3 Things I Learned in 2017 That Made Me a Better Coach

3 Ways My Coaching of Young Athletes Improved During 2017

No matter how long we have been coaching or how good we think we are at it, we should all be able to identify a number of things that we have learned during the last 12 months.

Below I identify three lessons learned during 2017 that led me to become a better coach. Hopefully they can help you too.

Lesson 1: The Effectiveness of External Cues

Hugely influenced by the work of Nick Winkelman, during 2017 I became convinced of the power of external coaching cues.

External cues are those that focus attention away from the body or are targeted beyond the body on an external object. Internal cues focus attention on an individual’s own body movement or muscle action.

Research indicates that while internal cues are very commonly used by coaches, it is external cues that are more likely to promote motor skill learning and performance improvement in an athlete.

This means, for example, that when trying to teach the long jump arm action, it is better to use the external cue of “Touch the sky” rather than the internal cue of “Stretch your arms up above your head”.

After learning this, I saw noticeable differences in my athletes’ response to a cue when I used an external focus in preference to an internal focus

For example, when I was supervising a drill that required the athletes to run with high knees while holding a pool noodle above their head, I saw little improvement when I used the cue “Stretch your arms up” but an astonishing postural improvement when I changed this cue to “Lift the pool noodle to the sky”.

External cues are more effective.

In 2018 I will be experimenting with creating more external cues and I encourage you to do so too. Let me know what you come up with!

For a more detailed discussion of coaching cues, see Nick Winkelman’s presentation “What We Say Matters” on SlideShare by clicking HERE.

See an article that I wrote in the June 2017 newsletter about coaching cues entitled “How to Use Coaching Cues Most Effectively” by clicking HERE.

Lesson 2: The Motivational Effect of Movement Challenges as Strength Training

During 2017 I virtually rid my sessions of conventional body-weight exercises such as push ups and sit ups for more complex and interesting whole-body strength exercises.

Animal movements and other whole-body challenges dominated. Strength-based obstacle courses proved extremely popular with the young athletes.

For example, one such activity saw the athletes bear crawl on hands and feet through an obstacle course that they created themselves, staying within the boundaries of the lane lines, and avoiding touching any of the obstacles. (See image below).

Strength Obstacle Course

Compared to conventional body-weight exercises, these movement challenges reduce the need for monotonous repetition and have more scope to be made into an exciting challenge or game.

Movement challenges are more motivating.

For ideas about movement challenges I highly recommend Greg Thompson’s Twitter page  which currently contains YouTube videos outlining nearly 200 such activities entitled “Move of the Day”.

Here is an example:

Follow Greg Thompson on Twitter or subscribe to his YouTube page.

In 2018 try to build your repertoire of movement challenges, as I will be. I would love to hear what you come up with!

Lesson 3: Younger Kids Like Games; Older Kids Prefer Challenges

At the conclusion of a coaching session I will routinely ask the kids what they most enjoyed.

I noticed an interesting trend in 2017.

Up to the age of about 10, the kids tended to pick the game-based activities as their favourite parts of the session. Older kids tended to cite the more challenging aspects of a session.

For example, the younger kids were more likely to select a tag game whereas the older athletes might select a difficult strength-based obstacle course.

I found this really interesting and informative when it came to planning sessions for different age groups.

It made me prioritise games when coaching the younger age groups and ensure sufficient challenge when coaching the older kids.

It reinforced to me that coaches need to understand the characteristics of the age group with which they are working and deliver activities accordingly. The focus and the content of the session has to change with the audience.

Consider the characteristics of the kids you coach.

In 2018, think extensively about the characteristics of the kids you coach and plan sessions to suit them. Include lots of games for those groups consisting of kids ten years and under, and sufficient challenge for those kids eleven years and older. Let me know how it goes!


In summary, my key lessons during 2017 were:

  1. External coaching cues are more effective.
  2. Movement challenges are more motivating as strength training.
  3. Younger athletes like games while older athletes prefer challenge.

What did you learn during 2017?

List three lessons that you learned as a coach, instructor or sports parent during 2017. I would love to hear what they were. Let me know by using the below contact details.


Darren Wensor is a sports development professional, coach educator, specialist coach of young athletes and founder of the blog coachingyoungathletes.com. Learn more about him here and connect with him on TwitterFacebookLinkedin, Instagram, Anchor or via email.

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