Few sayings wrap hypocrisy and poor communication so neatly into simple words as, "Do as I say, not as I do." You have hopefully never heard a coach, teacher, or fitness professional actually say this statement to individuals or groups with whom they are working, yet the poor leadership and communication that it conveys are seen far too often, especially in youth activities and sports.
It is no secret that today’s youth are more sedentary, overweight, and at risk for lifelong ailments. They need mentors who are going to lead by example and help them develop positive relationships with physical activity that will make it a habitual part of their lives. As with adult clients, building good rapport with youth clients is the foundation for success, but the steps to develop that good rapport take a different path when working with youth.
Unlike adults, youth are less likely to engage in regular activity just because they believe it is good for them. Youth need to believe in the person who is leading them or they won’t stick with the program for long. Degrees and credentials are not as important to youth as the person who is actually leading them. They will respond to youth fitness leaders who take the time to get to know them, provide clear and consistent communication (verbal and non-verbal), model the behaviors they are teaching, and treat them respectfully.
It can take years to become a truly great youth fitness leader. Here are some steps you can implement right away to improve your interactions with your youth, and adult, clients:
- Respect each participant as an individual: Youth do not look at the world the way adults do, but their perspectives shape who they are and how they will respond to you as a leader. Try to learn who they are and what it is that motivates them. Taking this step will help show them that you care about who they are and how they are doing.
- Promote self-efficacy through goal achievement: Previous positive experiences with exercise is a key indicator of future exercise program adherence. By helping youth set and achieve meaningful goals, you can help them develop self-efficacy that they can in fact succeed at physical activity.
- Use clear communication to enhance success: By providing clear instructions, you can help participants understand what is expected of them and allow them to experience success. You can further enhance their performance by providing clear, concise and timely feedback.
- Listen and respond to feedback and concerns: Responding to the feedback and concerns of your youth participants will show that you are listening, and that you value their input. This does not mean that you should change your program every time there is a concern or negative feedback. While that might be the result on occasion, the real value lies in the ability of the youth fitness leader to acknowledge the youth’s concerns and to provide him or her with an understanding of that aspect of the program to enhance participation.
- Model the roles that you want youth to adopt: You do not need to be a perfect role model, but you should be actively involved in the physical activity. If you are physically unable to engage in the activity, use key moments to demonstrate critical skills for the activity that you can demonstrate. This is the moment to show them to, “Do as I do.”
- Make sure your non-verbal and verbal communication is aligned: It is estimated that 55% to 90% of all communication is non-verbal. When telling youth that they have done a good job, be sure that your body language is conveying the same message. Actions such as thumbs-up, clapping, nodding, and pats on the back have all been shown to be perceived by youth as positive reinforcement.
- Make every session fun and challenging: From toddlers to older adults, people are much more likely to become and stay engaged in activities that they find to be fun and appropriately challenging. Be sure to plan fun activities as part of every session and come prepared with modifications for activities that don’t take off as planned.
Without good youth fitness leaders, today’s youth will become tomorrow’s special populations clients. By helping them to rediscover the fun of being physically active, you can provide them with a foundation for an active and healthful life.
You can learn more about how to deliver fun and engaging youth fitness programs in person at my ACE Fitness Symposium session, "What Happened to the 'Fit' in Youth Fitness?" Register here and I look forward to tackling this important issue together.