In a child’s eyes, games are the most natural, recognizable, and enjoyable of all activities. Give kids free time and space, and you will see them either chasing each other playing tag or wrestling each other to the ground. From a coaching perspective, games are easy to teach and obviously fun and motivating for the young athlete.In games, it’s easy to manipulate the rules, environment, and participants to get different desired outcomes. Different outcomes develop different skills and abilities, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
It is also easy to manipulate the rules, environment, and participants of games to get different desired outcomes. Different outcomes develop different skills and abilities. For example, a coach can manipulate the size of the playing field in a game of tag to allow the players to have to cover more distance. This can increase the conditioning effect or shorten the distance to allow for more decision-making and change of direction development.
Why Games Trump Youth Sports
Ultimately, games serve as a vehicle for kids to practice and expand their overall movement skill set. Before the invention of training facilities and travel teams, children played all kinds of games after school in backyards and sandlots across America. These random pick-up games loosely based around sports, with their own set of rules and guidelines that the participants themselves made up, were a perfect environment for children to try and practice a variety of skills.
These games were fun because kids were among friends and free of any adult involvement. There were no coaches there telling the kids how to do one particular skill; rather, children would come up with a variety of ways to accomplish a task. This autonomy and development of diverse skills armed kids with the ability to problem-solve in different situations. They would then take these skills with them into more complex forms of organized sports later on.
Video 1. Contact doesn’t need to be painful or risky. Adding a Swiss or stability ball into tagging or dodging activities is a lot of fun and overclocks the reaction skills of youth athletes.
In my facility, we practice a variety of fundamental movements like sprinting, jumping, catching, and throwing. These basic movements are foundational to many sports skills, so it’s important that young athletes have a decent understanding of how to do these movements. With young athletes, we don’t look for complete mastery here, but basic competency. We often introduce and practice these movements during the warm-up period/skill development period of our training session. From there, we take those skills and try to put them into use in a more open and chaotic environment. This where we use games to further develop our movement skills.
In the following part of this article, I list my favorite games that work in my facility along with the specific training goals that I look to develop. It is by no means an exhaustive list of games. The idea here is to simply offer some ideas that coaches can use to develop all-around athleticism. Some of these games are very simple; others are a bit more complex. I have found all of them to be valuable and fun for the young athletes I work with.
In its essence, Tag may be the simplest but most athletically beneficial of all games. When it comes to developing a wide range of athletic skills, the game of Tag is unmatched. First, kids intuitively understand how to play Tag without any formal instruction. They love that rush of implied danger from being tagged, and the game requires nothing more than open space.
Here is a list of some of the other skills developed during Tag: decision-making skills, tracking, evasion, tactics and strategy, acceleration, deceleration and change of direction, reaching, and changing body position. Let’s not forget Tag’s amazing cardiovascular benefits and, as you will see in the Flag Tag version, its development of accuracy.
Video 2. Flags bring more demanding and better skill to tagging games. If used right, they can teach good tackling habits later, but are not progressions into actual collision mechanics.
The flag version of Tag simply adds football flags to the equation. Now, instead of one person being “it,” everyone is it and not it at the same time. It’s each person for themselves in a “last man standing,” royal rumble-style competition. The goal is to pull each opponent’s flag and, at the same time, not get your flag pulled. The last one with a flag still on wins.
What I love about Flag Tag is that, instead of tagging an opponent anywhere, the flag pull is specific to one spot on the body: the hips. If any football coaches are reading this, they know this is a very important concept. This is because in tracking for tackling an offensive player with the ball, the defender always tracks near the hip.
Team Relay Tag
This version of Tag uses time to determine the winner. One team is the taggers, and the other team is the runners. We typically play this game inside a 10-yard x 10-yard square, but we may go bigger or smaller depending on the number of players involved. In Team Relay Tag, each player on the tagger team will have a turn trying to tag a person on the runner team.
If a person on the runner team is tagged, they are not out; they stay in the game until all taggers have had their turn. We simply time how long it takes for the taggers to get a runner. Then the teams switch roles. The team that has the fastest time tagging wins the game. Some of the key skills developed are quick changes of direction, efficient movement in tight spaces, and the ability to process a lot of visual input quickly.
Video 3. Group chaos overloads the brain in a beneficial way. Adding team tag to sessions with youth athletes is perfect as it removes the skill demands of sports and gets to the heart of learning to move properly.
Time helps build urgency, as most sports use time periods to determine outcomes. True, games like baseball and golf are not time-based, but nearly all other games in team sports use the clock to determine the winner in addition to the score. Points and time seem to improve efficient movement development if done right.
