For many Strength and Conditioning Coaches, the end goal, the big drive, is to one day have the opportunity of working day in and day out with some of the world’s most dominant athletes. This may not necessarily be the end goal for all of us, but for me personally, this is one of the key motivators that keeps me in the Strength and Conditioning journey.
When starting off in the Strength and Conditioning field, we are generally forced to adopt the mentality of “starting from the bottom and working your way up” early-on, and in most cases, this seems logical. You don’t need to seek far to realise that this is the case. If you look at the American College Strength and Conditioning Structure, you see that coaches work their way through a hierarchal pathway from being Interns, to GA’s, to full-time Assistants, to Head Strength and Conditioning Coaches and eventually, years later, they hope to find themselves in a position as Directors of Sports Performance. For young coaches in Australia, “working from the bottom” can mean working with the youth, and this in itself can impose major challenges for a coach, which are different to what some may experience in the elder Elite-Professional environment.
Thus far in my young Strength and Conditioning career, I can’t say that I have had the opportunity of working consistently in the Elite-Professional environment, other than that one-off gym session here and there. However, during my 5 years of Strength and Conditioning experience I have been fortunate to coach some of the best local up-and-coming Rugby League players in the local district who have now gone to play at the highest level. I have met and coached kids of all different shapes and sizes; a challenge in itself. From 6ft4 to 5ft3. From the big 125kg Polynesian to the 65kg Anglo-Saxon player. In this time, I have come to understand that there are more marked inter and intra-athlete differences at the Junior representative level than at the Elite-Professional level, possibly related to varying maturity statuses, and this poses one of the biggest challenges to the Strength and Conditioning Coach.
Nevertheless, varying size is only part of the puzzle that the Junior Strength and Conditioning Coach faces. Below are three key challenges I have come across, which I believe every Junior Strength and Conditioning Coach should be aware of when working with the Youth Athlete:
1. Familiarity with the Environment | Working with players of varying training ages and with differing abilities to understand, interpret and respond to particular coaching cues can become a very challenging task for a coach who is “starting from the bottom”. Especially, it is critical that you find the best way to maximise their individual attention spans. This can be a particularly complex issue if it is their first time in a Semi-Professional Junior training environment. As such, it is important to understand the individual athlete’s background and the best way(s) to interact with them. Approach them and be approachable!
2. Dealing with The Novice Athlete | The athletes here at South Sydney will most likely be of the novice level. Occasionally, there will be an athlete that has years of experience with full awareness of what they are doing; they are the Unicorns, they are rare. We must understand that with the novice athlete comes a bag full of errors, which can challenge your patience; and this is only natural, for some it may be their first time in a weight room. It is our job as coaches to coach them without rushing the process. To build a good athletic base, we need to take our time and get the basics right; even if this means that a young athlete may not necessarily enjoy or find it engaging to do body weight squats or lunges to a tempo whilst their team mates are back squatting. Take time with your craft to optimise their long-term potential!
3. Keeping everyone involved happy | When working with Junior athletes at the Semi-Professional level, training for their sport is not their full-time commitment. Some coaches will get to see their athletes anywhere from 2 to 6 hours a week, with a further breakdown providing less time to work on technical and skill development from a Strength and Conditioning standpoint. Often, a challenge Strength and Conditioning Coaches must face, which can alter the training program, is the influence of external factors; these may include pressure from coaches, peers or parents in the pre-season to do “extras” and additional school-based physical training. This is a battle that I have frequently experienced throughout the seasons, particularly when it comes to trying to educate and manage my players to avoid any unwanted overuse injuries whilst optimising their physical performance too. There are often times were players are required to train in the morning for their school and then again in the afternoon for their representative team. Trying to manage the combined load from demanding scholarship programmes and representative sport coaches can pose a major issue for the Strength and Conditioning Coach when trying to manage the athlete’s physical development whilst keeping healthy relationships with all parties involved. Consistent interaction with, knowing and reading your athlete is pivotal in Youth Sport Strength and Conditioning!
These are just a few blocks of the puzzle that we deal with at the Junior level. Although to some these may not sound too significant, a failure to address and understand them as part of the Youth Athlete’s holistic wellbeing can defiantly hinder and delay their development as they progress with their sporting career aspirations. Whatever we do, our decisions should be grounded on our athlete’s best-interest!
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