How to Challenge Players to Improve at a Young Age

Motivating young ath­letes can be chal­leng­ing, but by get­ting every­one involved and mak­ing it fun, you can help both your team and play­ers improve.

How to Challenge Players to Improve at a Young Age

Motivating young ath­letes can be chal­leng­ing, but by get­ting every­one involved and mak­ing it fun, you can help both your team and play­ers improve.

The secret to chal­leng­ing young play­ers to improve is sim­ple — build their con­fi­dence while hav­ing fun. It is impor­tant to remem­ber they are just start­ing their careers. They are not being scout­ed or going for a col­lege schol­ar­ship yet. Players at the youth lev­el actu­al­ly retain more in a fun and pos­i­tive envi­ron­ment because there is no pres­sure or stress. Here are a few point­ers to help you chal­lenge your play­ers to grow.

1. Make sure you are supportive both at practice and during the game.

It all comes down to build­ing their con­fi­dence. We all have a com­pet­i­tive side and love win­ning. That’s why it’s impor­tant that the play­ers see you clap for the oth­er team when they make a touch­down or pull your play­ers flag. By acknowl­edg­ing a good play, you demon­strate good sports­man­ship. You can talk about being a good sport until you are blue in the face, but if you don’t prac­tice what you preach every­thing you said goes out the win­dow. Acknowledge the team for their hard work just as much when they lose as when they win. Positive rein­force­ment, even when the out­come is neg­a­tive, will build the player’s con­fi­dence and they will want to improve on their own. When mold­ing youth it is impor­tant to remem­ber they watch and learn from your actions, not just what you say.

2. Include players of every skill level.

How do you chal­lenge a play­er to get bet­ter if they are always sit­ting on the side­line? It’s impor­tant to rotate all the play­ers on the team and not just put your back­ups in when the team has a lead. It is OK if a play­er stands in the same spot the whole play. It is OK if it takes what feels like an eter­ni­ty to get your cen­ter to turn around so he isn’t head-to-head with the quar­ter­back. Game expe­ri­ence is the only way for play­ers to learn what a game is actu­al­ly like. Telling a young play­er what to do or hav­ing them watch the game from the side­line ver­sus actu­al­ly putting them in the game and show­ing them what it is like is a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent learn­ing expe­ri­ence. It chal­lenges the play­er to grow out­side of their com­fort zone and allows them to improve.

3. Challenge players with fun homework.

No one likes home­work, but if you put a spin on it to make it fun they will start ask­ing for it. If you know the play­ers need to improve in a cer­tain area but are hav­ing a hard time get­ting the par­ents to help out­side of prac­tice, give them an assign­ment so they can do alone. 

Here are a few examples:

  • Have them find a friend to play catch with, and if they can’t find some­one, have them throw the ball up in the air and prac­tice catch­ing and tuck­ing the ball.

  • Encourage them to race their friends, a pet or their own shad­ow to work on speed, or play tag with their friends.

  • Practice catch­ing the ball with one hand to work on hand con­trol, etc. 

Provide a reward for their extra effort, such as Freeze Pops or dump­ing water on the coach if they beat the coach in a dash! Your options are limitless.

4. Engage players by having fun.

Who wants to go to prac­tice to get yelled at? Make it fun by giv­ing cool nick­names and if you aren’t cre­ative let them pick their own. Different exam­ples are:

  • Wrestler names

  • Last name only

  • Color — Mr. Blue

  • Cartoon char­ac­ters

  • Superhero names

When I coach my daughter’s 4 and 5-year-old soc­cer team, I call the goal the bat cave. It can be some­thing small that excites them.

5. Have an End Goal in Mind

The first year my son joined flag foot­ball was the first year for his team, so every play­er was new to the sport. I had to assess what the first thing all the play­ers need­ed to learn: hik­ing the ball and pulling flags. I couldn’t expect the play­ers to learn a play if no one knew how to play cen­ter. If the team couldn’t hike the ball with­out it touch­ing the ground, the whis­tle would blow and we couldn’t run a play. Second, play­ers had a hard time not tack­ling or pulling a flag with­out grab­bing cloth­ing. We prac­ticed by play­ing a cou­ple games at every prac­tice. The team improved every time. I broke it down into pieces and addressed it at each week’s prac­tice and slow­ly added some­thing new to work on. By the mid­dle of the sea­son, the play­ers were play­ing like a team. 

Again, it’s OK not to win every game as long as the team is improv­ing. The first time we won, the play­ers were so proud because they knew we believed in them from the begin­ning of the sea­son and we took the time to build their confidence.

The time and effort you invest into build­ing up the con­fi­dence of a youth play­er has last­ing effects. You might not expe­ri­ence the growth you want while they are young but you are the one light­ing the spark. Have fun and cre­ate an envi­ron­ment that encour­ages them to grow.

Please share how you chal­lenge your play­ers to improve with #HudlSpark.

Anthony Stone is a Physical Education teacher at Gregory Elementary School and Quarterbacks Coach at Boylan High School in Rockford, Ill. He is also the Defensive Coordinator and Assistant Head Coach for the Women’s Australian National Outback 2017 Team & writes blogs for Firstdown Playbook. 

In July 2016, he was named to the Hudl 100 list. He has pre­sent­ed at IAPHERD, the top phys­i­cal edu­ca­tion con­ven­tion in Illinois, on how to get stu­dents mov­ing with his Games Galore pre­sen­ta­tions. He has also pre­sent­ed at the Chicago Glazier Clinics on quar­ter­backs & spe­cial teams. He was the Defensive Coordinator for the 2010 U.S. Women’s National Tackle Football Team, win­ners of the IFAF Women’s World Championship in which Team USA did not allow a point in three games with an over­all score of 201 – 0. Stone has coached in the CIFL and the IWFL Leagues as well as Beloit College (Linebackers/​Special Teams Coordinator) and Rockford University (Quarterbacks/​Wide Receivers). 

Stone has also coached foot­ball at the youth, mid­dle school and high school lev­el. He will be putting on fun­da­men­tal youth foot­ball camps around the world in 2017. Please con­tact him to bring his Back to the Basics Youth Football Camp” to a city near you.

Follow him on Twitter @Coach_Stone_MT.