By Greg Bach
The path to improvement and high performance that young athletes crave starts at practice, where focus and purpose are paramount.
“I think a lot of youth coaches preach practice and repetition, but not purposeful repetition,” says Bryan Green, a former track and field and cross-country runner at UCLA and author of MAKE THE LEAP. “Coaches should be encouraging athletes to focus on specific aspects of the activity – like body positioning and how it feels – and not just ‘doing it.’ And encouraging athletes to ask what they should be focused on.”
The father of two, Green sees how important purposeful practicing is when it comes to his daughters’ sports participation.
“My daughters do ice skating and I see this in their practices,” he says. “They will spend 30 minutes practicing jumping, but when I ask them what aspect of jumping they are practicing they don't know. Their coach may point out when a jump goes badly, but they get more out of their jumps when their coaches focus them on the position of their hands, or generating more height, or how deeply they bend their knees. Simply jumping is naive practice. Jumping to master a specific aspect of a jump is purposeful practice.”
Make the Leap features a gold mine of information to help coaches of all sports help their young athletes navigate their journeys, be more efficient and focused during their practices, and squeeze the most out of their abilities.
“My goal is not to change how you coach, but rather to help your athletes get more out of those workouts,” Green says. “I have consistently found that when athletes adopt more productive mental frameworks about training, they get better results.”
Green is the co-founder of Go Be More apparel with former UCLA track great Jon Rankin, and they host the Go Be More podcast featuring interviews with inspirational people who share their paths to high achievement.
We caught up with Green to discuss coaching young athletes, cultivating growth mindsets, conducting engaging practices, and much more:
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What’s the key message you hope readers take away from your book?
GREEN: You can do the same workouts and get much more out of them if you learn to think better about how you train.
SK LIVE: How can coaches help kids stay engaged and motivated in practices, especially on days where they are tired, sluggish, or lacking enthusiasm?
GREEN: First and foremost, it's important to remember that it's never about one workout. You can design the perfect practice, but if your athletes aren't mentally and physically ready to do it, it won't produce the intended benefits. For younger athletes, I would aim to do practices that have a game component and that team them up. Get them working together and depending on each other, less focused on how they feel and more on how they are supporting their team. For older kids, I would emphasize the benefits of showing up and doing the work professionally, and making the most of it. Make it a big deal to do a solid workout despite not feeling great. Celebrate the ability to overcome negative feelings and do a good practice. These are actually great ways to help young athletes develop a mindset that they are "someone who gets the work done."
SK LIVE: How can coaches help runners embrace a growth mindset when they are working hard but aren’t seeing their times improve as much as they hope?
GREEN: One goal of my book is to help runners understand what a "leap" really is and how it happens. Understanding that most of training has little improvement and that most improvement happens in small bursts where everything "clicks" helps to put the lack of improvement into context.
As for growth mindset, there are two strategies that I have found work well. One I call the Reframing approach: whenever an athlete is fixated on talent, change their focus to effort and preparation. When we reframe our success and failure and put it in effort-based terms, we accept the basic premise that we aren't limited by our talent.
The other approach I call the Analogy approach: there are certain areas where we associate success with talent. Art, singing, music, public speaking, maybe even a school subject like math. Show how with the proper coaching, people who were never successful before achieved great things. Then point out that this applies to the sport they are playing as well!
SK LIVE: What should coaches of young runners (ages 10-12) who are just starting in the sport focus on teaching them about the mental side of competing in the sport?
GREEN: I want to encourage young athletes to get more engaged in their sports. Athletes playing baseball or football are probably already very engaged because they watch the pro or NCAA teams. But if you are doing a more niche sport, find ways to introduce the history, the amazing performances, the ground-breaking ideas. Encourage kids to learn broadly about the sport. These activities not only grow their passion for the sport, they help them to stay motivated about achieving their goals. As a general rule, I emphasize engagement and concentration during practice over goal-setting or prioritization.
SK LIVE: How should that approach change with older kids (13-17) who really love the sport and want to see improvement?
GREEN: Engagement is equally critical with older kids, but as they mature we can emphasize purpose and prioritization. I have a concept in my book called the Hidden Training Program. It's all those aspects of your life that you don't associate with training, but that can have a profound effect. Most young athletes don't appreciate the importance of sleep, diet, hydration, and recovery. But beyond that, the people you are spending time with, the books you are reading, the hobbies you are doing, your relationship with your parents...these things can be positive or negative.
To make this simple, I like to talk about momentum and friction. When you look at any aspect of your life, is it pushing you toward your goals or slowing you down? There are two ways to get faster: push harder or remove what's slowing you down. A lot of our lives are slowing us down, and we can't strategize around that until we learn to think better about it.
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Add these tips to your coaching toolkit to help young athletes broaden their outlooks, enhance their emotional health, and compete with honor