8 Mistakes I Made Training Youth Athletes (And What I Did to Fix Them)

Being a strength coach relies on growing, adapting and learning.

When I graduated from college, I was looking forward to moving back home and becoming an assistant soccer coach with my high school program.

I was just starting my journey into the world of powerlifting and I had some knowledge on personal training.

Within my first week of coaching, I realized coaching an entire weight room full of athletes was a daunting task.

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When I graduated from college, I was looking forward to moving back home and becoming an assistant soccer coach with my high school program.

I was just starting my journey into the world of powerlifting and I had some knowledge on personal training.

Within my first week of coaching, I realized coaching an entire weight room full of athletes was a daunting task.

I had a decent knowledge of training but had never done anything in terms of training another individual, let alone a whole team of teenage soccer athletes.

Many mistakes were made as I stumbled through those first years as a strength coach. I learned a lot from my mistakes, and they taught me some lessons I'll never forget. The idea of this article is to help you learn from my misfires as well as the adjustments I made!

1. I tried to get my youth athletes to love the weight room as much I do

I love training. The gym is one of my favorite places in the world. As I mentioned, powerlifting is a hobby of mine.

But many youth athletes wouldn't step foot inside the weight room if it wasn't required for their sport.

In my early years, I'd spend hours preaching to my athletes about how great the weight room is. I'd write programs for kids to use on their own (that they didn't ask for), and just generally did a lot of stuff to try to pass on my unique passion for weight training.

I tried to get kids to love lifting weights, and most times, it didn't work. Kids didn't want to hear me profess my love of loading up a barbell and picking up heavy things. It just didn't resonate with them.

How did I overcome this? I learned to do a better job of explaining exercises to the kids and helping them understand/visualize how they would help them out on the field.

Most kids don't really care about the actual act of doing a Back Squat or a Hang Clean. They're interested in knowing how it will actually make them better at their sport. Once I learned how to relate weight room movements to success out on the field, my athletes began to develop a respect (and maybe even a love) for weight training.

The takeaway? While you might get jacked up over the minutiae that led you to a new Deadlift PR, most young athletes are more interested in making plays than they are lifting weights. If you can get them to understand how resistance training will actually make them better out on the field, buy-in will skyrocket.

2. Progressing and regressing exercises as a team rather than as individuals

We've all watched the horrendous videos on social media of poor form and unsafe Squats, Cleans, etc. For whomever coaches the athletes in these videos, simple progression and regression models would be a great tool in order to teach kids proper form before adding weight and different complexities to lifts.

When I started, most of my kids had no formal training experience. Many had mobility issues, limited strength and flawed technique. Yet some athletes who'd played other sports had some weight room experience, and many of them exhibited pretty solid form!

Instead of allowing those athletes to continue to progress and learn; I held them back by taking them to the level of their lesser-trained peers. I made them focus on very basic movement, which wasn't the worst thing possible, but in retrospect, they weren't getting the most out of their training.

It definitely takes more work to specify an appropriate exercise variation to each individual rather than prescribing one movement for the entire team, but it's worth it. Here are a few different regression/progression sequences I've found useful with my youth athletes.

Squat Regression/Progression

  • Supported Squat (hold on to a pole/wall and walk yourself down to depth)
  • Counterbalance Squat (Arms extended, hold a small plate level with your chest)
  • Bodyweight Squat
  • Goblet Squat (Hold a kettlebell/dumbbell tight to your chest)
  • Front Squat
  • Back Squat

Deadlift Regression/Progression

  • Kneeling Hinge (Sitting with your butt touching your heels, extend fully so your torso and knees are vertical in relation to the floor)
  • Kettlebell RDL
  • Kettlebell Deadlift
  • Trap Bar Deadlift
  • Barbell Deadlift

Pressing Regression/Progression

  • Dumbbell Bench
  • Kneeling Push-Up/Push-Ups (often time's it's easier for a kid to do a dumbbell bench than for them to do a full Push-Up, since you can use less than your bodyweight)
  • DB Seated Overhead Press
  • Standing Overhead DB Press
  • Barbell Bench Press
  • Overhead Barbell Press

3. Spending too much time in the weight room

Coaches are limited in what they can provide to athletes. Time is of the essence, and most athletes can only spend an hour or two total on training, whether that be in the weight room or on the practice field.

