Raising Champions – Creating a Great Practice Environment

Working with groups of young athletes can be very rewarding and challenging at the same time. You are working with a large variety of abilities, very short concentration spans and tons of energy. You also have the opportunity to create an environment for kids to benefit from all the incredible benefits of sport and to instill a love for physical activity from a young age. This should be foremost in your mind when planning your practice sessions. I always tell coaches to ask the question: "What will make the kids want to come back to my session tomorrow and the next day and the next year?".  

Below I give some practical considerations to create such an environment when planning and implementing your sessions: The actual detail of the activities is up to your creativity, but keep these fundamentals in place and you will enjoy great success.

1. Ensure both fun and discipline

While you want everyone to have a lot of fun, there needs to be discipline. Kids feel safer and enjoy the activities more when there are clear rules and boundaries which are enforced. Be firm and consistent. Have consequences and not punishment. For example: they need to sit out the next round rather than punishing them with pushups.

Learning to respect the rules and decisions of officials starts in your fun game of tag.  

2. Ensure both fun and learning

Children are hungry to learn new things and grow in their skills and abilities. Boredom I feel is less often related to not having fun and more to not being stimulated to explore and grow. Find creative ways to incorporate learning about the sport, training and competition into your activities. Importantly, don't just push information, but create opportunities for exploration. 

4. Keep the challenge up

Kids enjoy taking on a challenge. Some are all in, others are reluctant to start with, but in the end everyone is all smiles when they realise they just achieved something they have not achieved before. Regular have challenges where they can see that they are making progress from all the practicing. When designing challenges ensure that they are:

- challenging but realistic achievable

- allow for each child to be challenged and advance according to their own level

- recognize everyone's improvement

- are relevant to the sport you are teaching

Not everyone will have great improvements in the challenge and some might not get it right at all, but having the courage to take on the challenge in the first place must always be seen as success. Success is the willingness to learn from the challenge and keep practicing.    Always provide a learning experience. 

5. Make use of teams

Team activities are a great way to incorporate different levels of ability together. Everyone gets to be competitive and will be motivated to give their best. They also provide a great opportunity for teaching valuable character lessons. Make sure your team sizes allow for everyone to be part and enjoy plenty of turns.

6. Minimize Dead Time

You want to have as little standing around and waiting as possible. This can be achieved by arriving at practice with your activities already well thought out, setting up equipment before the kids arrive, having enough equipment so that kids aren't waiting too long for a turn, not allowing other people to distract you and draw you away from the practice and when doing team activities such as relays, ensuring that the team size is small enough so that no one waits too long for a turn. 

7. Praise effort, attitude, values and specific improvement areas

Not just results! At the end of the day, long term improvement is going to come through dedication, discipline, hard work and a willingness to learn. Even your current "superstar" will eventually be overtaken by those that work hard if he does not do the same. It is also always so important for youth coaches to be well educated in development stages of young athletes and to conscious of the fact that it is often the small late developers who have tenacity that end up rising to the top, not your primary school champion.

8. Share your attention equally

As coaches it is so easy to focus only on your "A" student. I think often it is done unintentionally, we get excited when we see a kid doing well and want to help them more. You need to be intentional about giving equal attention to everyone from the top to the tail, celebrating each one's individual effort and improvement and most importantly, valuing each one for who they are as young humans first before what they bring to the table as athletes.

9. There is only one winner of the competition and coming second is not failure

One of biggest disservices we do to young athletes is to give participation prizes to everyone and not acknowledge that someone was first, second and third. The kids are not fooled, they know that one person won and that they were wherever they came. While we may think it is motivating, it is actually demotivating. What is the point of me giving my best if we all just participating? Competition is natural, motivating and teaches valuable life lessons. We as adults no that only one person gets the job, one person gets the promotion, one person has the highest marks on the exam. And that sometimes life is not fair. That is real life and it is what spurs us on to go higher, something which we are created to enjoy. The challenge of the coach, parents and sports organizers is help facilitate as healthy as possible competition and to guide the children in dealing with disappointments in a healthy way. Coming second or losing the match is not necessarily failure, if they gave it their best then it just means the other kid/team was better than them on that day, that is all. If they did not give it their best or made many errors, then the competition was a great learning opportunity. That is all. 

10. No parents allowed

This sounds rather harsh, but parents, especially overeager parents can be a huge hindrance if they are hanging around watching practices all the time and especially if they try get involved in practices. Parents should by all means be allowed to watch their kids practice, but this should be at a healthy distance and in a way that does not put pressure on the child.

I hope this has been helpful. Keep working hard doing the amazing job of raising champions for life!

Onwards and upwards!

Coach Kathleen

Professional running coach

Cape Town, South Africa