Training Middle School Athletes
Guest Post by Ken Whittier of Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning
I believe people tend to overthink training younger athletes, which isn’t the worst thing when working with kids. However, if we have a consistent system, thinking won’t be necessary. Here’s a couple of things to be mindful of when training young athletes, that I learned coaching at MBSC.
Keep it simple stupid, a motto that applies to training all athletes, but especially kids. Keep it simple in more ways than one. The program should be simple, exercise choices should be simple, coaching cues, especially vocal ones should be simple. Just as important as simplicity is consistency. Be consistent with programming, be consistent with cueing. Our kids who come twice a week, will follow the same program on both days, one that consists of an explosive, knee dom, hip dom, push, pull, and movement practice throughout. When teaching a clean, or a goblet squat, teach the same way every time to an athlete or group of athletes. Repetition will accelerate an athletes learning process.
Logistics are really important, especially with larger groups. If benches aren’t available, adjust accordingly and have them do push ups or push up holds depending on their level. It’s important to understand the program is a guideline for you to follow when working with the younger kids. They are learning not training, so if you need to dedicate more time to groove certain movements patterns do so. Specifically, extended practice for complex movements like hang cleans might be necessary. Practice makes perfect, and as long as the loads aren’t heavy (or even close to it) 5 sets of cleans will have tons of reward and very little risk.
Cueing is important with any athlete, but be selective when cueing younger kids. Recognize that younger athletes are going to respond very well to good demonstrations and hands on coaching. Practice your demonstrations, make sure they are perfect! Kids, especially really athletic ones, are really good at mimicking their coach. If the coach can’t clean well, don’t expect their athletes to either.
Hands on cueing is important. Put them in the positions you want them in, and use a mirror to give them further visual feedback, this will really accelerate their learning process.
Finally don’t forget auditory cues. Use your voice, but use it selectively and consistently. Use simple verbal cues and use them repetitively. Young kids are not fully developed and need to be allowed to progress naturally. Your cueing should be a nudge in the right direction, but at some point they are going to have to pedal on there own without you guiding the steering wheel.
Regressions, Progressions, and Lateralizations
Understanding how to regress, progress or lateralize is extremely important when dealing with young athletes. Remember the first regression should always be less weight, typically bodyweight for young athletes. Always progress slowly with young kids a they are learning how to train, not actually training, and will benefit using loads that are probably half of what they could actually use. You won’t find an elite athlete credit their current success to being the strongest middle schooler 10 years ago. However, the reason elite athlete’s are where they are is because they’ve mastered movement and mechanics at such a young age. Middle schoolers don’t need to be strong, they do however need to master movement, so prioritize volume over intensity. Never worry about progressing loads with young kids. Lateralizations go hand in hand with logistics. If we can’t clean because the racks are taken up, lateralize and have the kids jump squat.
Now let’s go over the program and some coaching strategies:
Remember, the program is a guideline, be prepared to make changes based on logistics. Bigger groups require different strategies. Understand you have an hour and 15 minutes, hour and a half tops to get them in and out safely, so be efficient, and prioritize your time
Roll: Self explanatory but have one person run the group with athletes neatly set up, and have coaches or interns walk around making sure the athletes are doing it correctly.
Stretch: You can use the stretch circuit or you can take them through roller stretches, again think logistics. Typically avoid table hamstring because the table is generally too high for most kids so defer to spider man.
Activation: KISS, stick with the program here
Lunge Matrix: Line kids up neatly, and recognize that rotational squat is very coaching intensive and if you don’t have enough eyes, just take it out. If you have an appropriate coach to athlete ratio, by all means feel free
Active warm Up: Get the kids into lines and don’t allow them to go until you instruct. You don’t have to be mean, but they need to understand that when you talk, they should be listening and not fooling around. After a couple weeks this might not be necessary, but in my experience it always is. Teaching the skip should be a progression, so have them march in place, then instruct them to skip in place, and then finally have them skip forwards. Cue the same things, use this method until you are confident in them going right in to skips.
Ladders: Follow Phase 1 ladders until necessary. For my middle school group in the spring, we followed phase 1 ladders for all 4 phases and did not progress to backwards ladders until week 3. Tell them to go slow and speed up when they are comfortable. Again practice makes perfect so repeat drills if necessary and cue the same things. Emphasize control. Kids want to go as fast as possible, don’t allow them to. Also same deal with warm up, you tell the kids when to start not the other way around.
Sled Marches: First regression is lighter weight. Typically middle school athletes can push 1 to 2 plates total, some require no plates. Don’t load these up, we want a march with an upright posture. we are teaching them good sprint mechanics which includes knee up, toe up, and an effective push into the ground. Use wall drills to reinforce proper sled mechanics.
