty minutes. 
In hindsight I should have focused on three-four exercises that built off of one another, creating context from one exercise to the next and done them REALLY well (i.e. a pushup hold, plank, followed by an eccentric only pushup). 

Lesson 5:  At the end, just play!

allen familia.JPG

    At the end of the session let the kids be kids and play! Pick a game/activity whether it be a relay race, schoolyard wallball or my favorite, the tennis ball reaction game. Don’t pull out all your hair (Or you’ll end up like Eric Cressey) if some of the youngsters still look like Bambi when squatting, live to fight another training session and fit in some fun at the end. Heeding the advice from Nancy, I used the tennis ball reaction game. I lined up one tennis ball for every two kids as they faced one another, separated by the half court line. The rules were simply: myself or another coach would yell out a body part, and each partner would have to put both their hands their own respective body part. For example, I might yell “Knee” and each athlete would have to touch their own knee. Finally, without warning I would yell “Ball”! and the first person to grab the ball wins. Nothing but your hand can cross the line. Outside of being an absolute blast and creating some healthy competition, the tennis ball reaction games leads to an athlete and their coach being more aware of their cognitive decision making and ability to respond to relevant auditory cues.

Wrapping it Up

As always, a strength coach must adapt their coaching style to fit the individual needs of the athlete, or at the very least the current population of athletes at the given time.  You can’t use the same approach you use working with professionals and apply it to everyone. When working with youth athletes learn from the mistakes I have made. If you find yourself working with a population you aren’t accustomed to working with, don’t be afraid to seek out the advice of an expert. 


You can find more about John through his social media found below

Twitter: @Dusel_John