Take a Step Back with Youth Athletes

Coaching youth athletes is the most rewarding job that one can have if your motives are in the right place.

We get to help mold young men and women not only as athletes but also as humans. We get to help them avoid the mistakes that we made (or at least make fewer mistakes). We have the opportunity to make sure they enjoy the process, so they can look back at their time as an athlete and smile.

My goal is to make sure they walk away from their chosen sport as healthy as possible and to make sure then end up enjoying the process of health and fitness. I want my athletes to work out for the rest of their lives, and I want them to teach their children and spouses the joy of strength and fitness.

Some of you might remember Hannah Black. I was her strength and conditioning coach for volleyball and softball, while she was in high school. She also became one of my first national medalist weightlifters. Now she is becoming a high level CrossFitter, and more importantly she is in love with fitness. Several of my former athletes have gone on to enjoy weightlifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding, CrossFit, and general fitness. When I see that, I know I have done my job. I taught them to love strength and fitness, making it a part of their lifestyle.

Once in a while I get the chance to work with very high level athletes. Some are team sport athletes like football players or soccer players – and of course some are weightlifters or powerlifters who are amazing. What I’m saying in this article applies to all athletes.

Sometimes as a coach, you have to get your athlete to take a few steps backwards to go forwards.

Technique

It’s easy to let your high level athletes move forward with less than perfect technique.

If you work with gifted athletes, then you already know they’re going to figure out some way to complete a task if you tell them to perform it. Even with horrible technique, they might lift more weight than the other athletes. Heck, they might lift more weight than any other athlete in the country – but that doesn’t make the way that they are lifting automatically a good thing. If you’re letting them persist with bad technique just because they’re putting up numbers, it makes you a lazy coach – or worse, an incompetent one.

When I am referring to perfect technique, I am well aware that none of us are going to 100% agree on technique. However there are a few nonnegotiable items like a vertical bar path, close to neutral spine, and knees tracking with the toes. I’ll give you a few suggestions for the six main lifts:

  • Jerk- Feet straight in the catch, neutral/stacked spine (no excessive lumbar extension), back knee bent in catch, and arms locked aggressively overhead above or slightly behind the ears.
  • Snatch- Long legs during the first pull, staying over the bar for as long as possible, vertical bar path with no horizontal displacement, whole foot through the floor for as long as possible, vertical and stable spine during the catch phase, and aggressively locked out arms in the catch above or slightly behind the ears.
  • Clean- Long legs during the first pull, staying over the bar for as long as possible, vertical bar path with no horizontal displacement, whole foot through the floor for as long as possible, vertical and stable spine during the catch phase, and continuing the pull until the bar meets the shoulders with minimal to no crashing.
  • Squat- Neutral and stable spine during all phases of contraction, knees tracking with toes without any valgus or varus, and proper bracing techniques utilized at all times.
  • Bench- Shoulders tucked together and down (retracted and suppressed), stacked bar/wrist/forearms/elbows, and drive the bar back toward the head off of the chest.
  • Deadlift- Neutral and stable stacked spine, some thoracic flexion is acceptable for elite powerlifters only, and vertical bar path with no horizontal displacement.

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Now some of these are absolutes in regards to lifting maximal amounts. However most of them are absolutes for avoiding injuries. For example, if you continually catch a jerk with an externally rotated femur, you are going to get injured. In my experience, an athlete who jerks like that can expect a knee injury. If an athlete squats over and over with a flexed spine or hyperextended spine, that athlete can expect a back injury in short order.

How the Mash Mafia Has Taken a Step Back

Lately I have taken a few steps back with several of my athletes, and now they are starting to reap the rewards of their labor. Their strength is skyrocketing – and more importantly, I know they are safer with solid technique. I am going to give you a few of those instances and explain how we are trying to fix the issue. Let’s start with Ryan Grimsland.

Ryan Grimsland

Ryan came to me from CrossFit with a hairline-fractured hip. I am not going to explain the details of the injury, but just know it was from some CrossFit programming that wasn’t well thought out. Over time this caused Ryan to experience back pain and to twist during most of his heavier lifts and even some lighter ones.

We took a team approach on this one. I referred him to my lifelong chiropractor, Dr. Gray. Dr. Gray started him on the “All Core 360” machine, which is an amazing tool designed to stabilize the entire spine. I also took advice from Kelly Starrett about using some unilateral work paused in the lunge positions with a focus on a neutral spine. The isometric contraction with the hip in extension really helped to balance out the constant flexion that weightlifters are in. We also used a lot of slow eccentrics and long paused isometric contractions to stabilize the body in the proper positions. The result has been way less twisting, almost zero back pain, and now lots of PRs.

I want to make a quick point before I move on. The moment one of my youth athletes mentions pain is the moment we stop what we’re doing. I have an amazing group of practitioners who I trust to get results. Dr. Gray is one of those, and he is amazing. I am not sure why so many strength and conditioning coaches try to step out of their lanes nowadays, but it’s a sign of immaturity and arrogance. If you’re not a physical therapist, don’t pretend you are. Your athletes deserve better. Look, if that’s what you want to do, go back to school.

