All you need is some open space and creativity to give a team a quality athletic development session, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
“All it takes is four cones and a pair of shorts,” said my friend and fellow performance coach Jim Liston in a conversation almost 15 years ago. He was teaching me how to present world-class training in a team sport practice with little to no equipment. He reiterated to me that all you need is some open space and creativity to give a team a quality athletic development session.
As a young coach at the time, I couldn’t imagine spending any time outside a weight room. I mean, how could I train any athletic quality without a barbell, platform, and bumper plates? But over the years those words stuck with me, and as I began to spend more and more time coaching young athletes, I realized their magic.
Use Practice Sessions to Develop Essential Skills
Things have certainly changed the past few years. I am now a father of four young children, and although I still have my coveted weight room, my focus these days is youth athletic development. Spend enough time around young children and you don’t need to be a genius to realize that kids don’t need complex training programs. Instead, they need exposure to basic physical education and movement skill development. The development of movement coordination, balance, stability, spatial awareness, and range of motion should take center stage in a young athlete’s development between the ages of 7 and 13. What better time to develop these skills then during a practice session for sport?
During weeknights and weekends, both my wife and I can be found coaching our children in the various sports they participate in. In the past seven years I have coached youth tackle football, youth flag football, t-ball, Little League baseball, rec basketball, travel basketball, and youth lacrosse, and I even took an at-home course on learning how to cartwheel and do a handstand so I could practice with my gymnast daughter.
There are two things I realized quickly when coaching youth sports. The first is that most youth coaches are volunteers, and although they have the best intentions, they are not professionals. The second thing is that, when it comes to basic coordination and movement skill development, children are all over the map in terms of their athletic ability. Some kids are naturally good movers while others need some time to practice and develop.
As I said, most coaches are parent volunteers not professionals. They do not have a background in physical education or athletic development. Many just want their children to be active, learn a few new skills, and have fun. We know kids these days have less access to quality movement opportunities than the generations before them. Less recess, less physical education, and more sedentary entertainment like phones, iPads, and gaming systems.
Finally, we know that better all-around athletic ability makes learning sports skills easier and playing any game more enjoyable, and it will serve them well later in life when they are trying to stay fit and healthy. With this in mind, I set out to develop a basic framework that youth coaches can use to provide athletic development training during youth practice sessions.
An Updated Youth Practice Session: Football
The genesis of this program occurred when I started coaching youth tackle football. The sport of tackle football is notoriously stuck in tradition. Most coaches practice the same way they did when they played. The beginning of practice is set aside to jog a few laps around the field, followed by static stretching, then right into football practice. Then, to finish practice, coaches usually implement some type of conditioning, which is usually something like wind sprints or suicide runs with little to no rest.
All of this work is in the name of mental toughness and hardly specific to the work/rest ratios of a football game. As a former player and now coach, this old-school mentality is a huge waste of time. Two things that young football players don’t need much of are static stretching and conditioning. What these young football players’ bodies are starving to do is move their joints through full ranges of motion. They need to work on balance, coordination, stability, strength, speed, and getting comfortable in each other’s contact space.Young football players don’t need much static stretching and conditioning. What their bodies are starving to do is move their joints through full ranges of motion, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
So, I set about figuring out how to use the first 10-15 minutes of practice not only as a proper warm-up, but to also expose the kids to activities that will make them more athletic and better football players over time. Then I had to figure out how to use the last 10 minutes of practice in some type of competitive game environment that is similar to the demands of the game of football.
We know that, like any dynamic sport, the game of football requires a combination of speed, agility, strength, and toughness. It’s a contact sport where the players need to be comfortable in each other’s personal space. Players need to be adept at fundamental movements like running, jumping, pushing, pulling, tackling, and catching a ball. Furthermore, since proper tackling and finding yourself on the ground are main parts of the game, players should have a good grasp on how to properly fall on the ground. So here is the setup for the beginning of my football practice.
Warm-Up Fundamental Movement Skills
My warm-up skills are simple, basic movements to get young athletes moving in a variety of ways. Kids are rarely exposed to these sorts of movements these days. Furthermore, the game of football will involve different types of movements going in a variety of directions. So, practicing these fundamental movement skills is better than a slow jog in a straight line any day of the week. With these movements, we can improve coordination and develop a better sense of where athletes are in space.
- Run to backpedal
- Backpedal to run
Video 1. Football Warm-Up Drills: These fundamental movements develop coordination and prepare the young athlete for the practice ahead. We dedicate five minutes to them each practice session.
Range of Motion Development
In my opinion, young athletes do not need static stretching. Young athletes by their very nature are very excitable and energetic. Making them sit and hold different positions goes against the way their nervous systems are developing. We have to remember that many of these young athletes are growing rapidly. Bodies change so fast that kids can literally look different at the end of a season than they did at the beginning. With growth comes change, and, for example, kids get bigger and stronger but at the same time may lose some flexibility and coordination.Activities that make young athletes move slowly and deliberately through full ranges of motion help develop suppleness and improve strength and coordination, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
The goal here is not to create yogis or bore the kids to death by holding static stretches, but to try to improve global suppleness and coordination. We do this by using activities that make them move slowly and deliberately through full ranges of motion. These activities not only provide the young athlete with a chance to develop that suppleness, but they also improve strength and coordination.
- Spiderman crawl
- Low lunge walks
- Low lateral walks
- Leg kicks
- Bouncy inchworms
Video 2. Football Mobility Drills: These dynamic flexibility drills allow the young athletes to move through a wide range of motion with a variety of different movements. We spend five minutes each practice and on game day exploring these exercises.
Groundwork and Foot Work
In order to thrive in a chaotic sporting environment that involves contact, like the game of football, we have to have a body that is capable of attaining and remaining in certain positions and postures. For example, getting a young athlete in a basic athletic stance to be able to teach blocking or tackling. Getting into these positions takes a fair amount of strength and stability/balance. Therefore, as coaches we should look for ways to develop these qualities for them to be both a better athlete and a better football player.
- Bear balance with partner
- Crab reaching
- One-leg balance with partner
Video 3. Football Stability and Balance: Balance is an element that is still developing in many young athletes. Do these exercises prior to more dynamic movements like sprinting and agility drills.
Pre-Contact and Grappling
What better way to prepare a young athlete for the contact of football than by getting them comfortable in a close space with an opponent? Tacking and blocking do not come naturally for all kids, so coaches must find ways to introduce these concepts and develop better players over time.
- Clamp drill
- Under hook
- Shoulder battle
Video 4. Football Pre-Contact Drills: Pre-contact drills get young athletes more comfortable and confident in each other’s personal space. Do these exercises before tackling skill work each practice.
For kids, I always recommend any type of competitive game or race to finish practice. These competitive situations get the kids excited, work on specific skills, and develop conditioning without the kids even knowing it. Some of my favorite activities are tag games and relay races.
An Updated Youth Practice Session: Basketball
Here in New England, when the fall weather changes to winter cold and the football season ends with a celebratory Thanksgiving dinner, it is time to move indoors for basketball. Basketball is one of those sports that can be played fairly easily in some form or another by young children all the way through adulthood. Basketball is a fast, dynamic game that involves running, jumping, catching, throwing, and shooting, with plenty of change of direction. In short, it takes a decent level of athleticism to play successfully. What better time to develop those athletic skills than during youth basketball practice?
As with football practice, many volunteer coaches use the same drills in basketball practice that they used when they played basketball. Most of the time you see two alternating lines of players doing layups for 10 minutes before real practice begins. The problem with that drill is that one player is actually doing something while the rest of the team essentially stands in line watching. In my eyes, this is a complete waste of time.A proper basketball warm-up will look to develop elements of athleticism like coordination, balance, strength, speed, mobility, and injury reduction, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
First off, most of the team is simply standing around doing nothing, and secondly, the actual movement of a layup hardly prepares the body for the faster-paced, dynamic practice/season ahead. A proper basketball warm-up will look to develop elements of athleticism like coordination, balance, strength, speed, mobility, and injury reduction. We can prepare the body for practice and at the same time improve movement skills in the long term. With enough exposure to the right kinds of warm-ups, we can improve things like running form, defensive position, and jumping ability and be less prone to injury.