Conditioning: With tempo runs emphasize good arm action, hammer those arms! Slide boards are a good option as well. Keep them low, make sure they reset, and go as fast from point A to point B as possible. Stay low, and go slow. If there is no space, have them do bike sprints. It is very unlikely that you are going to complete this entire program from start to finish so again prioritize things and get them through the program safely.
Teaching the lifts:
Hang Cleans: Follow the hang clean teaching progression from the progression/regression sheet. Introduce hands free front squat set 1, front squat set 2, and the clean set 3. If you want to do several sets of cleans, do so, I would recommend getting as many sets in on the cleans as possible especially with these younger kids. With the clean prioritize start and finish position. This requires good demonstration and good kinesthetic cueing. Hands should be outside hips, feet shoulder width, shoulders back, curl wrists, knees bent. From there we want them to jump. Now when they catch, (in an athletic position) most kids will be reluctant to put their elbows up typically because how the weight feels on their collar bone, this is where hands on cueing comes into play. Very carefully, drive there elbows up for them and show them in the mirror where they need to catch it. If they start and finish correctly, the in between will come naturally overtime. Choosing weight is also important especially with clean. they need enough weight to help them understand it is supposed to be explosive but not too much where we are training and not learning. typically start at weights between 20 lbs and 45 lbs. Never teach a kid how to clean with a dowel. Teach them how to hands free squat with it, but not clean. Try yourself, you won’t have success. Some weight is necessary, just an appropriate amount.
Bench Press: Lateralize when necessary but when introducing Barbell Bench, start with eccentric bench, and keep the weights extremely light. Eccentrics will teach the athletes the proper bar path and how to control the weight. Hand width will vary with each athlete depending on their size, so be active in adjusting their hands. Typically a thumbs length from the rings, give or take a couple inches works just fine. Teach the kids how to spot and bench properly. Again teach proper start position which includes eyes under the bar, feet on ground, head, shoulders, and butt on bench. From there introduce the proper interaction between the spotter and bencher, and have the kids go 5 seconds down, pause for a moment, then push up. There is plenty to cue on any of these exercises, but prioritize the important ones and go from there. Bench press weights are going to be similar to clean weights, so refer to the instructions above. They should bench like a lineman blocks: with elbows and wrist in line with one another. Strong wrists! Breath!
Goblet Squat: Goblet squat with weight, especially with the younger kids might look ugly so reenforce tempo, slow on the way down. Use your tools, Start with a heel plate and 12 inch box to introduce them to depth. If this doesn’t work continue to regress and give them something to support themselves with. Or lateralize. Split squats are an effective knee dominant exercise that most kids won’t mess up. Have them start with out weight, and always start from the bottom. Before they start, demonstrate that they need to start with a vertical front shin, and that there should be a straight line from there down knee up to there head. Slow and in control. Start with light weights between 10 and 25 lbs on either exercise or no weight at all.
Single Leg Deadlift (SLDL): You will struggle with SLDL probably the most, especially if you allow them to use weight. Don’t! Have them reach, have them reach with medball or light 5 lb dumbbells, have them reach for a wall. Reenforce the same things. Slight bend in there plant leg, and straight line from there reaching leg to there head. For me I introduced weights to some of my middle school athletes around phase 2, but most stayed without weight throughout the spring.
Dumbbell Row: The DB row can be tough as well. I always introduce dumbbell row by preceding it with cat camel. Do cat, camel and when its time to row explain that their back should be in the same position as it was when it was arched in the camel position. Have them set up in DB row, when they are ready, the same way every time. Dumbbell on the ground, they start in an athletic position and fall onto the bench maintaining this position. From there, instruct them to avoid using momentum, and reenforce back position. Have them reset each time by riding each rep to the ground. Starting weights should typically be in between 7.5 and 17.5 lbs depending on the kid. Again strong wrists, and elbow close to ribs.
Stick to the basics when teaching young kids. Some young kids can get out of control, so remind them that they need to listen when you are talking. Demand their attention or they will eat you alive. But don’t forget, make it fun!Ken Whittier Joined the MBSC staff in the spring of 2013 after completing his internship the previous summer and graduating from UMass Amherst with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science. Ken has worked with clients and athletes of all ages ranging from elite level college athletes to middle school and adult groups. He is currently studying for his CSCS and volunteers with the Boston University Men’s Ice Hockey Team. Teams that he has coached at MBSC include Malden Catholic hockey, Winchester hockey, and the Reading girl’s hockey team. Ken can be contacted at email@example.com