Yes, you guessed it. I stole this game directly from the old American Gladiators show. The game is simple: The offensive player on each team has 30 seconds to score three separate balls into a bucket. The player can only hold one ball at a time. If that player gets tagged by a defender before they score, that ball is out for the remainder of the 30 seconds.
Video 4. Change of direction with a purpose is the name of the game with Powerball. You don’t need much equipment, just a few buckets and balls, plus plenty of energy.
The setup is key in this game. There will always be one more bucket to score than the number of defenders. For example, if there are three players to a team, they will have to defend four buckets. This forces the defenders to really work together and hustle to cover all the buckets. Offensively, the scorer is always searching for an open scoring opportunity by working off their teammates’ actions.
Remember: There will always be one open bucket on the floor, but that will change depending on the defenders’ positions and where the offense is trying to score. The development of skills like evasion/invasion, tracking/tagging, defensive sliding/shuffling, and vision/perception/decision-making are applicable to many sports, and this is why a game like this is so beneficial to young athletes. We can develop usable skills in a competitive situation.
Move the Mountain
Move the Mountain is a relay race on steroids. Instead of the classic version of a relay race where the participants simply run back and forth, Move the Mountain involves running, carrying, and traversing an obstacle course. I am a huge fan of relay races with young athletes because of their many positive benefits:
- Awesome team activity.
- Perfect for large groups of kids.
- Encourages healthy competition.
- Great for cheering on your teammates.
- Kids give maximum effort followed by appropriate rest.
Team races are awesome because we can divide teams evenly to make a competitive race. A fast stud can be paired with a slower kid and race against a couple of average speed athletes. Add in the obstacle course, and the athletes having to carry weighted objects turns the race from pure speed to something entirely different.
Runners and Gunners (aka: Pickle)
Pickle was one of my favorite games as a kid. I can remember playing it—running back and forth in the middle of the street while the throwers “gunned” a tennis ball back and forth. In the original version of Pickle that I played as a kid in the ’80s, the only way to get out was for the throwers to tag you, just like in baseball. In the 2019 version of Runners and Gunners, we use gator skin balls and runners can be gunned down either by being tagged or being hit with the ball. In the older version, we played with just a few kids in the middle as runners. In the Runners and Gunners version, we play with many players in the middle, and the winner is the last one standing.
Video 5. Athlete speed will never be faster than ball speed, so pickle is a natural way to train velocity and reaction. Simple games are seen as boring only when they are not organized well, but they are timeless fun if employed properly.
At Achieve Performance, we often end a training session with Runners and Gunners because it’s a great way to get some extra cardiovascular conditioning. When the game gets going, it’s amazing how much running the kids are actually able to get in. Anecdotally, I have seen kids run back and forth for upward of 300–400 yards in a game. They do this without realizing they are actually conditioning because they are engaged and having fun.We often end a training session with the Runners and Gunners game because it’s a great way to get some extra cardiovascular conditioning, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
Try having a 10-year-old running repeat 300-yard shuttles and you won’t be in the business working with youth for very long. Therefore, a competitive event like Pickle is a game-changer. This game also develops other skills, including change of direction, acceleration, evasion, dodging, tracking, and throwing. Of all the games we play at my facility, this is by far the most popular.
Kings and Pawns
Kings and Pawns combines elements of both wrestling and football. There is blocking, tackling, takedowns, and running all combined in a very small space. The game consists of two teams facing off with each other. Each team has a king and pawns, with the pawns kneeling and the king standing behind them. The purpose of the game is for the kings to make their way across the playing area to the other side without being tackled by a pawn on the other team. The king’s own pawns work to block the opposing team’s pawns and make a safe passage for their king.
Youth athletes love the rough-and-tumble nature of Kings and Pawns. For athletes who aspire to play contact sports, this is a great game for getting used to the pushing-pulling and tackling nature of those sports. Contact sports involve players having to be comfortable in each other’s personal space. They have to be able to keep their balance and learn how to react to an opponent’s movements.
I can think of no better game than Kings and Pawns. There is so much pushing and pulling and grappling going on, all inside a small and chaotic space. It’s the perfect environment to stimulate all the senses and force the young athletes to come up with unique ways to be successful in a space.
Boulder Ball is a favorite of our youngest aspiring athletes. We have two versions: one that focuses on dodging and evasion and one that focuses on speed and acceleration. The game is played with a “boulder” (stability ball), with all of the children in the middle of the padded playing area between two coaches. The coaches roll the ball (gently) toward the players, trying to hit them. The players in the middle try not to get hit.
