Athletic Development at the Ultimate Coaches and Players Conference

author - melissa witmer conference strength and conditioning

I recently gave a talk at the Ultimate Coaches and Players Conference in Boston.  My talk was entitled Athletic Development: Helping Youth Athletes Build a Foundation for Long Term Success.  I took a holistic approach to the topic, talking about the physical, the psychological, and the motor skills component of coaching.

Below is something resembling a transcript of the talk.  It’s not the real thing, but is based on my preparation notes and my memory.  This is kinda like my talk without the tangents, “ums”, and audience questions.  This will be a long read, but worth your time.

The discussion with the audience is always the most fun part for me.  I’m sorry that’s kind of impossible to include here.  But blogs are cool because we can have a great discussion in the comments.  I’d love to hear from you!

Athletic Development: Helping Youth Athletes Build a Foundation for Long Term Success

Hey everyone,

I’m really excited to be here at this conference talking to all coaches. It’s an exciting time in our sport. As ultimate gains more exposure this will hopefully lead to more participants. But as the sport grows, no matter what’s online, on TV, or on YouTube, it’s the coaches who are going to have the largest influence on how kids learn to play the game and on the culture of the sport.

Today’s talk is entitled Athletic Development: Helping Youth Athletes Build a Foundations for Long Term Success.  Originally, the talk was going to focus on the physical preparation of our athletes.  But in preparing the talk, I realized I have some other ideas that I really want to discuss and get some feedback from you guys.  So I can’t promise that this talk is well organized, but I promise you it will be interesting.  And I primise that I will give you ideas that you can apply in your very next practice.

I’ve actually got three somewhat unconnected ideas I want to talk about. So maybe you can think of this as three mini-talks. We’re going to be talking about the body, psychology, and motor skills.  So maybe we can think of this as a holistic approach to athletic development.

So here we go.  Three 15 minute talks and 2 applicable items per topic:

Part 1: The Body

The athletic development of and athlete can be thought of as having three parts in a pyramid.  The base of the pyramid is basic movement skill.  The middle of the pyramid is a players general athleticism- their fitness and general strength.  At the top of the pyramid we put sport specificity- skills and sport specific strength and conditioning.

A problem we are now seeing is that young athletes today are starting sports specialization too early and missing some of the foundational fitness and movement skills they need in order to participate safely in sport.  As kids spend more of their recreational time indoors and in front of computer screens, they are spending less time outside experimenting with how their bodies move.  They are spending less time climbing, throwing things, running, jumping, and playing with movement.  It’s not that kids aren’t doing these things at all, but the amount of time they spend in these activities is decreasing significantly and this has a long term impact on their athletic development.

Several strength and conditioning coaches that have over 15 years of experience working with youth athletes will say that the movement skill of the athletes they are working with is deteriorating.  And these are strength and conditioning coaches who are working with high school athletes who are serious about their sports.

So, what can you do with your team in the 8-12 weeks that you have with them to counter this cultural phenomenon? Not a whole lot. Just kidding. There are definitely some things we can do. But I think it’s also okay to recognize that you can’t fix everything, so don’t expect that of yourself.

The Warmup

Your teams warm up you can actually accomplish a lot to help your athletes become more aware of how their bodies work.  The warmup has a significant cumulative effect since you are doing it every day.  The purpose of the warmup is to get your athletes ready for practice.  But with the warmup you can also help athletes to increase balance, mobility, and coordination.

Use parts of the warmup for give your athletes movement puzzles to solve.  If you are already doing a dynamic warmup (a show of hands indicated almost 100% of coaches in attendance were using a dynamic warmup routine.  Hooray!) then you are already doing this.  I realize as a coach, that sometimes you have to simplify things.  so you likely give your kids a warmup routine and stick with it for the season.  What you may want to consider is progressing some of your mobility drills or adding something new at the end or the warmup each practice.  A lot of walking mobility drills can be progressed simply by doing them backwards.  It is amazing how much more difficult a backwards lunge walk is than a forward lunge walk.  Since the athlete cannot see where they are going, it increases proprioceptive demand.  Another thing you can do with stationary mobility drills is to have them attempt these movements with the eyes closed.

Landing Mechanics

A second activity to incorporate into your warmups are a few drills to focus on landing mechanics.  Proper landing mechanics are an important skill related to injury prevention.

(Thanks again to my volunteers who were willing to jump around on stage!)

First on 2 legs

Tell the athletes to jump up as high as they can and land in the same place they took off from.

Some things to look for:

1.  Can the athlete control where they land? Try this with three or four jumps in a row.  Often the athlete will lose a bit of control and move slightly forward or to the side.

