The Athletic Road Less Travelled

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I am writing this article due to total and utter frustration from within my sport. If you’re a triathlete, you probably feel, as a sport, that we’re in a great position. We are in many respects, however…

I like my Youth / Junior athletes to be aware of what I term the “athletic curve” in our sport (triathlon). The basic premise being that you are either ahead of it, on it or behind it.

The Athletic Curve

  • Behind = perhaps around regional or good school standard
  • On = National
  • Ahead = International

To be on or ahead of the curve as a first year Junior (15/16) you would need to be at that level as a swimmer or runner. The cycling can be picked up later on. However, it’s not a bad idea to have ridden your bike a few times if you intend to embark on a performance pathway in triathlon!

The bigger picture

If you are a junior behind the curve in triathlon, you may feel a little lost. This is accentuated as our sport develops and our Governing Body (NGB) continues to see fit racing juniors with seniors in most major national events. Thus, 16 year olds are “lapped out” of major races by sometimes senior World Champions. In addition, in a late development sport like triathlon, Youth Olympics (YOG 14 – 17) has been introduced, meaning athletes have to specialise earlier and earlier to be selected.

I have listened to arguments about the need of 11/12 year olds having to attend selection races to qualify for their region to compete in a national triathlon event (IRC’s). In addition, I have listened to the arguments by management/coaches enthusiastic about the YOG format “for experience”. The elephant in the room however, with all these child competitions in a late development sport, is that it only works if everyone is onboard with Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD).

The problem is however that NGB’s and Regions start looking for “results” and therein lays the problem. Effort should be rewarded and not results. However this doesn’t show the type of prestigious accountability NGB’s/ Regions crave.

“We also know that children who do more training before the age of about 16 will likely under-perform, reaching lower levels than those who play more sports for as long as possible” Dr Ross Tucker

Painting the picture

Without evidence to show these young people (or coaches/NGB), that moving along the curve can be done; it’s very difficult to think about the “Athletic Road Less Travelled” (i.e. young athletes behind the curve at 14/16 and progressing onto or ahead of it).

This is far from easy in a sport with three disciplines that require a lot of training hours to reach high performance standards. Moreover, these kids are living through one of the most stressful periods of their lives (GCSE’s & A levels), but they still obviously want to progress and see gains and improvement. Otherwise, why would competitively spirited young people keep going in a sport?

It can also be a confusing balance for me as a coach, helping young athletes improve in a sport, building self-confidence and robustness, while some of their peers are still miles ahead of them. This is the art of coaching. Pushing the buttons in young people but knowing when to back off, allowing them to find themselves as young people, applying pressure, but not too much.

The coach’s goal has to be to give them enough development to allow the individual to make decisions in their future sporting life, either to move their sport forward or to take it down a level. This could involve going off to University, into full-time training or off to work. At the cross roads, so long as they are happy, it’s a good dilemma to have.

I have been training and coaching since the early 90’s and coaching juniors since 2005. In all this time, I have never had a national or international runner or swimmer come into my environment (outside of our NGB once asked me to help a young athlete). However, through lots of hard work from the athletes, I have helped develop a number to be on and ahead of the curve as they prepare to leave school or College.

This article is to help young athletes, parents and coaches, with limited training history a chance to think bigger and not lose hope in our sport. Its not about knocking my NGB either, as triathlon is a young sport and NGB’s are learning as they grow… I just hope they learn fast.

Navigating the choppy waters

It is not easy when you set your benchmark on World Class athletes like Alistair/Jonny and Non/ Helen/Jodie, but if you can be shown that improvements can be made over 3-4-5+ years of hard training (allowing you to get ahead of the curve or at least realise your potential), you don’t put a ceiling on your thinking.

To make the educating of athletes easier, I start collecting data as soon as an athlete steps into my environment from youth (14), junior or even future Olympians. There are many reasons for this but the most important, is that it’s an invaluable teaching tool.

I have witnessed the scientists, coaches and NGB’s look at the data and make a judgment that an athlete will not “make it” (including future Olympians!). This reaction is due to their VO2, swim/run time or some other marker currently not “National or International standard”. They then get very excited when the numbers come in high on another athlete and start pinning Olympic medals on them at 14/15 years old, but that athlete invariably has a longer/deeper training history, thus a far better developed “engine” BUT… is this athlete still ready to dig as deep as the pressures of sport build at 19+?

Don’t think I’m saying that I have never made the same mistake, I have. I have studied the science and I have read the books. I also believed the human had a ceiling, especially if the lab data said so or if they were not “naturally gifted”. I have seen and changed the error of my ways and now never put a ceiling on any athlete, moreover I treat them the same, apart from where attitude is concerned.

Training history and engine building

Athlete one for example, has been swimming in a squad from 9/10 years old and without a doubt, this develops an aerobic engine. If you’ve been coached well, you may have become national standard by 14/15. Invariably, this swimmer is fit and selected to run in a few school XC races and again does well.

