Back To Basics: Training For Purpose And Fun

By Ken Baldwin.

The beginning of the new school year can often shape up to be rather challenging when it comes to team sports. For the seniors it is often a fond farewell as they move into the big wide world, and for coaches it is about saying goodbye to their current students while they prepare them as best they can, and also welcoming the prospect of the new talent coming through and the opportunity it will give them to be able to grow and develop these students.

Like the school academic calendar, time is always short and there are ongoing pressures to adhere to in order to get the students into a winning groove – but just when you are at that level, the season for that particular sport is almost over and all the hard work is lost and just needs to be done again in the new year.

Furthermore, every student comes back from their holiday with a different skill level and level of fitness. Some will be dedicated throughout the break and train to ensure they are at their peak when they come back to school, but most will completely forget about their sport and just go away and have fun. Some will maintain some level of fitness due to the other activities they will do on holidays, but most will not.

It is at this point in the year that coaches need to be the best they can be, and this involves going back to basics and training for purpose and fun. Analysing performance and what it takes to get there  will give a better understanding of the building blocks to sporting success.

Athletes perform better through practise – period. To be better at something requires continual rehearsing and mimicking of basic skills and drills. If this is not done, response time and physical execution of the skills is lost, resulting in timing errors, a much slower pace – and if done too quickly too soon, pre-season injuries.

The biggest mistake coaches often make is to only give teams the skills and drills they need for the sport they are involved in. They usually expect a certain level of compliance but forget that if they have not spent time on the fundamentals of movement, including balance, deceleration, speed and agility and endurance, they cannot expect them to perform better or faster. Gone are the days where athletes spend hours doing road runs to get their fitness levels up. And yes, while athletes still need fitness and endurance, they must balance this with the fundamentals as well as skill development – which is why it is so beneficial for coaches to conduct sessions that incorporate both.

It goes without saying that you cannot train children as you would young adults; they develop differently and have different ways of learning and acquiring skills. Yes, some are gifted and are able to pick these up quickly; however, they are usually the ones who have a solid base level of movement skill.

The majority of sport seasons range from six to eight weeks in length (not including pre-season), which is not much time to get ready for competition, considering most professional teams spend months and months in pre-season training. Here are some of the basic fundamentals that all coaches should take on board in their training sessions:

  • Not teaching children to go faster until they have taught them how to stop
  • Children need to be able to change direction and have body and spacial awareness
  • Most young athletes have very weak cores as their bodies do not yet know how to integrate movement effectively
  • Always keep the moves simple and focus on the execution of the skills rather than the speed. Coaches can add complexity after the basics have been mastered
  • Children will often ‘unlearn’ things over the holidays and come back to school with different motor pattern skills. Coaches need to stimulate this learning by gradually adding challenges and then adding competition to it.

A lot of students will be competitive when it comes to physical activity and sport as it is human nature; however, they learn the most by failing or not being able to carry out a skill they are asked to do. The key here is to set challenges that are difficult but can be achieved with effort over a period of time. These challenges will also need to have basic progressions to enable each level to be completed.

Regardless of the sport being played, here are some suggestions for starting training at the beginning of the season, especially if the season commences at the beginning of the year straight after the Christmas break.

Movement Mechanics

Make sure students spend quite a bit of time on basic movement mechanics, as most children’s motor skills are still developing and are at a stage where the skill is not cognitive or ‘pre- recognised’. What this means is that they do not have the ability of an elite athlete who has performed the skill so many times that they can replicate it without thinking about it. A learned motor skill takes several thousand continual practises before it is implemented without thinking about it. Continue to work on the basic movement skills to enable a mind to muscle connection loop to be established. Examples of drills that should be used here are basic ladder drills to establish fast feet and change of direction and balance fundamentals.

Progression With Challenges

It is important that coaches implement challenges that are progressive and not to aim for speed until the skill is learnt. Some small complexities can be added here that will include height or changes in pace. Micro-hurdles can be used here instead of ladders to create an obstacle to go over or around, and coaches should look at using tempo changes to enforce braking and deceleration. This is where the body awareness comes in with the special recognition, enabling the body to understand more complex and sporting moves when they require them.

Complexity And Sports-specific

At this stage coaches should start adding ball skills and drills into their training; however, students will still need to use their basic movements as this reinforces their skills. The speed variable is important here as they have to be able to replicate the speed of the skill they are using on game day, but like all things, they will not be able to do the skill at full speed straight away. Coaches should facilitate a comprehensive warm-up as a rehearsal.

Keep The Fun Flowing

This is probably the most important element of all because it is probably the main reason the student started playing the particular sport in the first place. Once this vital element is removed from the activity, a lot of students will become disinterested and eventually stop coming to training.

All sporting teams, regardless of whether they are amateur or professional, should spend majority of their time in the pre-season working on the basic fundamentals of movement, and this element of training should be carried through the whole season.

Coaches and teachers should ask this simple question; if a child were due to move up from Year One to Year Two and they knew the start of the alphabet and the end of the alphabet but did not know the middle part of the alphabet, should they go up to the next grade or should they be held back until they know the full alphabet?

There is no harm in going back to basics and training for purpose and fun. It enables coaches to be successful, and their students will continue to play because they are continually learning and enjoying themselves.

Ken Baldwin (Dip. App Science, Dip. Facility and Recreation Management, Diploma Frontline Management) is a personal trainer and workplace assessor  and trainer. Ken is a national and international presenter with over 25 years’ experience in the fitness industry, including a military background as a physical training instructor in the Royal Australian Air Force. Ken lectures and writes for several fitness magazines and is the director of QPEC, a company that specialises in products, education and training workshops for the fitness industry. Ken can be contacted at

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