When it comes to training youth athletes, we should take our job responsibility seriously…but shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. It is important to create a safe, engaging training environment when working with this unique training population—elementary age to high school. Therefore, when designing physical preparation programs for youth athletes, we need to consider several different attributes, such as increasing balance, improving coordination, building relative bodyweight strength, and increasing movement literacy. The one training objective that sometimes gets forgotten, however, may be the most important: fun.
Training with a performance coach is usually a youth athlete’s first experience with any type of structured training or exercise program—this is their first time working with a professional. Therefore, their first impression is very important. How we deliver our message and communicate to the athlete could impact their perspective on physical activity, possibly for the rest of their lives and even outside of athletics.How we deliver our message and communicate to the athlete could impact their perspective on physical activity, possibly for the rest of their lives and even outside of athletics. Click To Tweet
There is no long-term athletic development model if there is no fun because then it will not be long term.
Finding the Right Balance
When training younger athletes, however, I’m not just recommending you have them run around and play games all day. The games themselves and time spent on them will depend on the age and level of the athletes, but even older athletes in high school need creative, fun outlets in their training programs. There needs to be excitement, but it also needs to make sense and be appropriate. Balancing this fun with a little structure can help tie together the applicable skill or ability even more when placed within a game setting.
Not only is this beneficial for the athletes, but coaches will find out more about the athletes when they have to move in real space and at speed with other environmental factors besides cones. This will also help you better connect to those athletes who seemed completely disinterested throughout the session and give them something to look forward to. Games are a true time for the athletes to do what they do best, and just because a young athlete can’t do an A-skip right doesn’t mean they won’t dominate in a game of chase or dodgeball—things that I would consider to be more athletic in nature.
Whenever I’m coaching a team of younger athletes, I always try to think back and put myself in their shoes. While I would say I was a halfway decent and coachable kid, I can promise you that I would have benefited more from competing in a game, and I would have enjoyed doing that more than performing drills all day.
The games incorporated into a youth training session should include aspects of true agility and decision-making. Just having athletes go out and do predetermined cone drills won’t help create more “agile” athletes. It may help indirectly give the athletes some abilities to help them when they need to be agile, but true agility must involve the athletes perceiving and reacting to a chaotic stimulus.
Consider the OODA loop whenever you want to know if the activity involves more applicable scenarios. This is an observation-action cycle created by American fighter pilot John Boyd. Many accomplished coaches have spoken about connecting this loop to sport, but I first read about it in Fergus Connolly’s book The Process.
Looking at the loop, it involves four steps of the cycle:
- O – Observe
- O – Orient
- D – Decide
- A – Act
Think about an athlete playing on the field or court: The athletes go through this cycle with every single play that happens, and once a play is made and action is taken, the cycle just repeats as observation occurs off the previous action!
Now, as performance coaches, we must understand that the best thing for athletes is to play the sport and hopefully be under the tutelage of a well-versed sport coach who can help guide them through the mastery of their sport and this loop. Though with our youth athletes, we can certainly expose them to this loop in constrained situations.It is more important than ever to expose younger athletes to the patterns and movements they may be missing or that don’t exist as much in their selected sport. Click To Tweet
With an increase in younger athletes’ involvement in early sport specialization, it is more important than ever to expose these athletes to the patterns and movements they may be missing or that don’t exist as much in their selected sport. This carries a lot of value, since they may not see it anywhere else, and it will help create a more well-balanced and resilient athlete as they begin to mature.
The categorization of the games is important to help understand their objectives and how they can be placed within a training session or program. In the book The Process, the authors bring up coaches Nick DiMarco and Jordan Nieuwsma from Elon University, who are credited with breaking down these games for categorization. Much of the inspiration for this article—and how my own training programs are laid out for youth athletes—can be credited to this system and these coaches. For more information, I would recommend reading The Process and checking out the work of Coach DiMarco and Coach Nieuwsma.
The four categories they define are:
An additional category I include is simply free play. Things such as obstacle courses, team-based games, or occasionally even letting the kids make up games of their own all fall into this category. I’ll explain more about free play later in the article.
I use the games listed throughout the rest of this article in my training sessions with youth athletes.
Chase games are exactly what they sound like—the objective is for the athletes participating to chase down their opponent (or escape their opponent if they are being chased). Many coaches think of the standard 1v1 chase or cat and mouse, but you can expand upon chase games even more through a variety of components and constraints.
- Various starting positions.
- Number of competitors.
- Various directions.
- Obstructions (tire chase, flags, etc.).
- A combination of the above.
Video 1a & 1b. 1v1 Options
The standard and easiest starting place is a 1v1 chase. Athlete versus athlete, and only one can leave the winner. This can be expanded upon with the list above.
