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3 Strategies to Help Build Confidence in Youth Athletes

I’ve been on a “Frequently Asked Questions” binge lately. It’s been challenging, but fun, to take a stab at answering the most commonly asked questions we get at our Parisi Speed School location. The other perk is that it sparks a lot of content ideas for this website. This week I took on a question from the parent of one of our young athletes. I was asked “how do you build confidence in your athletes through performance training?” A great question that I don’t think gets enough mention in the coaching community.

Yes, we know by having a more physically prepared athlete he or she will (most likely) be more confident in their athletic endeavors.

BUT...there’s always a but.

Let's say that little Casey is a 14 year old about to enter his freshman year in high school and is scared shitless to try out for the basketball team. He’s played in recreation leagues and in the AAU circuit, but is nervous that with the increase of kids trying out for the high school program that he might get cut. Little Casey shows up at the Parisi Speed School looking to gain an edge on the competition. He’s never done any structured training before. He’s already nervous.

What strategies do you deploy in creating an environment that will help little Casey build the rock solid swagger he wants before tryouts start?

1) No missed reps in the weight room

There’s nothing worse than having an athlete miss the last two reps in a set and shattering their confidence for each set going forward. A programming strategy I’ve picked up from Chris Merritt, Strength Faction’s programming guru, is to keep the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) low in the first week of a program, adjust and train in the second week, push it a little in week three, and adapt in week four. After the fourth week the cycle starts over with lighter RPE’s in the next week one. This has worked wonders in building confidence with my younger athletes. It provides adequate exposure to the movements in the program, illustrates a clear path to when they will push the intensity, and gives them chances to set “Program PRs” along the way.

2) Look like a Coach, not an asshole.

Having positive body language while working with youth athletes is critical. At our Parisi we coach everything from private to large group sessions. When coaching developing athletes you have to be approachable at all times. The easiest way to look like a grumpy asshole is to stand around with your arms crossed while yelling very direct instructions at an athlete. Keep your arms at your side or behind your back and most importantly, pair it with a smile. Get down on one knee and explain to your athletes what they are doing and demonstrate the movement. Young athletes (and their parents) will appreciate your effort and are more likely to have a positive experience.

3) “Cool” doesn't build confidence

Every kid is on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat. They all see the crazy insane videos of their favorite professional athlete doing who-knows-what in the weight room or on the field. What young athletes never understand is 1) they probably aren’t as physically prepared as a professional athlete or 2) what they’re watching probably won’t actually improve their athletic performance or physical preparation and 3) every kid wants to give it a go.

Quick pause to thank James Harrison for this:

ne coaching mantra I love and use every day comes from Coach Greg Robins of The Strength House, which is to “become ruthlessly good at the most basic skills”. The sweet progression you see on Instagram is fun to watch, but the fastest way to shatter an athlete's confidence is to have them fail (see #1 on this list - no missed reps). Use regressions to create context and let your athletes build confidence.Their movement quality and attitude will tell you when they are ready for the next level.

BONUS: Challenge athletes with volume rather than intensity.

More times than not an athlete is going to equate progression and growth with the amount of weight or intensity on the bar. Bigger weight, more strength, right? It is our job as coaches to educate our athletes in many ways to progress an exercise. Given the session to session variability in the central nervous system of young athletes, not to mention a training age of less than one year, my favorite way to challenge and progress athletes is to change the tempo of a prescribed exercise.

For example…

Little Casey just demolished a set 8 of goblet squats at a tempo of 3 second eccentric / 1 second isometric pause / 1 second steady concentric. Now he’s begging for more weight. Instead of handing him a weight 10 pounds heavier, I challenge the man-child to squat the same weight with a 4 second eccentric, 2 second isometric pause in the bottom then an explosive concentric action for the next set of 8.

As Kendrick Lamar says, “sit down, be humble”

Chances are that that increase in time under tension is going to challenge Little Casey a little bit more and will give me, the Coach, a chance to assess his CNS capacity for the sessions moving forward. 10/10 times I want my young athletes to demonstrate high levels of proficiency with every movement, at a weight they feel most confident with.

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