Early in my coaching, the kids' training sessions were designed like my own workouts. My workouts would occasionally take upwards of 2 hours and included many sets of many different exercises. I was a fresh-out-of-college kid living at home in a small town with not much else to do. I could spend half the day in the weight room if I wanted to!

These kids don't share the same luxury. They have homework, social lives, school activities, family obligations, etc. Make the most of your time in the weight room and get them in and out in a timely fashion.

Making your workouts shorter will force you to focus on the movements that matter most, which is really important for youth athletes. If you schedule your time wisely, you should be able to get them in and out in 45 minutes.

Here's a simple approach I utilized that helped me better plan my kids' time in the weight room:

  • 5-10 minute activation, warm-up and mobility
  • 3-5 minute lightweight exercise to get blood flow to target areas
  • Main exercise (10-15 minutes)
  • Accessory move 1 (5 minutes)
  • Accessory move 2 (5 minutes)
  • Accessory move 3/GPP (5-10 minutes)

This is a simple schedule that can be modified to fit your specific needs and limitations.

4. Not letting them 'just play'

This next one is simple, and it closely relates to keeping the kids in the weight room for too long. Since I was both an assistant coach and a strength and conditioning coach, keeping my kids in the weight room for too long meant I often didn't provide them enough time to just play.

I was so focused on doing my best as a strength and conditioning coach, I forgot what my real job was—making the kids better soccer athletes!

Too often, we focus on getting everything perfect in the weight room that we forget what we are there for. Often, the best movement patterns can be learned through playing the game. RDLs are a great tool for the weight room, but they won't help a kid learn when they need to pass the ball around an incoming defender.

If you're in a position where you're both a strength and conditioning coach and a head or assistant coach, remember what's most important.

Don't make this too hard. Do what you need to in the weight room and then allow the athletes to utilize their newfound strength and mobility on the field. And when they're on the field, let them play. Stopping the action every 3 minutes for a long explanation of what someone did wrong is a surefire way to make kids bored and disinterested in their sport.

5. Force everyone to use the same warm-up

When I began training, I would map my plan from start to finish. I would force everyone to do the same warm-up exercises and then follow the same plan. What I quickly realized is that some kids saw a lot of benefits from the warm-ups while others remained stiff and tight.

The truth is, every athlete is different and should be treated as so. Instead of making a handful of mobility exercises the mandatory warm-up, I found benefit in creating a list of different exercises that athletes could choose from depending on their unique needs. This new model centered around three parts:

  • Blood Flow: This is really about getting the kids moving and raising their heart rate a bit. I create a list of exercises/movement patterns that fit the need for that day's training. A lower-body day will include options such as an Overhead Med Ball Throw, some low jumps, Front-to-Back Lunges, Crawls and Isometric Holds.
  • Activation: Key in on the specific muscles you're preparing to train. Again, create a list and allow your athlete to choose based on need. For upper-body days, I offer various pulling movements utilizing a mini band, Superman Holds, Light Dumbbell Raises in multiple directions and Crawls.
  • Mobilize: After completing the first two parts, I like to add a mobility exercise. List 3-4 variations such as a thoracic spine or hip movement, and allow the athlete to choose based on feel.

6. Complicated speed drills that didn't actually make them faster

Speed training is becoming increasingly popular on social media. Every trainer's looking for the next cutting-edge exercise they can claim is the key to running a faster 40 or developing a quicker first step.

When I was just starting out as a coach, I had no idea how to train players to get faster. So, I relied on a quick google search: "how to increase speed".

I wasn't ready for the plethora of results I had received. I saw fancy footwork drills, drills promising to correct improper mechanics, drills that could only be done with expensive equipment, and many more things that honestly left me more confused than before.

It's easy to see something online promising to enhance speed and try to replicate it. And honestly, that's what I did at first.

But over time, I found the best use of my athletes time when it came to speed training was simply having them sprint. It's the most basic drill of all, but if you're just doing a bunch of fancy drills without regularly sprinting, you can't expect to get faster. And to truly sprint at or near their top speed (which is the only type of running that actually enhances max speed), athletes need a good amount of rest between sprint efforts.