Video 2. 2v1
Video 3. 2v1
Adding another runner creates a small reactive component, where the chaser has to read and react off their movement.
Flag Chase 2v2
Video 4. Flag chase 2v2
Beginning to incorporate more movement, such as circular running, can add more dynamics into the game. Also, going 2v2 and adding in the flags will require more tactical strategy through team involvement.
Lateral Freeze Tag
Video 5. Lateral Freeze Tag
This is a way to incorporate more movement than just linear sprinting, where only lateral shuffling is allowed, and the chaser’s objective is to freeze as many athletes in the time frame as possible. Free athletes may unfreeze frozen athletes if they tag them, and this creates the need for athletes to make more strategic and precise tactical decisions.
Score-focused games are a little more multifaceted and have more moving parts. The objective remains the same, though. Throughout this category, competitors attempt to score while the other competitors attempt to stop the score (or offense versus defense). Depending on the game, this can appear several different ways.
Athlete-Only Score Games
Athlete-only score games involve an athlete trying to run into an endzone to score while the other tries to tag or eliminate them. This can be made more chaotic through a variety of additions or constraints to the game.
- Number of competitors.
- Number of scoring options.
- A combination of these.
Video 6. Athlete Score Variations
These may seem simple at first but will open many situations for athletes to create or limit space—they are also easy to explain and implement before moving to more complex game options.
Ball Score Games
Incorporating a ball or object into the mix leads us to more traditional games as well as those that can be altered through our creativity as coaches. Some examples of these games include steal the bacon, medicine ball volleyball, handball, crawling soccer, basketball, and strike ball.
Steal the Bacon
Video 7. Steal the Bacon
Steal the bacon is a team score game where every athlete is given a number and paired with an opponent from the opposite team.
The coach in charge calls out a single number (or multiple numbers at a time) for the athletes to sprint out and attempt to “steal the bacon”—grab a ball or object—and return to their end zone.
If the other team gets the ball before yours does, the defender with the same number must tag the runner down but only that defender can eliminate their pairing.
When multiple people are called, this game can get chaotic, since only the opponent you’re paired with can tag you out. Passing, blocking, and working as a team are all highly encouraged.
Medicine Ball Volleyball
Video 8. Medicine Ball Volleyball
Medicine ball volleyball is a score game where athletes pass a medicine ball around (preferably a soft one) before throwing it over a volleyball net and attempting to score by not having the opposite team catch the ball.
There is no actual spiking or setting like in volleyball—just a lot of throws from different positions, aggressive catches, and teamwork.
I understand many facilities do not have a volleyball net, but you can also play this game on a football field using the field goal post or any other high structures that may be appropriate to throw a medicine ball over.
Video 9. Handball
Imagine soccer but using your hands. This game emphasizes teamwork and various movements plus catching and throwing skills. You can alter the game by allowing goalies or not, limiting the steps the athlete with the ball can take, and requiring a team to make a certain number of passes before attempting to score.I also implement rules in many of these score games, such as a new athlete must attempt to score every attempt, so the teams don’t rely on one athlete to do all the work or hog the ball. Click To Tweet
I also implement rules in many of these games, such as a new athlete must attempt to score every attempt, so the teams don’t rely on one athlete to do all the work or hog the ball.
This game works great with the younger athletes and is a blast. It’s also easy to explain to that age group. Define a crawling position—bear crawl, crab crawl, etc.—and then play soccer from that position.
There are no other guidelines for this game. Sometimes we play with a big physio ball, sometimes we play with a real soccer ball. Occasionally, they can use their hands; occasionally, they can’t.
This should need no explanation. I have one main rule when playing basketball, and that is I only play with athletes who don’t play basketball.
I can close to guarantee that it will be that much better for all involved.
Spike ball is a relatively new game that I started playing with my athletes on the recommendation of a former athlete of mine.
I like this primarily with the older athletes, and I run a round-robin style of play if I have a larger group of athletes. So, if there is a group of 10 athletes, everyone gets with a partner (making five teams). Two teams start, whichever team scores stays, and the next group immediately comes in.
Dodge games focus on more reactive and quick evasive actions. The objective for this category of game is to use that OODA loop and dodge elimination. Some successful games would include dodgeball, physio ball gauntlet, sharks and minnows, and the gap game.
Dodgeball is the king of all dodge games. Everyone loves dodgeball, regardless of age, sport, or gender—people love to throw dodgeballs at one another!
This game can also be mixed up by limiting the space, creating multiple teams so three or four smaller teams play a free-for-all as opposed to just two, and really any other constraints you can imagine.
Physio Ball Gauntlet
Video 10. Physio Ball Gauntlet
The physio ball gauntlet is designed to create opportunities for athletes to be evasive and put them in positions to succeed. It begins with an athlete facing the opposite direction before turning to sprint down a lane in avoidance of gigantic physio balls coming at them.