2.  Does the athlete land on a balanced base of support.  Many kids will land with their feet very close together.

3.  Does the athlete have the same amount of knee bend upon landing as they do at takeoff?  If an athlete bends their knees significantly more than they do upon takeoff or if they cannot land standing up when they jump as high as they can, they are lacking the strength to absorb the force of their own body weight.  This athlete needs to get to the weight room pronto.

4.  Are the athletes knees tracking in line with the toes.  If the athlete’s knees are caving inward, this could be a lack of coordination but likely indicates a lack of glute strength.  Consider adding Cook Hip Lifts to the end of the warmup if this is a problem for a lot of your athletes.

On 1 Leg

My on stage participants did the bound and stick drill.  The purpose of this drill is to see if the athlete can absorb the force of their own landing without extra hopping. Being able to absorb the force of ones own body weight is important for agility.  Changing of direction is basically absorbing lateral force on one leg and then pushing it in another direction.

This is a great drill because as the athlete becomes more proficient, they can make the drill more difficult by jumping more and more explosively.  This drill can also be progressed to doing the bound and stick.

For those of you who could not see the stage demo, here is the bound and stick drill in action with some high schoolers in Chapel Hill:


Incorporating a few of these drills as part of your warm up can help you athletes learn better body awareness. These drills have a cumulative effect. You may not notice a difference on the field right away, but if you watch the way your athletes move at the beginning of the season versus the end of the season, you will see the difference.


Immediate Application Points:

1. Learn how to do a dynamic warmup if that is not already part of your practice.  Change up some of your dynamic warmup drills occasionally by having your kids try one or two of them backwards or with eyes closed after their normal warmup.

2. Add a jumping mechanics drill at the end of the warmup a few times per week.  Start with the 2 feet jumping drill, landing in exactly the same place in the athletic position.  Then progress to multiple jumps from two feet.  One one foot, start with the bound and stick. Progress to the bound and return.

Part 2: The Psychology

Motivation comes in two basic flavors.  Some people are motivated to achieve success while others are motivated to avoid failure.

Studies in sports psychology repeatedly show that athletes who report high achievement motivation perform better, especially under pressure, than athletes who report motivation to avoid failure.

What influence can coaches have in helping athletes develop the more favorable attitude of achievement motivation?

How do the way we do drills encourage our athletes to create a perspective of achievement motivation versus the motivation to avoid failure?

In my experiences as an athlete and in my observations, coaches seem to resort to the motivation to avoid failure as the default motivation.

Influencing psychology in drill design

Psychology 1. Doing the drill until we complete ten passes in a row.

How many of you have used this phrase or something like it? What do kids focus on in this drill? The focus is on avoiding being the person who breaks the streak.  It encourages avoiding failure.

What else inevitably ends up happening? The focus of attention, the pressure, ends up being mostly upon the athlete who has the least skill. Now, we could have the argument over whether or not this is good.  We do want to train athletes to perform under pressure. But in this scenario, we are applying more pressure to some athletes than others.  We are applying the most pressure to the least skilled athletes and very little pressure to those who find the drill to be easy.

Other unintended consequences:  you, as the coach, lose control of how long the drill will take.  Have you ever done a “ten in a row” drill on a very windy day with unskilled players?  Not a good plan!  As the drill goes on too long, kids inevitably lose focus or get frustrated.

Psychology 2. Doing the drill 20 times and seeing how many passes we complete.

Or let’s see how many passes we can complete in the next three minutes. Or, out of the next 15 tries, let’s see how many we can complete. This changes the tone of the drill.  Now we are focused on what we CAN do, not on what we can’t do.  

We also shift the focus from the least skilled players to the most skilled players.  For the team to be more successful in the drill, the skilled players need to complete their trials.

Furthermore this turns the process into a team process. You can still have competition, but competing against the teams own past performance in similar situations. This method can also give you numerically measurable proof of progress. If this weeks the team completed 15 out of 20 trials in a drill and last week they only complete 10, they can see definite progress.  You can also evaluate the difficulty of drills this way. If the success rate is above 90%, this is likely not an appropriate drill for learning purposes because it is too easy.  If the success rate is 30%, the drill is probably too advanced.

This way of doing drills still requires performing under pressure. Unlike the 10 in a row method and doing it until you succeed, you get one shot at your best effort and that’s it. This is more similar to game time situation.


Re-framing Failure

I would like to call BS on the phrase “Perfect practice makes perfect.” Mastery of a motor skill, or any skill, is hard won through deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is focused practice that actually involves a lot of mistakes.

