How To Coach Youth Weightlifting When You Don't Understand Kids

By Amber Sheppard

Whitney Houston belted, "the children are our future." That may be a universal truth, but it's also the unspoken motto of any country's weightlifting program. After all, novelty-sized youth lifters turn into larger than life Olympic medalists as adults. Well, so long as a youth is mentored properly and her coach doesn't ruin her body, spirit, and morale before she even ages out of the youth division. Organizations like Hassle Free Barbell Club have done a great job of developing athletes from a young age to international success. But if you've never coached a youth before and don't want to ruin their life, but still want to coach them, don't fret. I've been in your shoes and haven't killed a kid yet. It'll be alright so long as you check your ego at the door, view the pint-sized tykes as tiny humans, program accordingly, and let them have fun.

Don't Treat Them Like Subhumans

Kids are tiny humans. Sounds like a no-brainer, doesn't it? I can almost hear you now. "Of course they are humans, Amber. Extraterrestrials aren't lifting in competitions." Fox Mulder may fight you on that, but you're right.

View kids as miniature adults in regards to how you treat them. Don't talk down to them; talk to them like you’d talk to a peer. They don't necessarily need kid gloves. They crave to be treated with respect, just like anyone else. Compliment them when they deserve it. You know, when they do something well or improve. Don't focus on all the things they aren't doing. I hope you don't just berate your adult clients but if you do, don't do that to the kids. That's the fastest way to have them never come back.

Give them tasks while they are waiting their turn to lift. I do this with all of my athletes regardless of their age, but I do it more often with my kids. I ask them to be my assistant coaches. "Watch Susan's elbows. Let me know if they bend before she leaves the ground." I also have them show new kids what the lifts look like or ask them what warm up drill they want to do that day. Give them a little autonomy and they will feel like rock stars.

The fastest way to a new youth's heart? Have your juniors, aka "the big kids," help you on occasion. The younger kids are already watching them from across the room. Why not let them help each other out? The juniors could use the humility, and the youth may just stumble upon a new big brother or sister.

Check Your Ego At The Door

You are not to live vicariously through the kids you coach. They are not your ticket to increasing your coaching level. They are not a novelty act to get you more likes on the internet. If you want to coach them for any of these reasons, then you need Jesus (or any deity) and you better step away from that platform.
If you Uncle Rico the kids you coach, then a few things will happen. First, they will grow to hate you. It's acceptable to let the kids and their parents know what you've accomplished when you meet them (and to find out if the child has any special needs), but if you never stop squawking about it, then it becomes clear to the kids you don't care too much about them. Kids may be tiny humans but they know idiots when they see them.

When you view kids as a means to increase your coaching level with your country's weightlifting federation or as click bait for internet views, then you are destined to ruin lives. Does that sound harsh? Good. You should be coaching because you love weightlifting and developing athletes. You should want the kids to succeed on and off the platform.

Watch Your Mouth

Personally, I have the mouth of a sailor.  Just not when I'm working and especially not when I'm around the kids. I have a zero-tolerance policy for cursing in front of the kids. That includes staff, other athletes, and our music. I understand they hear the words outside the gym, but the last thing I want to do is reinforce it on the platform. Lord help my athlete who curses anywhere at a meet.

Make sure you watch what you say to the kids and how you say it, too. If you make fun of a kid, maliciously or not, you're risking alienating him. Of course, simple jabbing here and there is fine. But just be cognizant of it. There could be things going on under the surface or at home you don't know about. I'm not saying coddle them, but just don't talk about their appearances or how they may not be up to speed with other kids. Everyone learns at their own rate.

Keep It Simple

So you're the smartest coach on the planet and you know fancy anatomy and physiology words. Or you've listened to a podcast and think you know everything. Guess who cares? No one. Least of all the kids you're about to coach.

Leave your 25 cent words and cues at home and keep it simple. Kids don't care about first, second, or third pulls. They probably won't even understand "pull under" at first. You know what they do understand? "Jump high," "keep your back flat like a table," and "sit in your chair" (for the dip on the jerk).

Don't throw a million cues at them at once. Focus on one cue at a time and provide positive feedback even when correcting them. My brain can't process five cues at once so I'm sure their brains can't either.

Use Appropriate Programming

Everyone has their own method of teaching kids, so use what works best for you. Kids are typically the "monkey see, monkey do" types. Focus on their technique and don't push them to lift heavy weight or max out right away. That's the fastest way to injury. Utilize the various block heights you have at the gym and work them at the different positions. That'll keep the weights "lower" than if they were to push heavy weights every single day while they are learning.

After we've done a warm up and some basic movement assessments and technique (squat variations, core test, overhead drills), I show them the full lift from mid shin with a PVC pipe three times (or from low blocks if you have them), and then ask them to repeat what I just did. They'll surprise you with how quick they catch on. Once I see how they are looking, we dial it in and work through our progressions starting from the hip and eventually working down the body with our PVC pipes. We build piece by piece and only move on (in progressions and weight) once they can show me they can do the piece perfectly three times in a row. We may not make it past a pull at the hip on day one, and that's okay.

Some kids will come to you for lifting to get better at other sports. If that's the case, make sure to take into consideration how often they are training their other sports so they don't overtrain.

Create Friendly Competition

Kids love competing against each other (and running, for some reason.)
We have the "bling necklace" the kids fight to win each practice. It's an obnoxious gold money sign necklace from the dollar store, but they eyeball it like it's worth $78 million. I change up how the winner is chosen to not favor the strong or the fast every session. We work with ages six to 12 so there is a wide range of strengths and abilities. Some days the winner is whoever holds a plank the longest, others it can be who made the most makes of the day.

The kids get fired up and push not only themselves but each other. We push the 3-rep max on all the lifts for the kids to enforce good technique while they are still learning. They know each others' maxes and are always asking if someone beat it. You could stop the endless barrage of questioning by installing a PR Board. Meanwhile, everyone keeps learning and progressing in pursuit of that "bling necklace."

Don't Push Competitions Too Soon

As coaches, we want everyone to compete. Kids are eager to please and you want to encourage them to have fun and compete. But only if they are ready. Of course, no one is every really ready for their meet. Everyone gets nervous. That's normal. But if you force your youth to lift too soon, you risk them having a horrible experience and never coming back to compete again.

Kids are resilient, but there is a limit. I encourage all of our kids to lift and most are eager. One girl had a hard time lifting with the "big kids," so I wouldn't push her to compete until she gained some more confidence. Once she did, we did a meet and she exceeded her own expectations. Had I pushed her too soon I'm not sure we would have had the same result.

Bottom Line

As someone who was scared of kids, I can now tell you that coaching them not only isn't as bad as it may seem, it’s also the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my coaching career. Treat a youth athlete how you would want to be treated. You wouldn't want someone to push you to lift heavy before you learned the movements or to treat you as a subhuman. If you coach a youth incorrectly, you could scar them for life, but if you coach them with respect and dignity, you could have a positive influence on their life.

Amber Sheppard is a licensed attorney, owner of Sheppard Strength & Conditioning, & co-owner of the first USAW club in Mississippi: the nonprofit Mississippi Barbell. She coaches any weightlifting or powerlifting underdog she can find and has an unnatural affinity for cheese and bell peppers.

The views expressed in this article may not be that of USA Weightlifting. Publication of all articles is to share different opinions and viewpoints. For instruction on the lifts from USA Weightlifting visit www.usaweightlifting.org

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