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Coaching – It’s Kids Stuff!

Here in New Zealand I coach quite a few kids. I’m sort of the Team TBB of kids coaching as I seem to get all the kids who for one reason or another don’t quite ‘fit’ with their local clubs, or perhaps they have barriers to joining a squad – so usually they or their parents hunt me out and ask me to help them; some of them a little and some of them a lot!

I just can’t turn away a kid when they email me and ask about improving their performance – I don’t charge any of them, it’s just what you do isn’t it? It’s my duty within a sport that has given me so much pleasure to give back – and that’s what I try to do. And I’m sure there are hundreds more just like me here in New Zealand in all manner of sports – trying to help kids enjoy the buzz of being involved!

Some people volunteer at races, others organize those races, I love to work with kids toward their goals and see them grow as healthy young members of the Tri Community along the way.

The ‘coaching’ I end up giving varies from maybe just a Facebook message from time to time advising them on what races are best for their development, and for others it’s a full on plan written toward an event or long term goal.

I read the Docs ‘Looking for Clues’ article on Kids Play and it really got me thinking about what I believe to be important in kids coaching in triathlon, if you haven’t read it here’s the link it’s a great piece:

http://www.teamtbb.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1534%3Alooking-for-clues-&catid=37%3Anews-headlines&Itemid=17

The one thing I continually find in coaching youngsters is that it’s really not that complicated! We as human beings naturally look for answers whether in our professional careers or the games we play for recreation. But if we can remind ourselves from time to time why we actually participate – it really does simplify the coach / athlete relationship and make planning training and executing racing a whole lot less complicated!

I’ve never met a youngster yet who started triathlon, or any other sport for that matter, because they wanted to make a living off it! But at some point along the way that inevitably creeps in.

There seems to be a continuum – first kids take part because it’s just fun, they enjoy the sport for sports sake, enjoy participating with their friends and the sense of achievement that comes from finishing an event.

Then comes the desire to be the best they can be – usually fostered by improving results amongst other things.

And at some point dreams of making a living from the sport they love inevitably manifest.

I usually meet them when they’re at the second stage of development – wanting to be the best they can be. And over time I’ve come to realize the hardest part of the coaching process is keeping them at that stage.

Last weekend I had the honor of ringing one of my young athletes and informing her she’d been selected to race for New Zealand at the Elite World Championships in the U19 division, later this year in London.

The biggest decision for me was whether she is too young or not – she’s currently 15 years of age but capable of taking down most girls a couple years older than her.

I’ve seen so many athletes performing at National and World level at a young age – just to vanish from the sport within 18 months of their ‘break through’ season.

Why is that?

Whether it’s injury or burnout – we seem to lose so many talented young athletes from our sport.

If I think about the ‘training’ that I set for my kids – its basic theme is fun! I don’t get overly technical with intervals, or heart rates etc. We focus on what makes the young athlete happy and try and incorporate that as much as possible.

The young girl I talked about above – her training is far from technical! She does something every day, she swims with a squad, does a couple of fast runs per week – maybe a Fartlek session. And rides her bike with her dad and the local club time trials. The only ‘technical’ thing I’ve done with her is introducing a little track racing to hone her sprint savy at the end of the run.

Some coaches of young kids are far more technical than this – heart rates, power meters and all manner of other ‘stuff’. I just mentor the kids, give them someone to talk to about their worries, suggest strategies to deal with their worries, and above all else encourage them to do what makes them happy and healthy.

The chance of any of my kids developing into a World Class athlete? Well it’s slim – but what I hope to develop in them is a love for sport, and a life long engagement in physical activity that will enable them to achieve other goals in their life.

But above all else I want them to be happy with their achievements whether in sport, family, work or just life in general.

So my first ‘covenant’ of coaching kids is simple – Keep it Fun.

Overly technical training programs just aren’t the go and will turn kids off, whether it’s because you’ve injured them or they’re just not mentally and emotionally developed enough to handle the day -to -day workload.

