Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Coaching the so called “problem child”


                As always, this is just an opinion piece based on my observations as both a sport and strength and conditioning coach.  Over the years, I have directly worked with thousands of people personally and indirectly with thousands more (consulting with fellow staff members and overseeing their programming).  I am using this as a follow up from my last article to touch on some ideas for coaching those that have been labeled “problem”.  To start, I want to make it clear I don’t give a shit about labels or titles.  I care about helping people regardless of what someone else may have labeled them as.   At the end of the day, if the person in question has the time and will give me the smallest amount of effort I am more than happy to work with them.  There have been many occasions where I have had parents or coaches tell me that their kids are a nightmare, disrespectful, lazy etc.  And to some extent, some of them were, but by the end of it all I wouldn’t use any of those words to describe them.   At the end of the day we should be looking to give these kids purpose to their training and encourage them to strive for mastery in their craft and a lifestyle change.   I know that I may be physically imposing to some because of my boyish good looks, but I feel the tools below are what have helped me have success with these kids.

·         Speak in your regular tone.  Raising your voice to gain attention gives your audience a free license to screw around.  We have all worked under coaches or bosses that believe raising your voice will garner respect, but the fact is it usually garners resentment.  I have found that speaking in your regular tone forces attention, especially in small groups.  Having said that, there are times where your tone should change in order to gain the most out of the person you are working with.  If you are always yelling, it makes it tough for the athlete to decipher what you want out of them.

·         Command attention by placing yourself in an area with the least amount of distractions.  Quite often, I am in a very crowded gym setting.  If this is the case, try using a corner of the gym where focus is forced upon you.  Have the athletes back to the distractions if at all possible.  Sure, this doesn’t work for everyone, but I have found it to be helpful.  If I have a lot of space, I try to line the athletes up in a way that allows for them to view what others in the group are doing.  Many of these kids are visual learners and need to see a few reps first and this helps them catch on a little quicker.

·         Many times, young kids have been labeled as “learning disabled”, “ADD”, “hyper”, “autistic”, “depressed” or the like.  Do any of these have anything positive attached to them?  These kids need reassurance that one place they will most definitely not be labeled as anything other than “athlete” is when we are coaching them in the gym or on their field of play.  There are no labels that I am interested in other than “hard working” and “respectful”.  And the latter comes when you show respect to these kids by treating them all in a similar matter. 

·         Try to encourage the kids to have a mentor.  I am very blessed in my setting; I have people from all walks of life training at Level 10 Fitness.  Whenever I have my pro athletes or national team members in the gym, I ask them to come and talk to the kids.  They are always more than happy to do so and this gives the kids that extra push you may be looking for.  Quite often you will be surprised to hear the stories of some of your older clients that were once labeled as “stupid” before the above terms in my last point were created. 

·         Unlike our education system, we do not have to lump kids all in the same curriculum based on their age.  Regardless of age, our athletes should be progressed based off of their abilities, not held back by their so called disabilities.  This isn’t rocket surgery, it doesn’t take 4 years to learn how to squat and because of this, kids will progress faster and see the benefit of their hard work faster than they would in other learning settings.  The true beauty of what we do lies in our ability to disguise repetition.  In group settings, show the base movement you want to teach and those that can progress may progress but everyone is still putting in some level of work.  Rarely if ever is there a movement that is so important that we must force it on our athletes.  If there was, we would all be amazing athletes.  Whether the kid is aware or not, progressions force goal setting and goal achievement.

·         We are all aware that everyone learns at different paces and through different styles.  I have mentioned using tools such as the ‘VARK’ in the past as a means to find out what type of learner you are dealing with.  If you do not want to use the ‘VARK’, pay close attention to how your athletes learn-do they respond to your verbal cues, you demonstrating and them following, use of video or pictures or a combination thereof. 

·         I have found that using set patterns and repetition to be very helpful in aiding in those that do not seem to respond to your traditional style of coaching.  As an example; I may use ladder drills, squats, lunges, hip hinge patterns and pushups in my dynamic warm ups and then use variations of the same movements in my workouts.  It does not necessarily need to be these movements, but whatever you deem important should be repeated until it is mastered.

o   As a side experiment for yourself.  Next time you have an athlete that has been labeled as anything other than “kid”, try putting them through a ladder routine (I don’t care what people think of ladder drills, they have their purpose).  What do you notice, especially in a group setting?  What I have found is they struggle with the patterns at first.  But once they are engrained, they tend to improve far quicker than others.  Sure, you can argue that this somewhat defeats the purpose of ladder drills and agility, but if your goal is to work on body position, elevating the heart rate and warming  up the core temperature you have succeeded.  More importantly, you have shown these kids that they can do what everyone else does, and in some cases better.  Remember, we are looking at progressions here, and every positive step you have with these athletes is a win in my books.

·         Use technology to your advantage.  I have touched on this on numerous occasions and if you are not using your camera to your advantage, you are missing out.  Instant feedback is a must for some of these kids.  There are some brilliant apps available now that will even take this to a new level.  If you are not using them, it is your loss.

·         One of my main philosophies in the strength and conditioning world is to keep your strengths strong and bring up any weaknesses.  For kids that need constant patterning, we don’t want to sacrifice their strengths because we are putting too much merit into a specific movement.  It is important to introduce new challenges while still having some familiarity.

·         Keep the focus narrow at first.  Chose a limited number of movements and progressions.  Do the basics and do them well, then progress.

·         Don’t over coach!  More is not always better.  It is important for all athletes to figure things out on their own with the help of your guidance.  Give what is necessary to complete the task with the understanding that some may need more than others. 

·         These kids deal with frustrated adults on a daily basis.  Showing your agitation does not help your ability to coach.  Do not be afraid to walk away from something if it starts to go sideways. You can always come back to it at another time.  When I start to get frustrated because an athlete is struggling with a drill or movement, I move onto a fun game to break the mood and either try to revisit it in the session or the next.

·         Find out what interests your athlete?  If it’s something obscure like that Harry Potter Guy, get on the Google and learn a little about it.

Please understand, these are just a few techniques that have helped me with some of the different populations I have worked with.  The goal of this article was to share my thoughts so that hopefully one of you may become a great role model for some of these kids that have dealt with shit their entire life.  If you can make your one hour session with these kids the best part of their day, you are an amazing coach and I hope that you will share your experiences with others so they can do the same.  As always, please feel free to send me your comments or questions.

Yours in Strength,

Joe McCullum

Director of High Performance Training and Staff Development

Level 10 Fitness Inc.



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