Teaching Younger Guards

| November 10, 2009 | 1 Comment

CGE Welcomes our newest regular contributor, Chelley Thelen.  In her first article, Chelley shares her experience working with younger (elementary and middle school) students.


One of the best things you can do for your high school guard program is to start training your members at a young age.  Successful football teams, for instance, often have successful middle school and rocket football programs that feed directly into their high school team.  However, teaching elementary and middle school aged children brings certain challenges that you may not think about with older teenagers.  Here are some tips for working with the under 14 set…

Appropriate Equipment Size

It’s unrealistic to expect a 10-year-old fifth grader who stands 4’8” to be able to spin a six foot or six and a half foot pole.  I have found that it’s best to make sure that the equipment you spin is small enough so that the child is spinning the flag and not the other way around.  The younger your team, the smaller you may have to go.  If you have a wide variety of sizes on your team, as I did in 2008, you may have to have more than one size flag on the field/floor.  You can do this so it isn’t obvious, but it will take some work on your part (and your sewing crew’s).  In order to pull this off so that the audience can’t tell they are spinning different sized poles, you need to size the flag proportionally.  I can’t stress this enough.  If most of your kids can spin six foot poles, but two of them need a smaller, five and half foot pole, you can NOT stick the same size flag on both poles.  For one thing, it won’t spin correctly.  Secondly, every single person in the audience will be able to tell, even non-guard people.  So, how do you fix that?  You make two different sizes.

Flags that go on six foot poles should generally be about 36” x 52.” To figure out how to make a flag for a five and a half foot pole, you do the old cross-multiply-and-divide trick from middle school math class.  You know the length of the flag will be 33” (because the length should almost always be exactly half of the pole).  To find the width, multiply 52 by 33, divide by 36.  Your flag silks for the five and a half foot poles should be 33” x 48.”  Silks for five foot poles should be 30” x 44.”  You’ll have to make two patterns, one for each size flag.

Limit or Eliminate Weapons

I do have some seventh and eighth graders who can competently spin weapon.  In my experience, I don’t let children under 12 spin weapon… in my guard, they just have to wait.  I’m just too afraid that they might get hurt.  If you do choose to use weapons, please keep the following in mind:

  • reserve this as a privilege for the older kids (like, seventh graders and up)
  • make sure the kids you select for weapons line are strong enough and big enough (physically and emotionally) to handle the responsibility of weapons
  • I don’t recommend tossing anything over doubles – you won’t be rewarded for it under the Regional A or novice sheets anyway, so no point in introducing possible injury
  • make sure you are spending adequate time in basics block so they are properly trained
  • if you are teaching really young kids (third through sixth graders), it’s probably best to just wait on introducing weapons
  • if a child shows any signs of overuse or tendonitis, take them off the weapon line immediately… at least temporarily; their safety is the most important concern
  • remember that you are trying to train and recruit for the long term- be careful, train well, and use common sense when it comes to teaching young kids how to spin weapon

Keep It Fun

Positive coaching is important no matter what level you teach at.  However, when you are dealing with younger children, you have to be even more careful to set a good, positive example, and check yourself from losing your patience or yelling.  You want these kids to stay in the activity for the long haul, so it’s important not to burn them out at a young age.  In my experience, practices usually work better when they are short, manageable and fun.  When you do have longer practices (such as a Saturday, all day kind of thing), make sure they get frequent breaks and plenty of water.  You will probably have to tell them to drink and to sit down, as they may not realize they need it.

Try to have some fun non-guard time as well.  Do a pizza party, go to a fun park, etc.  A great thing to do is take the kids to watch your high school team practice (or an independent guard that rehearses near you).  Obviously, make sure you discuss etiquette rules ahead of time and clear it with the staff of the team you will be observing!  This is fun for them AND educational AND gets them excited for what their guard futures.  Win-win situation for everyone!

At this age, you want them to build friendships within the guard program.  One of the top reasons high school students give for not joining band or guard is because their friends aren’t in it.  By helping them forge friendships early on, you eliminate that barrier to recruitment.

Focus on Training

If you’ve worked with any WGI A Class guards in the last few years, you know what those sheets emphasize: training, training, training.  Why did the steering committees decide to focus so heavily in this area in the younger groups?  It’s because there were too many instructors/designers who were writing shows way beyond the ability of their teams, and kids were getting injured.  It was also affecting these guards’ capabilities of generating effect.  The art of basics block was getting lost.  If you’ve seen WGI A class, you know that even this beginning level is light years ahead of what elementary and middle school students can do.  In other words, it’s even more important for you to be writing easy, accessible work that can be cleaned in your limited rehearsal schedule and won’t hurt your kids.  Remember, in the Regional A and novice classes, effect is generated directly from excellence.  After my first year of teaching a middle school guard (ok, I’ll be honest… at Field Day of that first season!), I learned a pretty important lesson: Don’t write like you are aiming for Box 6 on the World class sheets.  Young kids cannot do it at this point.  Physically, they just can’t.  As I found out, you won’t be rewarded for it in your scores, if you compete.  Worst of all, it’s just going to end up with everyone – students, instructors, director, parents – frustrated with the whole thing.