Morgan McCullough

Morgan McCullough is my 16-year-old phenom. We have now taken steps backward twice in his career. The first one was with his jerk. His positioning was all off. His split was so shallow that he couldn’t get under weights that he could push press. When he did get under the weight, his positioning was all off. His leg sometimes was externally rotated, his back foot was flat and pointing out, and his overhead position looked downright painful. Here are a few things that we did to fix his jerk:

  • Press from Split- We had to teach him exactly where he should be in the split. We also had to stabilize that position, so he would feel comfortable getting into the proper position at the high speeds of a jerk.
  • Jerk Step Balance- This is very similar to a press from split, but you start in a shallow split. Then you dip, drive, and push off the back foot into the correct position. This teaches the athlete to drive the back foot down, stabilize, and end in a secure split position.
  • Jerk Dip Squats- Let’s face it! If the weight feels light, you are more comfortable driving that weight overhead.
  • Pauses in the Dip and Pauses in the Catch- Slowing a movement down allows the athlete to perfect positions during certain portions of the movement.

I am most proud of Morgan’s jerk improvement, as it now is just as beautiful as his clean. The last few months have been spent on the snatch. One thing I find funny is the wannabe coaches on the Internet. Morgan ran into a slight plateau with his snatch earlier this year, and all the armchair coaches were screaming that we needed to work on his snatch (like I needed the peanut gallery to inform me). Then we took the time to step back and fix his movement. During that time we did a competition where he clean and jerked 190 kilograms for an American record. His snatch was only 131 kilograms because we were in the middle of fixing his movement. All they wanted to point out was the snatch to clean and jerk ratio. Laughable really!

Anyways just this past Friday he smoked 140 kilograms for an all-time PR with much better technique. Of course none of the Internet coaches had anything nice to say about him improving his weaknesses. It has really become an ongoing joke at our gym. The moral of the story is that it was nice to see his hard work pay off. Now it’s going to be fun to watch him run with his new movement to all new heights.

Morgan’s main issues with the snatch were:

  1. The bar was moving horizontal to go around the knees. He’s 6’0” tall with a long tibia, which is a challenge.
  2. He was getting impatient and moving behind the bar too soon. The goal is to stay over the bar for as long as possible, driving with the legs to take advantage of his strong legs and to ensure a straighter bar path and more consistency.

Here are a few things that we did to improve this movement flaws:

  • Slow Eccentric pulls and Hang Snatches- This is to get him stronger and encourage more hypertrophy in the areas needed to stay over the bar as long as possible.
  • Lasha Pulls- Pyrros Dimas brought my attention to the way that Lasha does pulls, which is basically an exaggerated first pull never moving behind the bar at all for a second pull. This movement will strengthen the position (especially if you throw in some isometric contractions and slow eccentrics), and it teaches the athlete the movement.
  • Lift Offs with a Pause at the Knee- This movement is great for practicing the initial lift off with bringing the bar in and “clearing the road” by moving the knees out of the way. If you focus on driving your feet through the floor, this will happen naturally.

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The Responsibility of Coaching

I am not just talking about weightlifting. This goes for coaching youth in powerlifting, CrossFit, strength and conditioning, or any sport. The goal is long-term development and safety. What good is it for a running back to kill it in high school only to get injured as a freshman at his new D1 school because you didn’t take the time to teach him squats properly? What good is it for a 16-year-old to deadlift 700 pounds only to hurt his back when he’s 17?

I have some news for all of you coaches that is probably going to hurt some feelings. Just because you find a Michael Jordan at some basketball hoop in America who goes on to the NBA, that in no way makes you a good coach. That makes you a good recruiter. However if you find that Michael Jordan and teach him better ball handling skills, proper jump shot mechanics, and strength training that keeps him from injury, now you are working toward being a great coach.

Coaches need to coach! It sounds simple, but I see quite the opposite almost everyday of my life. Writing a program and cheering for somebody as they lift big weights doesn’t make you a good coach. Great coaches:

  • Teach proper mechanics
  • Continue sharpening those mechanics everyday of the athlete’s life
  • Individualize programming that works and continues to evolve
  • Work on communication.
  • Get buy-in
  • Motivate
  • Teach their athletes about life
  • Teach athletes how to have fun – so they will learn to love strength, fitness, and sport for the rest of their life.

These are just a few of the things a great coach does every dang day of their life. Are we always 100% killing it? Nope. I just came out of a funk that I had been in for several months. I recognized that funk, I made some changes, and now I feel like I am on my way to being a better coach because of it.

Coaches, we have to continue sharpening our saw until the day we die or the day we retire. You will never perfect this craft. The moment you feel like you have perfected coaching is the day you need to retire or find something new.

I hope this article has given all of you something to think about. We are in a profession that happens to be a very important influence on many young people in the world. My high school coach literally changed the course of my life. He had such on impact on me that I wanted to pass those lessons on to other youth in my community and around the world. I hope all of you will take your position as a coach as seriously as I do. It has absolutely nothing to do with your ego and everything to do with those young people who you are working with. I hope all of you will change at least one life for the better. Then you too will be able to look yourself in the mirror with a heart full of joy. I thank God for my ability to coach my young men and women.

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