I encourage the kids I coach to find a swim squad they’re happy at, there are plenty out there with grumpy swim coaches who have been in the job too long. They may be great at tech instruction but I’d much rather have my kids in a squad they enjoy attending and look forward to seeing their friends at.

And that brings me to my second covenant of coaching youngsters – Keep it Social.

Triathlon is an individual sport and we struggle to retain youngsters compared to the lure of team sports such as Soccer, Rugby and Hockey.

The kids need a sense of belonging, and that is what is so important about the School Triathlon Setup. If you have time this is the GREATEST thing you could do for our sport and it’s future – volunteer within a local school to take a triathlon team and encourage them toward your local or national championships. Support the kids, make trainings fun, and give them something to look forwards to after a long day in the classroom!

I take a bunch of kids from a local school every Tuesday morning and Thursday afternoon – we have such a great relationship and they all love coming to training.

Some school-aged students are a little embarrassed to be associated with a ‘fringe sport’ such as triathlon. The fear of ridicule is enough to keep them from trainings. But by keeping it social, and buddying them up with someone else, you give them strength in numbers. Girls especially want to be ‘accepted’, Sports can be all about belonging — being part of the group — with team names, uniforms etc.

My kids race as a team here in New Zealand – and they’re developing quite a reputation at the races! The young athletes are proud to wear their colors and it reflects in their results.

Preventing injury is one area we as coaches really can make a difference. There’s a reason your National Federations organize short sharp fast racing for kids – To keep them from getting injured. Ultimately they want to have fast kids coming through the system to win them medals later in life – And that means not injuring them at an early age!

Have the kids race developmentally appropriate distances. Far too often I go to events to support my kids and see 12 to 14 year olds racing Sprint Distance events or even longer?! They finish the run bent at the hips looking like they’ve just done an Ironman…it makes me cringe!

If an injury doesn’t take them out of the sport the pressure from a parent that’s pushed them into that distance usually will.

Let them race in the races that are put on for them.

We have a 3:9:3 series here in New Zealand – 300 meters swim, 9km bike, and 3km run.

It’s the perfect distance for these young triathletes as not only are they learning all the attributes of a successful triathlete – fast transitions, speedy swim starts and exits and everything else the Brownlee’s have taught us are important in the new age of Olympic Racing.

But they’re also able to race week after week – further supporting my first covenant – keep it fun!

I’m new to this parenting thing – and I’m sure I’ll fall into the odd trap along the way before Lola-Rose is old enough to stand on her own two feet.

I often wonder why I developed into the athlete I am today. As a school aged kid I was nothing spectacular?! I was lucky some years if I finished in the top 100 of the Inter-Schools Cross Country Champs.

There’s obviously some part of what I’ve achieved that is down to genetics…..

But what I did learn at an early age was that I needed to take ownership of my situation if I wanted to do something. If I wanted to go to swim squad in the morning – I had to make a coffee for my father first and get him up at 6am.

No coffee – no swim squad!

At the races now nothing makes me cringe more than seeing a parent yelling instructions to a bewildered teenager in transition;

“Helmet…Helmet…HELMET!!!”

Kids need to learn for themselves, they need to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Shouting instructions whilst they’re at that level of arousal already – it just clouds the situation even more.

I like to prepare the kids I coach so I can take a step back on race day and let them discover for themselves what’s needed to perform. We’ll go over their mistakes afterwards once the adrenalin is out of the equation. As stress levels go up – the cues the young athlete can take in decrease….they see less and less.

If you’re yelling all manner of useless info at them and they’re already highly aroused…….they’ll likely trip over their own feet!

Anyway, that’s enough rambling for me this week.

Like I said last week – it’s currently head down and bum up for Sam! I’m getting in lots of great training and preparing myself for the Auckland ITU WCS at the beginning of April.

I’ve confirmed the first half of my racing year and we’ll make some big decisions about what direction I head once I’m back in New Zealand in June.

All the best for now and remember….Keep it Fun!!

Sam.

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