This game is fun and exhilarating for the kids, and it develops a number of skills, of course. Tracking and evading a large bouncing ball in a small space allows the kids to come up with a number of ways not to get hit by the ball. Not to sound too much like Patches O’Houlihan, but the kids do in fact come up with lots of different ways to dodge, duck, dip, and dive. The last player not to get hit wins the game. If a player catches the boulder while airborne, every player who is out gets to come back in.
Video 6. Chasing and racing with a Swiss ball or oversized contact ball from football adds a lot of spice to sprints. Boulder-type balls bring the movies and video games into real life activities that kids love.
Version two is simply a race. It was inspired by the likes of Indiana Jones running for his life from a boulder. Two athletes race the boulder (stability ball) to the crash mat. The goal is to dive onto the crash mat before the ball either hits them or hits the mat.
Hill Sprints Racing
I know what you are thinking: You make kids run hill sprints? That can’t be much fun—the kids must hate this activity. Yes, hill sprints for the sake of torturing kids just to make them tired is a stupid idea. But, as Coach Carl Valle always says, the devil is in the details.
Let me digress for just a moment. I coach a lot of youth team sports, like football, baseball, and lacrosse, and speed is obviously a prerequisite to success in those sports. We also know that coordination is best developed between the ages of 5 and 12 and running fast is a highly coordinated activity. So, it makes sense to me to expose young athletes to some form of speed development work.Because coordination is best developed from ages 5–12 and running fast is a highly coordinated activity, it makes sense to expose youth athletes to some form of speed development work. Click To Tweet
But why hill sprints? Well, that’s simple: It’s really hard to have poor form when sprinting up a hill. The hill provides the natural driving-forward lean seen during the acceleration phase of sprinting. On top of that, there is a strength and cardiovascular benefit for relatively untrained children as well. Here in New England, there is no shortage of hills to sprint.
To get the most out of hill sprints with kids, we almost always make it a race. The kids line up two at a time and race each other. This makes the lines longer, which is a good thing. We want decent rest periods between sprints. We have to remember that we are training speed and not conditioning here. The racing component ties it all together because the kids get excited to race and always put forth a good effort.
Video 7. Stackable boxes are fun for teaching acceleration and even resemble the skeleton in sport. Having athletes that are older using this technique has pros and cons, so remember to keep things age-specific rather than sport-specific.
If a hill is not available, or you find yourself indoors, we have found resisted pushing races to be both exciting for the kids and beneficial for sprinting, especially driving through the ground with the legs.
Tug of War
When talking strength development concepts for children, old-school Tug of War games are a must. Besides being fun and competitive, which gets all the kids excited, they are a total-body maximum effort activity. Pulling on a rope involves some serious quasi-isometric tension in the grip, arms, shoulders, back, and legs. Large groups can play Tug of War using a rope, and smaller groups of kids can use a medicine ball, a stick, or even grasping hands.
Video 8. Don’t be afraid to repurpose battling ropes with your youth athletes. While battling ropes remain popular in adult training, we have seen an unfortunate drop in the use of classic tug of war with kids.
Have kids get creative by standing on one foot or standing inside a Hula-Hoop and trying to pull each other out. One of my favorite “strength” circuits for my 8- to 10-year-olds involves combining a series of animal moves, like 20 yards of bear crawls, followed by some lateral climbing across a pull-up bar, followed by sled pushes, and finally Tug of War. These are a fun and challenging series of exercises that functionally hit just about every part of the body.
Playing Games Now Helps When Playing Sports Later
If we want training to carry over to real sports situations, then we need to expose young athletes to a variety of movements and environments. Games are fantastic options because they put athletes in the often-chaotic and competitive environment of sports. In many court and field sports, the conditions and movements of the game change frequently.
Drills are pre-programmed and robotic, and coaches use them to refine very specific movements; games and races are a bit more global and rely on the young athletes coming up with different ways to accomplish a task. When it comes to working with athletes, the refining process should occur in the later years. The early years should consist of as much global movement as possible.
Video 9. Tag games can be made into an even more fun experience by adding coach interaction and noodles. Noodles are safe and add numerous benefits to pursuit games. Don’t forget how engaging games are for young athletes. With so many kids quitting sports because it’s not enjoyable to them—games are a creative way to get kids to like movement. Click To Tweet
Finally, let’s not forget how engaging games are for young athletes. If they find an activity enjoyable, they are much more likely to put forth an honest effort and continue with that activity. These days, far too many young athletes are quitting sports because it’s not enjoyable for them. We need to find creative ways to get more kids to like movement. The more enjoyable they find an activity, they longer they stay.