Integrating Structure and Play For Youth Athletes
Updated: Jan 31
Over the past few years I've struggled to find the most effective method to training my younger athletes that is fun and get results. I went from using a focused programming model that taught main exercises and speed/agility skills as a means of athletic development. When that didn't seem to work, I switched to going highly unstructured and almost solely game based. That didn't work either, especially when I began to have assistant coaches who were trying to run the groups I oversaw.
After a few months off and reflecting on where I went wrong in that process, I found neither worked because of the kids I work with. I get a mix of 9-12 year olds (with a few younger that are exceptional in their ability to pay attention), who are at the beginning stages of needing structured training, but also still need time to self-organize and have fun. I also realized that trying to do hour long "speed and agility" or "strength" sessions is far too long a time to keep a child's attention span for.
The problem with a completely structured plan is that most kids are not ready for it, both physically and mentally. The problem with a completely game based plan is that most kids in a training facility still want to do the things the older kids were doing. This is where I finally figured out a blend of the two that finds itself in the common ground: just enough structure, just enough play. Here's what that looks like:
1. The Warmup
Everything in your session starts here, from the expectations to the flow of the rest of the session. It's a workout and an assessment tool. Depending on what I see from kids in the warmup determines what is going to happen for the rest of the session. I always have a structure for the session, but like any good coach I am ready to switch out skills/drills and exercises. In all, the warmup takes about 15 minutes.
I always start out the warmup with something structured, and usually the same few exercises. I've heard many youth coaches say to skip the lines, but I used them because of the limited space I may have. After going through several structured exercises, which I make them do in unison to help them build some leadership skills (a different blog post), we start our series of exercises that our based around self-organizing and developing general qualities. These are ones that I change up frequently or change up the order of, and give very little instructions on how to complete successfully. These include skips, hops, jumps, rolls, crawls, and odd movements. I give little instruction on these in order to see what it is that the kids come up with. I also use it to gauge the readiness of the kids to see what drills I will used in the structured portion of our speed and agility work. In a time breakdown, it's usually about five minutes of structure and 10 minutes of self-organizing.
2. Speed and Agility Emphasis
Also broken down into two parts: Structured and Unstructured. I always have a theme for the day: acceleration, deceleration, change in direction, or depending on the day I will do some top end speed work (maybe once per two/three times of the others). If the group does well and has an overall higher level of ability, I teach a more complex skill. But often it is something simple: a wall drive, how to shuffle, backpedal, etc. With younger kids, spending 5-10 minutes is usually about all they can handle from an endurance perspective and attention standpoint.
After teaching the skill, I follow it up with something competitive or a game of some kind. The goal I always try to keep in mind is to present an opportunity for them to use the skill in a fun way. For example, if I teach a wall drive for acceleration I will usually follow it up with a game of "Cat and Mouse" or a series of ball drop drills. As stated before, the goal of the game is to get them to elicit the skill you want to see AND have fun in the process. Especially as a coach, this is where you have to put on your thinking cap and set up an environment that promotes the skill taught previously.
There is a difference in playing a game to elicit adaptations and playing a game to play a game.
3. Strength Emphasis
This is where some people have differing opinions on what is best for kids and what they should need for strength training. There are two things I will say before I move on with this:
- "What is taught is inextricably linked to how it is taught."**
- Kids get stronger doing basically everything
With these things in mind, I do a lot of teaching during our strength portion of each session. Another coach I work with once told me, "Every day is day one." What he meant is that you almost have to teach the same thing everyday until it sticks. I do this by hammering down basic movement patterns and strength training skills. We learn how to squat, learn how to push, how to pull, and how to hinge. The key here is also teaching these things. I teach these patterns from scratch almost every time we do them. Depending on the average experience of the crowd, this could mean we do every exercise simultaneously, or it could mean doing them at their own pace.
I also superset everything.
The thing with teaching kids strength training is that they will often times get distracted and wander off if there is too much down time (aka planned rest sets), so having them consistently moving from one exercise to another in a superset or circuit eliminates time for distraction. I also tend to move for time domains and not for a total number of completed sets. This almost looks like an AMRAP system, but I usually state a number of sets or rounds to be completed and then eliminate or add based on how much time we have had to take for actual instruction. In all, we focus on strength for 10-15 minutes, and thus have used up the ~50 minutes of an hour long session. Five minutes of that is usually allotted to water breaks, and any remaining time is usually used for a mobility, strength, or coordination challenge or game. Challenges from a bear crawl position, on one foot, in a crouched position, or anything else that creatively gets them into a challenging scenario is how we end our sessions if time allows.
Now, this system isn't fool proof. I still work out kinks and am figuring out how to best implement the things I just mentioned. The plan sometimes varies by class size and the kids in the class. The more recent wave of athletes I have been getting have shown a greater desire to work hard and hold focus, and therefore we do more instruction and less games. This is where coaching and using best judgment comes into play, as there are game time decisions that need to happen on the fly and made based on what is being seen in the moment. I've eliminated entire strength portions of training sessions to have a longer warmup, or shortened the instruction of speed skills to incorporate multiple game scenarios. But in the long run, integrating both structure and play has been where I've found the best success.