I think that we as coaches can teach our athletes to be more okay with making mistakes.  Not only is it OK to make mistakes, but it is desirable. To improve a skill quickly, you need to find the edge of your skill level. The edge of your skill level is where mistakes are likely to happen.

For example, how many of you have ever run the “go to” drill? What is the purpose of the go to drill? To go to the disc, right? What do players want to do? Slow down so that they don’t drop the disc. Whenever I do this drill with beginning to intermediate players, I tell them that out of ten passes, they should only catch 7 or 8. If they are catching 9-10, the are not going to the disc hard enough. Encourage your players to get out of their comfort zones.

If you give player permission to make mistakes you are empowering them to observe their mistakes with detachment, as teaching tools, not as a reflection of themselves or of their overall abilities.


Immediate Application Points:

1.  Instead of X in a row, X/20.

2.  Encourage making mistakes in some scenarios.


Part 3: The Motor Skills

My third mini-talk is about motor skills learning theory and how we apply it to throwing instruction.

 Variability in Practice

One of the most well studied and agreed upon tenants of motor skills research is the effect of variability in practice.  In the execution of a motor skill, the nervous system creates a motor plan and then it executes that plan. The plan includes the coordination of muscle groups and the intensity at which the muscles should be fired.  However, if you practice the same movement over again in quick succession, it is like the motor program is residual stored and you just execute the motor plan again.  In a sense, you have practiced creating the motor plan only once instead of twice.  This effect is called contextual interference.  To avoid contextual interference, some other motor skill should be done between trials of the motor skill that is being practiced.

For example, in many ultimate practices I’ve been a part of there is a routine of doing ten of each kind of throw.  Ten forehands, ten backhands, etc.  Instead of doing ten in a row, you will have a much better learning effect if every throw is different than the one that came before it.  When working with kids, you probably still needs some structure and “rules” about your throwing practice.  But you can make a simple change or doing three of each throw and rotating through your types of throws three times.  This gives you the same volume of throwing practice but much more variability in practice.

When players practice with more variability, the skills they gain are more robust and more transferable to new situations.  So even though the practice performance looks worse when done with more variability, the performance in games will be better among players who use more variability.


Internal vs External Focus of Attention

Internal Focus would be a focus upon what the body is doing.  “Snap your wrist” is the kind f instruction that elicits internal focus.  “External focus is about paying attention to the result of what the body is doing.  “Put as much spin on the disc as possible” is teh kind of instruction that elicits external focus of attention.

Gabrielle Wulf has done the most extensive research on the topic of focus of attention.  In her studies she found that not only did the external focus of attention work better than an internal focus of attention, but surprisingly, the farther away from the body the focus of attention is, the better the performance.

So for example in tennis players, performance of a serve is better when athletes are told to focus on the trajectory of the ball rather than the movement of the racket. Performance when told to focus on the end of the racket is better than when told to focus on the movement of the arm.

This perhaps surprising result is likely that the farther are focus of attention is from the body, the less likely we are able to exert conscious control over movements that should be controlled by the subconscious nervous system.

These effects were seen not only in performance of a motor skill already obtained but also in the performance of those learning of a new motor skill.

So in throwing practice beyond their very initial learning phases, as soon as possible we want athletes to shift their focus of attention outside of what their body is doing. Focus attention on the trajectory or spin of the disc, not on the flick of the wrist.


Immediate Application Points

1. In throwing practice, encourage your athletes to do something different with every throw.

2. Direct the focus to the trajectory of the disc NOT on what their body is doing.



So, we’ve just covered a ton of information in a very short amount of time.  I hope that I’ve been able to spark your interest in some new topics.  And I hope that you can take away a few things to try out with your team this upcoming season.

So as you may or may not know, I started a business, Ultimate Results, in order to provide educational resources for ultimate players. My largest endeavor so far has been The Ultimate Athlete Project which is a monthly membership website providing training programs for ultimate players. I have a lot of coaches in this site and I often get questions about how to apply the principles in The Ultimate Athlete Project or what I write about on my blog to the youth players.

So, I’m currently working on a new project.  It will be some sort of online resource for youth coaches. And now I am asking you, what kinds of things do you want to know? Of the topics I’ve touched on today, what are you dying to know more about? What is the main type of knowledge you are looking for but having trouble finding?

If you’re interested in being a part of this discussion and want to provide feedback as the project develops, feel free to send me an email with any ideas you have.  You can also sign up on the email list below to be informed about what’s going on as things progress.  (FYI, I have multiple email lists.  This one will be used ONLY for information about this youth resource project)