Coaching Young Athletes
Encouragement and support is the key
Bruce Tulloh explains how to be successful in helping young athletes achieve their athletic goals.
The key to successful coaching of young athletes, whether by parents or professionals is to tackle each phase of development differently, according to its context. We would all like our children to be Olympic champions and the worst thing you can do is pressurise your children with your own dream of glory and then blame them for not realising it. At each stage in life the developing boy and girl have their own reasons for getting involved in sport. It may be a desire for approval, or a wish to make a mark in his or her peer group. More likely, it comes from discovering an aptitude for the sport, which brings a modicum of success. We all need to find things we can do well. Self-esteem feeds on achievement, and sport at club level is an excellent way of doling out spoonfuls of achievement on a regular basis.
Ages 7 to 11: Avoiding "little league syndrome"
We hear of football clubs sending scouts to primary school matches, and the "pushy parent" phenomenon - or what the Americans call "little league syndrome" - can appear at a very early stage. But at this age sport is just play, and it does not matter who wins. Children need exercise: they need to develop their bodies and their brains, and the best way of doing this is by having fun at the same time. Exercise also offers a way of learning about the world and how it works. Sport, like life, has its rules, its constraints and its set boundaries. Like life, it tries to be fair but does not always succeed. The child learns the hardest but most valuable lesson of all - that they have limits. The parent has to find out what the child can and cannot do well. They must offer the child lots of opportunities and help them to select the ones which will best help them grow as a person. The "Tiger Woods model" is not a good one to follow, because this involves a parent imposing a regime at an age when the child is not in a position to make a choice. For every success this model produces, there are hundreds of frustrated children who are being blamed for not living up to their parents' expectations. During the primary school years, the child should be encouraged to run, but not forced to do so. A common reason for running is to be like Mum and Dad, and this is fine. If there is a local club, which caters for under 9s and under 11s, encourage them to go along, as long as the regime there encourages variety and non-specialisation.
How far should a child run at this age?
Basically, they can run for as long as they want, as long as it is at their own pace. The biggest danger for modern children, particularly city kids, is lack of exercise, producing a downward spiral where inactivity leads to obesity, which makes them less inclined to do anything. Long runs on tarmac are not a good idea, but there is no reason why they should not go out training for 50 or 60 minutes, as long as this time is broken up. Children have the common sense to slow down or walk when they feel tired. A typical pattern for a club evening might be:
The emphasis in this phase should always be on variety. If a child is doing some kind of sport four times a week, that is fine, but the four days might include football, swimming, judo or cycling as well as running.
Ages 11 to 13: Resist the urge to specialise
At the beginning of secondary school, the child's choices are generally guided by parents and teachers. The urge to specialise in one particular thing must be resisted: all the evidence is that those who keep up a variety of sports up to age 14 are more robust and less fragile than those who specialise early. Early specialisation may bring short-term success, but is that really what you want? At this age there will be a huge difference between early and late developers. The arbitrary nature of the age-group system may lead to immature just-11-year-olds running against over developed 14-year-olds. Coaches and parents must be careful about throwing children into competition before they are ready for it, but they should not avoid competition entirely.
People develop by overcoming challenges, and the art of coaching lies in finding the right sort of challenge for each youngster. My own three children all became successful runners. My son Clive was a slow developer, like me, but always wanted to be a runner. When he was 11, he wanted to run in the county under 15 championships. I said I didn't think it was a good idea, but he said: "So what if I come last, it won't kill me". He came 72nd out of 75 and it didn't kill him. He has a strong drive to succeed and trained hard through his secondary school years, getting up to national class on the track when he was in the sixth form and eventually winning a British Universities title.
My twin daughters Katherine and JoJo had a huge amount of natural ability and by an accident of birth were at the top of their age group. As first-years they completely demolished the local opposition. In some ways it is harder to coach the very talented: you can't dangle the carrot of success under their noses, because they have already eaten it.
With the majority of kids of this age, the right approach is to encourage team spirit, in a club or a school team. This enables the slower developers to get satisfaction from the team success. The more successful fast developers must be shown that they need the others if they are going to win their match or get a medal in the relay. With some short-term goals ahead of them, training should be done once or twice a week, but integrated with all the other physical activities such as games and school physical education (PE) lessons.
Ages 13 to 15: Taking social life into account
During this phase the child has a far bigger share in the decision-making process. The other feature of this age group is that social activities have to be considered. The running has to be handled in such a way that it does not conflict directly with the other developing interests. Again, if there is a local club with a good team spirit, it will provide the support and companionship, which is so important at this age. By this time, it will be clearer where the child's talents lie. However, the really talented track runner may be needed for the football or the hockey team in the winter, when most runners are doing cross-country. This should not be a cause for worry, because some running training can be added to the football, and there is plenty of time to get fit for the track season if you start training in March. Training can now become more organised, but other sports can still be kept in.
A typical pattern might be two nights a week of club training, plus a Saturday race, to which can be added one or two more steady runs on the days when there are no other sporting commitments. It is important at this age that someone keeps a training diary, so that the youngster's state of fitness is clear, and training can be increased gradually year by year. Training will not yet be all-year-round. The growing body has to be released from the stresses of continuous training, even though the training may be beneficial. Natural breaks will occur in the school holidays, with family visits, skiing trips and travels abroad, and neither the athlete nor the parent should worry unduly about this. A vital point to appreciate is that training too little will not prevent the athlete from eventually reaching full potential, but pushing the athlete too hard in training or competition might well do so.
A highly motivated athlete with several years of running experience may be able to handle a lot of training, but this won't suit everybody. The highest-ranked athlete I have coached, Richard Nerurkar, who went on to be Britain's best runner at 10,000 metres and the marathon, was running 50 miles a week when he was 14 but he also stopped running in the summer when he was working for his exams. Tegia Loroupe, a world record-holder for the marathon, was jogging 10 kilometres to school every morning when she was 11 and another 10k in the evening - but this was normal in rural Kenya.
My own daughters were running 20 miles a week at age 14, which meant roughly four miles a day, five days a week, with two of those days including some kind of speed work. This was enough to enable them to run under 4mins 40sces for the 1500 metres at 14 and get down to 4mins 25secs the following year. This is also the level of training I used for my school teams in this age group. The pattern was normally to build up endurance in the autumn, with some road relays and school matches as the target, and then to focus on cross-country, building up to the English Schools races in March before turning to track training in the summer.
Age 16 and over: Relating training to ability
From this point on the parent is a consultant, not a dictator. The level of training is related to the ability of the athlete. At sixth form level, a distance runner might be running 30 to 40 miles a week, enough to bring out the talent and carry on with 'A' levels. A really talented athlete may be on the fringe of international level at 17. In this case, some adjustment may be made to allow more time for training. On the whole, it is better to stay on in education as long as possible, because sport and education can be combined more easily than sport and work. With a year off and three or four years of college, the athlete has a real chance to develop his/her full potential.
On the other hand, parents must accept that puberty brings huge psychological as well as physical changes, and priorities will change. My own daughters, who at 15 were beating Kelly Holmes, had lost interest a year later. Art, Life and Literature became much more important to them, and as parents we had to accept their choice. Although we lost them as athletes, we kept them as daughters and friends. They went on to become happy and successful in other ways, and I am sure that the discipline and the self-confidence they gained from their running has helped them in later life.
So, I say to parents: "Enjoy each phase in your child's athletic career but keep things in proportion: it is their sport and their life.
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