Ask the Expert: Dr Jonathan Hughes (University of Gloucestershire)

Jonathan is a Senior Lecturer in Strength and Conditioning in the School of Sport & Exercise at the University of Gloucestershire. Jonathan has published many international scientific peer-review publications over the last decade related to youth athletes, strength and conditioning, sport science and coaching. Jonathan is also a UKSCA Accredited Strength and Conditioning Coach and has worked across multiple sports, mainly rugby, for the last 16 years and currently runs his own coaching business, Carbon Conditioning, which is responsible for delivering the Athletic Development programme at the Haberdashers’ Monmouth Schools and works as an S&C coach with multiple youth athletes across the UK.

What has led you into youth sport?

Growing up I played a lot of sport, most of it informal in the parks with my friends. This then stimulated an interest in being the fittest, fastest out of my friends and how best to go about achieving these goals. After school, I decided to go to Uni to study Sport Science at the University of Chichester where I really developed a passion for training and coaching. This continued into an MSc at the University of Roehampton, where I was fortunate enough to get some intern work at Harlequins RFC with their academy and under the guidance of Paul Pook and Dave Bell, this is where I saw how nurturing and coaching young talent could be such a rewarding role in the emerging S&C industry. Since then I have spent most of my coaching career working with youth based athletes through the TASS scheme in the UK and with a variety of youth athletes when I was based in New Zealand undertaking my PhD.

What has been your biggest influence in your practice in youth sport?

This is difficult to pinpoint to a single influence, however its definitely a case that the drive to work and continue involvement in youth sport is from the reactions and comments from the children themselves and their parents, coaches and teachers. Seeing the positive impact on a child’s movement and therefore well-being, is worth the effort. Having an environment that is positive, encouraging and safe makes the children and parents happy to keep returning and that is how we make the progressions. Also, the children, when engaged at a deep level also then become the creators of elements of the programme, they take ownership and come up with warm-up ‘flows’ or even just fun names for exercises.

What is your particular area of interest?

My interest definitely lies in movement. I thrive on seeing kids move well in all aspects of training and sport. I’m a firm believer in addressing the movement competencies of children to lay a solid foundation, before developing any additional strength/speed to a child’s capacity. I try to aim for all children to show good levels of athleticism as they may move in and out of various sports as they mature and their interests change, a child who loves rugby at 7, may be a basketball star of the future by 16 and a child who loves swimming in school, may thrive on triathlons as an adult. In these cases, we are responsible for giving them the movement capabilities (i.e. the tools) to switch and simply develop the technical know-how. So, to sum up my area of interest I would say it’s in Athletic Development.

How do you think this particular area applies to youth athletes?

When children move well in general it translates into more complex sporting actions in a more straightforward manner. This then allows them to sample more sports with confidence as they will have the athletic skillset to try the varying demand of novel activities. This has been mentioned to me by PE staff of sport scholars who would only do their sport e.g. cross country running, but after being involved in structured movement development in the programmes have engaged and exceled in new team sports that previously they avoided.

What advice would you give to coaches working with youth athletes?

My advice for coaches working with youth athletes would be to understand the basic principles of developing the physical, psychological and social factors for youth athletic development. Then engage in literature to develop their communication skills, as often these can be overlooked as a coach believes its the technical elements of coaching they have to be excellent at (which they do) but kids see the person first and exercises second. The skill of communicating with children is vital into fostering the trust needed in the coach-athlete relationship to enhance engagement and adherence to the programme. Children don’t like boring things, ‘make it less boring’ is a phrase I believe in.

Can you recommend any particular resources for youth sport coaches?

I would highly recommend following Dr Craig Harrison out of AUT New Zealand and the podcast “The Athlete Development Show” that he runs, it covers such a good range of coaching information that I would say its invaluable to those working with young athletes.

In addition, the Reducing Injury in Sport with Kids (RISK) project is a fantastic resource for grassroots coaches working with youth athletes, which includes free online materials and videos. The project is a collaboration with some of our partners in Spain and the Czech Republic to raise awareness of movement competencies for coaches to allow kids to lessen their risk of injury and therefore enjoy participating in their sport more.

Lastly, I will give a mention here to our BSc and MSc S&C degrees at the University of Gloucestershire. In our courses, we have developed strong links with local schools and junior teams to allow our students the opportunity to coach children and young athletes, so developing an appreciation for both the science and application of working in a youth environment.

Where can people find out more about you and your work? (Social media links, websites etc.)

For further information on our work then you can find me on twitter: @J_d_hughes, instagram (though I need to be better at this): @carbon_conditioning, ResearchGate or the University of Gloucestershire website.

Thanks to John for his time and expertise!