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Coaching and Raising Youth Powerlifters

Last month, I afforded the opportunity to announce for a youth powerlifting meet in Greer, South Carolina. If you're in the powerlifting space and haven't heard of Palmetto State Barbell, they're on the cutting edge of meet and event hosting for USA Powerlifting (USAPL), and had asked me to come and announce at their Next Gen Classic. It was a great event, and to watch some young athletes take the platform for the first time was exciting. I was impressed with how well some of the kids had been coached and how much fun they seemed to have. I also saw some things which I disagreed with, which made me reflect over the last few weeks and has lead to some thoughts on training youth lifters (and youth in general).

Before I share some things which I noticed, I feel it is important to note how many of these things are also present in many different youth sports, and how the future of sport for kids can be reframed and shaped to have better outcomes if we consider a few things.

First, we need to acknowledge how kids are often motivated by two overarching factors:

  1. An Intrinsic Motivation For Challenge and Fun

  2. An Extrinsic Motivation To Please The Adults In Their Lives

Kids Want to Be Challenged And Have Fun

I like to think of this as positive motivation and a positive attribute of youth sport. The intrinsic motivation is something which can really launch a young athlete to put forth effort and develop discipline. It is also something which coaches and parents can play a huge role in fostering.

I want to highlight the Palmetto State Barbell (PSB) coaches and lifters because they did this so well. Megan and Brenton have quite obviously created an environment where kids are allowed to learn, be challenged, and have fun. Each of their athletes were pushed to demonstrate their skills, while being afforded room to succeed. Megan and Brenton were also very quick to highlight and praise the efforts of these successes, and were there to encourage and coach the young athletes who may have not succeeded.

One of the key things I also want to point out about each of their athletes, is how few of them failed reps. They were challenged each time, but the weights selected for each athlete presented a challenge for them to demonstrate the skills they needed to compete well in the sport. And on the rare occasion one of their athletes did "fail a lift," it was never as a result of the weight being too high, but as a result of following rack commands or some small technical thing which was easily fixed. This is such a crucial point about training youth lifters, because it allows them to participate in the sport, while still promoting longevity within it. The challenge, and the fun which is often felt as a result of succeeding in it, allows them to continue to be intrinsically motivated in the long-term. The goal at young ages, especially for pre- or mid-pubescent athletes, is not for the setting of records or maxing out the lifts, but to learn how to develop skills and face challenge. These are far more important things in the long run for youth athletes (and not just strength athletes).

Kids Want To Please Their Parents and Coaches

I consider this to be the dark side of youth sports in general. The extrinsic motivation of wanting to please coaches and parents. Before I move forward, I want it known how I believe most parents and coaches act out of what they to believe to be the best thing for the young athlete. I don't know of any parent who doesn't want the best for their child, but it often gets overridden by their own deep (and undealt with) desire for their own satisfaction.

In this instance, I point to the scenario of watching a dad give his son a whiff of ammonia/smelling salts and sending him out on the platform with a trap slap. His son approached the bar like a professional, and then missed the lift on strength. His son was competing in the 11-12 year old category. On another instance, the mom who repeatedly reminded me to announce the attempt her daughter would be taking was for a state record. While I am sure these things were done in hopes of making their child feel successful, it may serve to be detrimental in the long-run. And they may also highlight how we adults want our kids to succeed because of how it makes us feel.

The trouble with treating youth athletes like professionals, and pushing them to their limit, is not how it makes them feel in the moment but how it makes them feel in the long-term. Kids operate highly on an extrinsic motivation for love and affirmation. They want to feel connected and loved by the adults in their lives. What happens when we start treating them like professionals and start praising the success rather than the effort, is we start to create an environment where this love and affirmation feels conditional. Again, this is usually not intentionally done, but done because we think we are giving the youth athlete what they want or need by praising their achievement. Professional athletes are often praised on their achievements and mocked for their shortcomings, and kids see what adults say about professionals when professionals do not succeed. We need to be wary of this.

When it comes to success on the platform, or in any sport, we need to be aware of what really matters to kids: how did they feel? The kids we raise or coach will forget about their records. As adults they may say they set one, but they will likely forget the weight or the score. They will, however, remember how they felt. They will remember how the adults in their life made them feel, and how they felt throughout the process. If we can learn to praise the effort and create an environment where young lifters and athletes alike feel loved and affirmed for their effort, then we set them up for a stronger future. Ultimately, this should be the goal for youth powerlifting.

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