Writing easy, basics-based work is actually much harder than it sounds, especially if you come from an Open or World class background as a performer and/or have only taught WGI/BOA/DCI guards.  The first year I taught a middle school guard, I’d go into critique after every show, and at every show I was told the work was too hard and I needed to make it easier.  So, we’d go home, and I’d change it to what I thought was easier, we’d go to the next show, and I’d get the same comments.  The problem was, my brain just didn’t know how to write that kind of work.  You may run into this problem, also.  If possible, go watch another elementary or middle school guard, or at least get some DVDs.  Seeing what was expected instead of being told about it was what allowed my mind to get past the “I have to write the most interesting work ever” block and start writing work that was appropriate for the level I was teaching.   This stage of the game is not about innovation or cool tricks… it’s about preparing and training these students so they have a good fundamental base going into high school.

Music, Costumes, and Other Design Elements

Musical selections for this level are generally about three or four minutes in length.  There’s a couple of advantages for choosing a soundtrack on the shorter side.  The show really doesn’t need to be any longer than that, and most young students won’t have the stamina to go much longer.  It also means less counts to clean.  I have had the most luck with music that is in a steady 4/4, has an easily discernible beat, and is at a moderate tempo (not too fast, not too slow…).

It is important to pick things that the students will like, that they are comfortable with, and are age appropriate.  For instance, there is a lot of music in the Top 40 right now that has a great beat, but with lyrics that parents might find completely inappropriate for their fourth graders to be listening to, much less performing.  I’ve never run into this problem, but I know someone else who did, and they ended up having to order the karaoke CD and the girls had to perform their routine without any lyrics at all to help them.  It was because the parents of some of the girls had issues with the lyrics. Your parents will also be happier if the costumes/uniforms fit well and are modest.  The same goes for hair and makeup and any other design element for your show.  This is important because you don’t want to upset their parents.  Assuming the reason you are planning the program for younger students is because you want to make your high school team stronger, then irritating parents when their children are nine years old doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Even more importantly, you want to be careful with your design choices because you want your students to be confident and proud to be in your group.  In many ways, I think this is most crucial for middle schoolers.  I’m sure we can all remember those awkward years, trying to figure out our place in this world, and wanting to fit in.  They are especially self-aware at this age, and value the opinions of their friends and peers, so it is essential that you are not giving their peers any ammunition.

Keep the Big Picture in Mind

Try to remember the big scheme of things when you get frustrated.  You are trying to create wonderful color guard performers who love the activity and stay in it for years to come.  Starting programs at the middle school and elementary school levels is great for your students and for your high school program.  Work closely with the other staff in your color guard program, and remember that all of this hard work now will pay off a thousand times over as the years go on!  In addition, giving children a positive focus in their life during the tween and early teen years is a great way to teach them about commitment, hard work, self-esteem and all those other self-management skills that are so important to life in general.  And always remember that you are doing great things for your students and yourself by setting up a long-term color guard program for your school district!


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Category: Instruction, Recruitment/Auditions, Rehearsal Planning & Management, Teaching/Cleaning Routines, Teaching/Cleaning Routines, Team Management, Teambuilding

About the Author (Author Profile)

Chelley Thelen is the guard director at Pansophia Academy in Coldwater, Michigan. She marched for 13 seasons, including the Colts Drum & Bugle Corps from Dubuque, IA and Interplay Winterguard from Grand Rapids, MI. She has taught at all levels (elementary, middle school, high school and college) and all seasons (drum corps, winter guard and marching band), as well as having worked as a clinician and consultant. The upcoming winter 2010 season marks her 15th season as an instructor and designer. In addition to her performance, instruction and choreography experience, Chelley is a skilled seamstress who designs and sews most of the uniforms and silks for the guards she teaches. Besides color guard work, she is self-employed as a freelance writer and graphic designer. Chelley graduated from Grand Valley State University and currently resides in Michigan with her husband, daughters and shih tzu.

Comments (1)

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  1. Taylor Alameter says:

    Thank you so much! I have been having trouble keeping everyone under control, because our school has a huge marching band and color guard, and this will help a lot! Also, do you know of any gym floor coverings that would be good for indoor practice?

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