Part 1. Movement: Baseline to Half-Court with Partners
Goal: Improve coordination, move major joints through large ranges of motion, get warm
- Skip forward dribble
- Skip backward dribble
- Side shuffle with circles
- X-over dribble
- X-over backward dribble
Video 5. Basketball Warm-Up: A warm-up series that combines fundamental movements along with dribbling skills. This is a fantastic way to combine basic skills with sport-specific skills.
Part 2. Strength (Partner)
Goal: Develop a strong base of support in different athletic positions
- Iso squat ball out front taps
- Iso lunge ball overhead taps
- Push-up hand on ball taps
Video 6. Basketball Core Strength: The goal of these exercises is to develop a strong base of support in a variety of different positions. Again, using a basketball adds sports-specific feel to general athletic development.
Part 3. Balance
Goal: Prevent ankle and ACL injuries
- Sissy squats w/ball overhead
- One-leg reach to overhead
- One-leg side-to-side dribble
- One-leg lateral line hops
Video 7. Basketball ACL Prep: This exercise series aims to develop single leg strength and stability for the prevention of ACL and ankle injuries.
Part 4. Speed
Goal: Develop game speed
- Speed dribble/sprint chase ball tip
Video 8. Basketball Tip Drill: This is an acceleration/situational awareness drill to develop game speed. By using a dribbling fast break, we can work on teaching our young athletes how to run down offensive players.
An Updated Youth Practice Session: Baseball
When the spring thaw begins and the snow melts, everyone starts looking forward to green grass and warm sunny days. And with those warm days comes one of my favorite seasons: Little League baseball. Out of all the youth sports I have coached in the past few years, youth baseball seems to have the widest range of abilities. Some kids begin playing in T-ball, while other kids start playing much later.
So, while some kids feel comfortable catching, throwing, and swinging a bat, other kids look like it’s their first time. I wish more kids would play pass and catch with mom and dad or Wiffle ball with kids in the neighborhood before they begin playing organized baseball, but the reality is that many kids start organized sports lacking many basic athletic skills. It’s because of this that I came up with the following series for my youth baseball players to work on basic coordination, core strength, and flexibility.
Movement Series: Fundamental Movement, Lower Body Strength, Crawling Patterns
Goal: Warm up, improve basic coordination, and develop upper and lower body strength. On the grass for 10 yards (same as Video 1).
- Run to backpedal
- Backpedal to run
Range of Motion and Strength
Goal: Use a baseball bat to develop sport-specific strength through a full ROM
- Diagonal lateral chops – 10x each direction
- Split lateral bending – 10x
- Split squat forward/backward reach
- Lateral lunge and reach – 5x each direction
Video 9. Baseball Bat Mobility: A simple series of exercises where each player can use their bat to move through a variety of different movements and ranges of motion. The goal is to develop sport-specific strength through a full range of motion.
General Athletic Skills
Goal: Develop power, coordination, balance, throwing, and grip
- Athletic stance/vertical jump – 5x
- Athletic stance Lateral jump – 5x
- Athletic stance 180 jump – 5x
- Bat drops – 20x
- Eye tracking: tennis ball get up drill
Video 10. Baseball Athletic Development: I dedicate 5-10 minutes each practice to developing general athletic skills. One or two sets of each exercise each practice really adds up over an entire spring season.
During a youth sports season, a coach may spend up to 2-3 hours per week coaching their team. Devoting 10-15 minutes each practice solely to athletic development can go a long way when it comes to learning new skills. By the end of an eight-week season a team can accumulate 250-300 total minutes of athletic development training. Considering that most kids have P.E. only once a week, it’s imperative that kids find other avenues to learn to move. We can find that avenue at youth sports practice.
You Can Build FoundationsParents and volunteer coaches are our first line of defense to make sure that kids stay active, learn new skills, and, most importantly, have fun, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
Parent and volunteer coaches are our first line of defense to make sure that kids stay active, learn new skills, and, most importantly, have fun. Many youth coaches are looking for ideas on how to fill the time in their practice schedules. Hopefully, some of the ideas in this article will provide youth coaches with ways to implement basic athletic development into the beginning of each practice. At the end of the day, we all know that a better all-around athlete is not only better at their sport and tends to enjoy playing sports, but is also healthier overall and less susceptible to injury.
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