Strength in Numbers?
Fitness coaching tips for large groups.
I love working with clients on a one on one basis! There's just something about being able to put my blinders on and give my undivided attention to one person's needs during the course of a workout.
I guess it's because I started out as a personal trainer and to some extent, that's still where my passion lies.
That said, I also thoroughly enjoy working with groups of athletes... and even entire teams. The only caveat being that in a group setting, it can be difficult to keep the level of movement quality as consistently high as I might like it.
That's just the nature of the beast when you're working with groups in general, and teens in particular. At times attention will start to wane; which can be a huge problem for a population whose bodies are going through various developmental changes and often lack the kinesthetic awareness to self-correct during the course of a given exercise.
The other big factor when working with groups of young athletes is that commitment levels tend to vary... A LOT! In my experience, any time you're working with multiple athletes you're going to encounter three distinct personality types; with the number of each differing from one group to the next.
First up will be the self-motivated kids. These are young athletes who want to get better and are going to follow every instruction to the letter. They understand and appreciate the value of the training they're receiving and intend to do everything possible to get the most out of each session.
I call these my "run through a wall" athletes, because they will basically do anything you ask of them. They are extremely focused, take coaching cues well and are generally an absolute pleasure to work with.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have what I like to call the "tuned out" group. These are kids who typically do not want to take part in the team training session and are only present because the coaching staff requires them to be. They display poor body language and tend to talk, or fool around when you're giving instructions.
Somewhere in the middle you'll have your "tweeners". I call them this because this group could go either way- they haven't yet been bitten by the training bug, but seem genuinely intrigued. On the other hand, they're also easily distracted and can often fall in with the poor example set by the tuned out group.
This is the group you'll want to focus on the most, because it's where you can make the biggest difference as a coach.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating giving up on the tuned out group. Over the years, I've converted plenty of them into some of my best students with a little time and effort.
Nor am I recommending that you let that first group rely solely on self motivation. Even driven young athletes need a little push and some guidance now and then.
I'm just suggesting spending the bulk of your coaching energy in the area where you can have the greatest impact, in the shortest amount of time.
Because, as is often the case when working with groups, you may not have access to your athletes for a prolonged period. Once the season begins, training time is typically reduced as athletes and coaches focus more on skill refinement and conserving energy for competition.
So, the question is, how do you effectively manage training sessions when presented with these three distinct personality types and you're just one coach working with a group of a dozen athletes, or more?
And, perhaps even more importantly, how do you do so while establishing the type of training culture that gets athletes buying into your system as quickly as possible.
Throughout the course of my career in working with young athletes age 10, right up through the collegiate ranks, I've found that the following strategies work especially well.
1. Establish easily recognizable cues: While you don't necessarily want to bombard kids with tons of technical jargon (warning a young athlete about "placing too much valgus stress on their knees" when squatting, for instance, will garner you little more than a confused look), you do want to try and develop a "training language" that your athletes can easily remember and even parrot.
I find nothing more gratifying than listening to a couple of my athletes coach their teammates through different movements. Hearing them tell each other to "sit the hips back", or "rip the floor open" during a squat, lets me know that they understand the importance of what they're being taught, even if they may not be familiar with the exact anatomical mechanisms of why they're doing things a certain way.
2. Put out the biggest fires first: Even a form perfectionist like myself realizes that during the course of a rigorous a team workout, there are going to be a few less than perfect reps. And while one, or two athletes slipping slightly out of a good core neutral position during a plank isn't the end of the world, allowing some egregiously bad form just to "keep the flow of the workout going", simply cannot happen.
If you notice an athlete, or a couple of athletes really struggling with a particular drill, don't hesitate to direct a little more attention their way. Try to quickly ascertain where the problem lies (i.e. is it a mobility issue, a strength imbalance, or were they simply not paying attention to instructions) and work from there.
Sometimes a simple form cue and some personal attention will do the trick- while others might require slightly regressing the drill and/ or assigning some follow up "homework" (more on this in a minute). Either way, some type of immediate action on your part is necessary to help ensure that bad movement patterns are not engrained and so that athletes know they can't get away with simply going through the motions.
3. Give homework drills: Sometimes you won't be able to offer a quick fix when you see an athlete struggling during the course of a workout. This is where it pays to have a battery of stretching, foam rolling and corrective strengthening exercises on hand that you can assign to kids in need.
Whether in the form of a handout, a follow-up e-mail, or simply referring them to your website, giving kids access to tools such as these can make a huge difference. I also make it a habit to stay a few minutes after each session to answer any specific questions and work with kids who may require a little more personal attention.
Now, not all of them will follow through. However, the one's who do heed your advice, on a consistent basis can make some major improvements in a relatively short period of time.
4. Progress drills based on ability... not a desire for variety: Let's face it; as motivated and "elite" as some of your young athletes may be, the bottom line is that they're still kids. So as a coach, part of your job is to make sure they're having fun- while still working to improve things like systemic strength, speed, agility and coordination.
And when you're working with kids, fun often means including lots of variety. After all, who wants to do the same drills over and over again?
That said, it's important that said variety doesn't come at the expense of first mastering basic movement patterns. Take the time to get your athletes movement mechanics "programmed" with staple exercises like squats, lunge variations, push-ups, rows and planks.
Easy enough to do with younger groups, but what about older athletes who want to push hard and consider these exercises "too easy", despite often executing them with less than perfect form. Here's where a little communication and some coaching creativity can go a long way.
Point out any specific flaws you notice that may be impeding your athletes' ability to perform these drills properly- such as poor ankle and hip mobility while squatting, or an increased lordotic curve during planks and push-ups. Then, offer up some simple form cues that may help correct the issue by getting them more aware of the mechanics of the exercise.
I like to call these "mini clinics" where I take a group of athletes through a couple of quick troubleshooting strategies to correct common exercise mistakes. Doing something as simple as teaching them how to go into a slight posterior pelvic tilt during a plank(to help offset an exaggerated lumbar curve), or cuing them to maintain an arch in their feet during squats and lunges (to prevent excessive pronation) can often give them a whole new appreciation for how an exercise is supposed to feel.
Oddly enough, exercises that were previously perceived as being too easy, suddenly become much more difficult. Add in a few static holds in the hardest part of the range of motion, or slow the rep cadence down significantly (that's where the creativity part comes in) and you've got a workout guaranteed to challenge, without having to resort to assigning athletes drills that are beyond their current level of ability.
5. Make a Connection: Simply showing up and trying to run team training sessions like some type of drill sergeant rarely yields good results. While there may be a handful of kids who respond to that type of approach, the vast majority do not.
If you want to gain the trust of your athletes and have them buy into your system, you have to show them that you have a genuine concern for their health and well being. It doesn't matter how scientifically sound your workouts might be, or how much knowledge you posses about the human body.
It's like the saying goes: "Your athletes won't care how much you know, until they know how much you care". Follow up with them on a regular basis. Ask questions before and after training sessions and provide them with your contact information, so that they can call, e-mail, or text you if they need a little training and/ or nutritional guidance.
Not only will it mean a lot to them, but you'll find it to be an extremely rewarding experience. Because working with groups is not about the prestige of training a particular team, or the increased revenue potential it can generate. In the end, it's all about the number of lives you can impact.