Nonetheless, unlike their schoolmate, Athlete two has not been consistently training within a structured programme. Athlete one is “fit” and used to working hard, even digging in training. What about Athlete two? Computer games? Some school sport? (Mostly football/ rugby or rounders?) Consistent and structured training… probably not. Hurting/digging in… probably doesn’t know the meaning of it!

You would see a similar pattern if the young athlete was part of structured run club. They would fall short technically as a swimmer if they had not done both, but lots do. Nevertheless, you can take an eight minute 400m swimmer at 14 and develop them into a sub 4.30min swimmer by 18 years old and you can also take a junior who can’t even complete a 5k without walking and in 4/5 years run sub 17mins (girls).

For the young athlete under youth age, the sporting arena that consists of lots of different activities is by far the best way to learn and develop a young body and mind. Not just swimming up and down, or running round and round.

Building the aerobic engine consists of increasing mitochondria, left ventricle size, capillary density, blood volume etc. Combine this aerobic engine with building robustness, mental toughness, coping strategies, increasing economy of motion (swim, bike and run), and many more key ingredients, takes the athlete further along the curve. This can only be done over time, in a wholesome environment along with sound coaching, but no one can argue, it can be done.

Fixed mindset and environment

Take athlete one, who fits the above description, let’s take a girl aged 14, who has been used to winning local or even national triathlon races. They have a minimum of 4/5 years of hard training behind them, getting up at 4am in some cases a number of times per week and doing around 15-20hrs of training (sometimes more). Put them up against that enthusiastic young 14-year-old girl (athlete two), who has no history of structured training… Athlete one wins every time, right?

Move this scenario on two or three years and due to time constraints athlete one cannot increase her training volume very much, even if she wanted to, especially during exams. However, athlete two gets the “bug” and has now put in a few years of consistent, structured training. She has built up her training volume to at or around that of athlete one, but has never really won anything and is just excited to be making progress and mastering her new sport.

It’s not easy, it’s bloody hard work at times, but… it’s fun and she has some great people around her, none of which are expecting or pushing her for results. Then you have athlete one who has always been a winner and stand-out performer… there is always pressure on her to win.

You may start to witness athlete one make excuses about her results, not just in sport but also academically. She has been so used to “winning” with seemingly little effort and being lorded by her family, school, and coaches. Doing her best is not an option… only winning or dominating the athletes who have not done the sport for very long. This is an already difficult period for most young people; can you imagine how this pressure-cooker now feels?

Add into the mix a coach or a fellow athlete, suggesting they are looking a little fat/bigger and we all know you need to be slim to run well… is this why they are not winning anymore? The next step, I think, we are all far too familiar with.

Not just a dropout rate

You may be looking at British Triathlon right now and think that we are in a great place. Well we are in many respects down to the set up in Leeds and a few up-and-coming Scottish boys and a Welsh chick in Bridgend! Nevertheless, the biggest glaring hole for me is the poor transfer rate of junior girls through to senior level… we are actually yet to do it! Why, and should we be even be trying to it?

The list of “talented” youth/junior girls dropping out of triathlon is long… very long. Lots of these young athletes are just discarded, but the biggest heartbreak in most cases, for a period anyway, is that they can also be broken young people.

Choices

I remember when I first decided to stop boxing after nearly 15 years. I used to eat, sleep and dream about boxing, through my adolescence and into becoming a young man. I was a little lost when I stopped; it was in many respects my identity, especially during my early time spent in the Army. However, I was not discarded or injured from within a sport that had once made me feel like a “prince”. I personally made a big decision (I found teaching sport / physical education a bigger draw), and walked out the door at around 23 years old… never looking back!

As a sport, to me, nurturing young athletes is our major failing which to date is not being addressed. Research tells us that most senior females on the ITU circuit are coming into triathlon at University or beyond. We have established academies now, we have funding, can we not at least try to buck this trend?

Cross roads

It’s not a failure if you get to 18 and want to stop your sport or back off and go to Uni or start work. I have a perfect example of a young triathlete who stopped triathlon at 18, studied and became a Lawyer, then an age group triathlete and went on to be 19th at the 2012 Olympic games at 30. She is currently having a great time as a professional triathlete.

Should all young people go to University? Well for some it’s not really an option if you are not academic (yet!), but if you do get the grades, I still don’t think it’s an open and shut case.

There are some very bright athletes who go off to Uni and can hold down a degree, train, make progress and have something of a life. I don’t think whoever you are you can do a very demanding course and still continue to make major progress in triathlon.

If you are behind or on the curve, I would suggest possibly a year out to give the sport everything you have and raise your game. Most importantly, this means sleeping a lot more. To have two or sometimes three, releases of growth hormone (GH) and structured recovery, will do more for your performance than any training session.

You can see in case one (below), where they have been able to rest properly, there has been a significant increase in physiological parameters. This includes swim and run TT’s. It’s very difficult to get this type of response from an athlete while going though GCSE’s or A-levels or for that matter working full-time.

Responsibility of NGB

During this period from 14 to 19 and beyond, there is a significant amount of funding on offer in the UK for young aspiring but “talented” triathletes. There are warm weather camps abroad, funding to get to races in Europe and the wider world, funding to help with physio/doctors etc, the list is endless and in most cases this funding comes in very handy with three sports to also cater for. So, it is in the athletes best interest to gain selection to a National programme.

In England we have a number of tiers

  • Academy
  • English talent programme
  • World Class talent programme

In a late development sport would you put a 16 year old on “World Class programme”, when they are still finding themselves… when none of their peers are also on it? This is to me a big fat target and another dose of pressure the athlete would not need.

Would you de-select a 16 year old who loves to race and always races beyond their swim and run TT times and it is clear to see loves the competitive environment, but due to a swim and run TT result, not select them for a major triathlon competition?

To me these are just a couple of glaringly obvious “do’s and don’ts” when working with young people. Reward effort not results from other sports i.e. pool swimming and track running… but similarly, you must know the athlete. However, this is not the first time and I’m sure it wont be the last, in which NGB’s are looking to select for here and now results.

Would we not prefer to have learning, mastery, work-hard environment and the often spoken about but rarely implemented by NGB, concept of LTAD at the forefront of our thinking?

Shining the rough diamond

Below are a couple of case studies showing a starting point through a couple of athletes as a snapshot at then and now progressions. For non-science readers out there, on the graphs we are basically looking for everything to shift to the right… as these do. This is such exciting work for a coach and it gets even better when the effects are even more dramatic, like swimming eight minutes for 400m at 14 and just dropping under five minutes for the first time at 17. It is super powerful motivational stuff for these athletes… building a CAN-DO attitude.

It is hard for the individual athletes, but for the coach it is super hard work. You should be walking off deck or track mentally fatigued as you look to bring the next generation through. Not all athletes require constant coaching, for those already developed, it’s possibly just a “nice work” or a pat on the back. But if you are a coach and think you can just set a session or email a workout, this is not performance coaching.

Case study 1

Athlete (male) from 15 to 19 History: swam a little at a club a few times per week, would cycle with a club and ran at school and other school sports. Swim time at 15 around 5.20 for 400m – Now 4.30 for 400m Run 1500m 4.50 now 4.10 and around 15.30 for 5k. Bike strong at 15 and world class now (bike)

This athlete has never been selected for any national programme, as his swim and run times were never good enough. He has been very consistent over the past 4-5 years and has never plateaued in his progressions. He is not a world-class athlete right now, but can he be? Bottom line is… nobody knows so enjoy the journey.

Case Study 1

Case study 2

Male 14 to 18 History: has done triathlon from young age and good regionally, enjoyed most school sports. Swim time at 15 around 5.30 for 400m – Now sub 4.30 for 400m Run 1500m 4.30 now 4.10 and low 15 for 5k. Bike poor at 14 now very strong internationally

Case Study 2

The bottom line with triathlon in the UK, is that there are a few males who have been mini triathletes and gone onto World Class in our sport… no females. However, there are many young athletes and coaches who need to know that for boys, just because you can’t swim sub 4.30 for 400m right now & if you can’t run 15mins for 5k… if does not mean never. Girls if you can’t swim sub 4.45 and run sub 17… don’t stop believing that with hard work that you never will.

Where does this leave us?

Is there a place for these National level triathlons for 11 – 13 year olds? Personally, I don’t believe there is. Keep it fun, no early specialisation (especially bike), and compete around local area/fun races or in aquathlons, if you want to do multisport.

Is there a place for a National talent squad with 14/15 year olds in it? I don’t believe there is. Instead, look after those who look like they want to keep working hard in our sport… thus STILL progressing and look like they want to be there in races… not scared of losing or disappointing someone else. More importantly, if someone swims fast or runs fast at 14/15 there should be a warning sign… PROCEED WITH CAUTION.

Things to look out for: athletes coached by parents (can work, but not always). Athletes in separate swim/run/bike environments (watch for pulling energy in all different ways). Athletes without a lead “qualified” coach (need to know and not just guess), pushy parents (unconditional love is your only role) and finally, coaches who don’t understand that the body weight of a female will settle in their early 20’s.

Moreover, don’t make them the next Non/ Helen/Alistair or Jonny … give them space to grow, if THEY want too, not parents, coaches or NGB.

Finally, this is about the Athletic Road Less Travelled. There will be those who progress through our sport from being good from a young age. The job of the NGB, coaches, parents and teachers is to guide… but personally, you must keep looking in the mirror and make sure you are still guiding and not pushing for next Friday’s win.

The road less travelled is probably the most rewarding in sport for all involved and believe me it can be travelled… Enjoy the journey.

by JD Beckinsale M.Sc.