There are ways to manipulate sprints with different tempos, intensities, durations and even inclines or assistance/resistance. But the big takeaway is to make sure your athletes are regularly sprinting. Don't be afraid to experiment with different drills as warm-ups (I really like a lot of skips and pogo movements), but sprinting is king!

7. Didn't properly understand/utilize energy systems in my programming

Back then, you wouldn't be able to differentiate my speed work from my conditioning training. I had no idea there was a difference between training to get faster and training for conditioning. I thought they were similar and that both could be accomplished in the same workout.

After studying the topic in depth, I realized just how wrong I was. I developed a model that was easy for me to understand and allowed me to train much more efficiently. It involved breaking my training into 3 categories (keep in mind these were geared for soccer players):

  • Speed and Power Development. The goal is to become as powerful and as fast as possible. Pretty simple. That requires max effort over a very short period of time. My favorite method is called the PAP (post activation potentiation method) which consists of a heavy strength movement superset quickly followed by a short sprint or bodyweight plyometric. My favorite pairing: a 10-yard sled push @ 125-150% the athlete's bodyweight followed up by a 15-yard max effort sprint. Repeat for 3-5 rounds.
  • Anaerobic power. In short, this is the ability to produce max force repeatedly. I experimented using Tempo Runs where my athletes would have a 10-yard build-up then a 5-yard sprint and repeat that pairing until they covered 45-60 yards. The results were great, and the kids felt like they were able to produce near 100% sprints on each interval. Allow for 1:30-2 minutes of recovery between each Tempo Run.
  • Aerobic capacity. The dreaded "C" word…conditioning. The goal is to improve work capacity. Players are used to the treacherous high-mile runs and gasser sprints. I often utilized a 3- or 4-mile run for my players in my early days. The players hated it, they didn't give great effort, and in all likelihood, it made them slower. The fix came when I discovered Westside Barbell. The GPP work that Louie Simmons implemented changed the way I conditioned athletes. Sure, they needed to run, but they did a lot of that in practice. My two favorite methods for GPP are Sled Drags and Heavy Loaded Carries. Set a distance of 30-50 yards and load the weight for carries however you like (goblet, farmer's carry, suitcase carry, overhead, etc.) and perform 10-12 rounds. For Sled Drags, I prefer a longer distance between 200-400 meters with a 20-40% BW load. If you're really looking to up your game; try Cory Gregory's Lunge Challenge and work your way up to a 400-meter Bodyweight Lunge. This is brutal, and brutally effective. Start with 100 or 200 meters and gradually work your way to 400.

8. Didn't always use testing the right way for my athletes

The gold standard in soccer fitness testing is the timed 2-Mile Run. When I started, this is what we used. We treated this as the end goal. Everyone prepared all offseason for the 2-Mile Run. It hung like a dark cloud over our workouts, and we often referenced to and specifically trained for that rest.

But really, all the athletes were looking to do was "pass."

The goal for a soccer athlete isn't to run two consecutive miles in a game without slowing down, changing directions, or performing any type of power, agility or skill movement. There is a component of mental toughness that comes with running a certain distance within a certain time limit, but I learned that prioritizing that type of mental toughness above all else was misguided.

Over time, I set different standards for toughness. Be 10 minutes early. Progress your lifts and train with intent. Don't skip workouts and don't skip reps. Do what is being asked and give your best. Those type of goals are enough to reveal who's mentally prepared and who's not.

If they bring that same mindset to their regular conditioning and speed programming, they'll get faster and better conditioned to play a 90-minute match. Allow them to play small-sided games in practice. You'll be able to quickly tell who needs to focus more on conditioning.

The year these things became a bigger focus, I didn't tell my athletes we would run a timed 2-Mile Run before the season. I followed the outline above and let the training do the work. Players made more of an effort in the weight room and took training seriously.

But, one 2-Mile Run wasn't going to kill them, so we tested it. That year, we had a 30% spike in athletes who clocked a sub 12-minute 2-mile run compared to the year before.

I made many mistakes as a youth soccer strength and conditioning coach. A decade from now, I will likely look back and realize I made many more mistakes. Being a strength coach relies on growing, adapting and learning. Strive to always push yourself, challenge your current ways and be open to trying new things!

Photo Credit: SolStock/iStock

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Topics: SOCCER | WEIGHTLIFTING | STRENGTH COACH | YOUTH SPORTS | HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS