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Youth coach's dozen

This is an excerpt from Essentials of Youth Fitness by Avery Faigenbaum,Rhodri Lloyd,Jon Oliver & American College of Sports Medicine.

Effective pedagogy lies at the heart of any successful youth program. Although knowledge of pediatric exercise science and developmental psychology remain necessary as prerequisites for effective teaching, youth fitness specialists ultimately need to design and implement instructional methods that enhance the process of learning and discovery. Research has enhanced our understanding of effective instructional practices in the classroom, but it is up to us to adapt these fundamental principles to the practice of pediatric exercise science. We can find a useful framework for discussing the characteristics of successful exercise and sport professionals in the 5 Cs perspective on positive youth development—namely, competence, confidence, connection, character, and caring (Jones, Dunn, Holt, Sullivan, & Bloom, 2011; Lerner et al., 2005).


The coach's dozen is a list of 12 principles that youth fitness professionals should consider when teaching children and adolescents (Faigenbaum & Meadors, 2016). Some of these principles are well supported by research (Ames, 1995; Bulger, Mohr, & Walls, 2002; Schickedanz, Schickedanz, Forsyth, & Forsyth, 2000), whereas others are based on practical experience in working with school-age youth in schools, fitness centers, and sport programs. The list is not meant to be definitive or comprehensive; rather, it is a collection of principles to help youth fitness specialists promote learning through safe, effective, and enjoyable instructional methods.

1. Ensure a safe exercise environment.

The exercise area must be spacious, uncluttered, well ventilated, and well lit. Exercise equipment should be in good working order and appropriate for the smaller body size of children and adolescents; participants should not use broken or malfunctioning equipment. Loose equipment such as dumbbells, weight plates, and medicine balls should be stored in proper locations. Participants should dress appropriately for the session, and practitioners should periodically review safety rules.

2. Stay connected.

The success of any exercise class or sport program depends largely on the leadership provided by instructors and coaches, who should stay connected to the participants in the program. Take the time to learn every child's name, address individual concerns, and show genuine interest in every participant. A child who makes friends, plays fair, and feels connected to the instructor or coach cannot at the same time be a child who routinely disrupts the program or engages in negative behavior. Encourage participants to ask questions; never use sarcasm. Just like substitute teachers in the classroom, substitute coaches who do not form partnerships with participants will have a very difficult time teaching youth and inspiring them to achieve personal goals. The best approach is for professionals to develop a positive rapport with participants and show that they care.

3. Be enthusiastic.

Youth fitness specialists should be positive and passionate about exercise, fitness, and sport. If coaches are not enthusiastic about teaching, then children will not be enthusiastic about learning. Enthusiasm is contagious and contributes to a positive learning environment. In turn, a positive learning environment contributes to participants' success, which is a powerful motivator for engaging in the desired activities with energy and vigor. Inspiring practitioners generally possess content knowledge, instructional experience, and genuine interest in helping all participants perform to the best of their abilities.

4. Foster creativity.

Youth exercise programs should be both stimulating and engaging while providing an opportunity for participants to develop a positive sense of self. Creativity is associated with physical fitness in children (Latorre Román, Pinillos, Pantoja Vallejo, & Berrios Aguayo, 2017), and efforts to encourage creativity are needed in order to reclaim opportunities for children and adolescents to use their imagination, collaborate with peers, and release their creative energy. Sadly, creative thinking appears to be declining in children (Kim, 2011), which is all the more reason that participants should be given opportunities to create new games and exercises that are safe, stimulating, and fun. Notwithstanding the importance of education and instruction, the creation of new games and exercises contributes to a mastery-oriented climate in which participants control the type of task engagement and overcome self-determined challenges as they apply learned skills in novel situations. For example, participants might create a new exercise with medicine balls or modify a game of tag that requires speed and agility. This type of instruction can enhance the learning experience and promote physical engagement during exercise classes and sport programs.

5. Understand the process.

In addition to teaching participants about the quantitative aspects of the program (e.g., sets, repetitions, training intensity), youth fitness specialists should also engage participants in activities that are both physically and mentally challenging (Collins et al., 2016). That is to say, both the quantitative and the qualitative aspects of the movement experience should be considered when implementing and evaluating youth programs (Faigenbaum & Rial, 2018; Pesce, Faigenbaum, Goudas, & Tomporowski, 2018). Highly effective youth fitness specialists use instructional strategies that engage participants repeatedly throughout the practice session. When participants do something right, the practitioner should praise them; and if they do something wrong, the practitioner should help them understand that they are still liked as a person. The most important motives for youth are to demonstrate physical competence, gain social acceptance, and have fun.

6. Deliver clear instructions.

Successful youth fitness specialists are good listeners and exceptional communicators who understand individual needs and learning styles. In order to teach effectively, practitioners need to be concerned with how they deliver content to participants and how the participants react to that delivery. To help explain an exercise or game, a practitioner can use aids such as analogies, demonstrations, and coaching cues. The practitioner's tone, pronunciation, and choice of words can also influence participants' ability to understand lesson content. In some cases, it may be helpful to provide participants with an agenda for the activity period. Combining instructions with clear demonstrations and an organized lesson plan will likely yield the highest physical, cognitive, and affective benefits for participants (Tomporowski et al., 2011).

7. Diversify the portfolio.

The most stimulating youth programs encompass a variety of skills and activities that are developmentally appropriate, challenging, and fun. The outcome of a youth exercise program is determined by systematic and sensible progression of program variables over time, along with enthusiastic instruction. Most children find prolonged periods of monotonousaerobicexercise to be boring. Instead, youth should be exposed to an assortment of exercises and sport activities in a variety of settings with different people so that they can discover what they enjoy while maximizing their physical, psychological, and social development (Lloyd et al., 2014; Pesce et al., 2018).

8. Learn from mistakes.

Youth will inevitably make mistakes when they learn a new exercise or perform a complex skill. Instead of being viewed in a negative light, mistakes should be recognized as valuable parts of the learning process that provide opportunities for participants to become aware of what they know and what they need to improve. When participants correct their own mistakes or offer constructive feedback to a peer, they become engaged learners who are able to think for themselves. Consequently, instead of merely recognizing the strongest participants, or those who perform a complex movement correctly, practitioners should also acknowledge participants who learn from their mistakes, ask for advice, and offer meaningful assistance to others. Collaborative learning provides an opportunity for youth fitness specialists and participants alike to share ideas, learn from each other, and work toward a common goal. This type of engagement can facilitate the acquisition of the necessary knowledge and skills to achieve long-term objectives.

9. Be patient.

Although it may be tempting to look for quick fixes and rapidly advance youth through exercise protocols, sustained participation in exercise and sport is built on a solid foundation of general preparation (Haff, 2014; Lloyd et al., 2016). Therefore, youth fitness specialists need to be patient in their practice so that participants have time to develop basic movement patterns before progressing to more complex skills and advanced training techniques. Practitioners should also recognize individual differences and realize that progression or regression should be based on skill proficiency, disposition, and understanding of training principles. Patience is needed in order to correct technical errors and develop physical skills that properly prepare youth for the enduring demands of exercise and sport. In contrast, an impatient approach to teaching and training increases the risk of injury and limits participants' long-term potential.

10. Maximize recovery.

Designing programs foryouth of any age involves balancing the demands of training (required for adaptation) with the need for recovery (also required for adaptation) (Lloyd et al., 2016). Although any practitioner can make a child tired, successful youth fitness specialists understand and value the importance of developing high-quality movement patterns and enhancing the learning experience through less intense training sessions and appropriate recovery strategies. A training and recovery schedule that is well planned and well balanced improves participants' learning and the program's overall effectiveness. Practitioners need to attend to what is done between sessions as well as what is done during them. The importance of adequate recovery needs to be reinforced regularly because a ‘‘more is better'' attitude is counterproductive. Related factors such as adequate hydration, proper nutrition, and sufficient sleep also promote well-being, which in turn enhances learning and on-task behavior during exercise sessions and sport practices (Oliver et al., 2011).

11. Think long-term.

Physical activity is a learned behavior; therefore, children and adolescents should be given ongoing opportunities to participate in exercise and sport programs. Without a long-term approach to physical development, boys and girls are less likely to reach their performance potential (Lloyd et al., 2016). Although some practitioners may want immediate results and quick-fix solutions to problems they encounter, a long-term approach is needed in order to optimize training adaptations and enhance the holistic development of all youth (Oliver et al., 2011). If the health-enhancing benefits of daily physical activity early in life are to be realized later in life, youth fitness specialists must know when to progress an activity and how to modify or even regress an exercise due to poor technique or inappropriate behavior. When practitioners help participants connect new information with what they already know, they encourage participants to think long-term about their education and training.

12. Enjoy the game.

The importance of having fun should not be underestimated when engaging youth in fitness, sport, and clinical exercise programs (Dishman et al., 2005; Visek et al., 2015; Watson, Baker, & Chadwick, 2016). When participants see others having fun and learning new skills, they are more likely to participate and become or remain engaged learners. Although encouragement and support from youth fitness specialists can influence exercise habits, the sheer enjoyment that a child experiences during an exercise session can facilitate sustainment of desired behaviors. In this vein, it is sometimes helpful for practitioners to remember what types of fitness activities they enjoyed as children. The most successful professionals maintain a balance between skill and challenge so that exercises and sport activities remain enjoyable. Participants who become proficient and perceive themselves as skilled are more likely to respond to effective teaching with a higher level of engagement and enjoyment.