Evading physio balls is much easier then evading people, but it is up to the coach to put the ball into play to make the athlete react and succeed.
The coaches should not be intentionally trying to hit the athletes but rather set them up to make a play.
Sharks and Minnows
Video 11. Sharks and Minnows
Sharks and minnows is a great game to cue athletes’ evasiveness and have them dodge elimination. A shark is restricted on a line, while minnows sprint past them to avoid being tagged.
Including obstructions on the field, using objects such as pool noodles to tag with, or including constraints such as “minnows can only be on one leg” are ways to keep the game fresh and interesting for the athletes.
Videos 12 & 13. Gap Game
This dodge game, taken from Coach DiMarco, has been one of my most utilized games for forward multidirectional training.
Essentially, there will be several potential gaps to sprint through, with one less defender than number of gaps. So, two gap options mean one defender to clog a potential gap opportunity, leaving the athlete only one option to sprint through.
This game promotes quick decision-making and helps with an athlete’s ability to cut and move through an open space.
Mirror games are offense- versus defense-focused. The objectives for offense, like sport, are to create space and leave the defender, while the objectives for defense, also similar to sport, are to limit space and contain the offense. The standard mirror drill is the lateral shuffle face to face, but there is much more you can implement in mirror games.
- Various starting positions.
- Number of competitors.
- Various directions.
- Obstructions—other games.
- Entries and exits.
- A combination of these.
Lateral Chase – Facing the Same Direction
Video 14. Chase. Lateral (facing the same way)
Video 14 demonstrates how to mix up the standard lateral shuffle mirror drill by making the athletes face the same direction—the defender is forced to look over their shoulder throughout the game, changing their perspective on the situation.
Including a chase to finish the drill is another beneficial addition to complete the game and begin to blend the adaptations of the various games.
Sprint Backpedal with Chase
Videos 15 & 16. Sprint backpedal with chase
Altering the direction from lateral to linear (sprint/back pedal) is an easy change that many coaches do not consider.
When training youth athletes, this categorization helps, but I would recommend always starting with something simple. Simple games are the best initially, because if there are a lot of rules or things to consider, the athletes will typically become frustrated and lose interest.If a game takes me more than 30 seconds to explain, I have either chosen the wrong game or I am talking too much. Click To Tweet
If a game takes me more then 30 seconds to explain, I have either chosen the wrong game or I am talking too much. Once the athletes begin to get the idea and get the ball rolling, then I add more complexity and make adjustments if needed.
Video 17 & 18. Flag Wrestling
Capture the flag or flag wrestling involves the freest expression of movement. While we can’t allow our athletes to grapple each other without potential lawsuits, having them work to steal their opponent’s flag is the next best thing.
This can be done 1v1, 2v2, 2v1, or in a group setting where one athlete works to get the other competitor’s flag.
Tic Tac Toe
Video 19. Tic Tac Toe
Most athletes know how to play tic tac toe, so incorporating this game with sprints and quick decision-making can help athletes accelerate and decelerate with more context on who wins and who loses.
Obstacle courses are great for younger athletes and include a lot of movements such as crawling, jumping, rolling, and whatever else you throw in there.
I don’t do too many obstacle courses, but when I do, I think it’s best to let your athletes add to them. You’ll be surprised by the numerous things they come up with!
Transfer to Sport
Many of these games cross over and have aspects of each other within them. When examining sports, many have each of these movement categories involved (depending on the sport and position).
When placing the games into a training session, I don’t think it has to be set at one specific time. The age and level of the training group helps guide this when playing the game, but I typically place them at the beginning or end of a session.
Using a game as a warm-up is a helpful way to begin, and it not only prepares the body but also the mind. Games require more creativity and engagement with the athlete’s decision-making abilities and tactical thinking.Using a game as a warm-up not only prepares the body but also the mind. Games require more creativity and engagement with the athlete’s decision-making abilities and tactical thinking. Click To Tweet
A game can also set the tone for a great training session. However, be careful because sometimes when you get a room full of young athletes rallied up after a game, it can be difficult to bring their energy back down to focus on the work remaining in the session.
Concluding a session with a game sends them out on a high note, which is automatically a win-win for everyone involved: you, the athletes, and the parent or coach. It also serves athletes well because you can get them to apply the drills that they performed earlier in the session. This can help them make the connection to some of the movements and why they’re important.
Involving athletes in games can help connect speed in a more transferable manner. Fun is the most important training factor for the youth athlete, and it is required if we are trying to help them create a relationship with training and begin the long-term athletic development journey. Incorporate a few of these games and watch as your sessions and athletes become better!
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF