Coaching and young athletes

I had a conversation recently with a fellow coach about young athletes and how do we keep them interested and realistic in their objectives whilst continuing to fuel their ambition. I am sure we have all experienced the young athlete who arrives some talented some hard workers some who are talented because their parents told you they were. Their parents also have times from their school teacher who says little Jonny or Mary are the quickest in the class or at school so they must be special. When sporty parents say their child is special alarm bells start to ring.

If you have read some of my blogs before you will see they are based on my personal experiences. In this edition again the majority is based on my beliefs and thoughts. There is some science stuff in this which is based on information from research found online from reputable sources. (Angela Duckworth Resilience, Perseverance, Grit) , (R.J.Shephard. Aging and Exercise, Encyclopedia of Sports Medicine and Science).

Just to clarify a lot of these children are special and have a talent and our job is to nurture that talent and develop that child both physically and mentally so they have the opportunity to maximise their potential whilst still having a childhood.

One of the big challenges is distraction. Let’s be clear there has always been distractions for athletes no matter how far back you look in sports history. In this era the distractions are many:

Mobile phone, On line gaming, TV/Netflix etc

After school clubs with their friends, Peer pressure

Jealousy because of talent, School sports pressure by teachers

Homework, Exam pressure, Parental pressure

Other sports trying to attract people to their sports

Weekends with their friends, Friends playing other sports

Allowing the young athlete to maintain childhood normality and pursue a passion comes with some compromises. The list above is not exhaustive, I am sure you could add many more topics that are the causes of distraction. It’s not easy being a child in these times. The media and society want children to grow up quick and focus on image and materialistic objects. The internet is crammed with poorly misadvised information and everyone not just children get confused as to what is reality and truth and what is fabrication and lies.

Then there are the parents (gulp! here’s the touchy subject). I have no doubt that parents just want the best for their child and rightly so. The passion of the parent is quite often greater than the passion of the young athlete.

I have seen over passionate parents mentally beat young athletes for not winning, for not getting a personal best, for not doing better.

I have also seen great talent go to waste because the parents just didn’t support the child’s passion. The young athlete tried desperately to get the parents to watch them compete, for the parents it was cheap childminding so watching or supporting was never a priority.

It is also an amazing thing to observe a parent swell with pride and sometimes have a sneaky tear in their eyes, (I’m the parent that wells up and looks glassy eyed with pride). Watching a parent hug their child whether they win or lose is incredible and heart warming.

The priority is to keep it fun, keep the child grounded regardless of the talent, (watch Usain Bolts Dads stories it’s hilarious). Let the coach do his job, although the coach should keep the parents up to date and informed. The coach should have a realistic progressive plan that is aimed towards developing the young athlete.

Our job as coaches is to develop athletes at the rate that they can cope with. Look at the all time lists for young athletes achieving amazing performances at young ages.

How many ran their best times at a very early age and never got quicker?.

How many where mismanaged and never fulfilled their true potential?.

How many had far to many injuries early in their career and their career was cut short?.

The science question is, at what age does a male or female athlete reach there peak?.

Research suggests, Strength peaks at age 25.

Your muscles are at their strongest when you’re 25 yrs old. (Look up A.J.Shephard Aging and exercise) The peak time for a male or female athlete is approx 23–27 yrs old from my anecdotal data. (Science research suggests 20–30 yrs old) I’ve took averages of athletes when they have achieved a PB or major medal performance.

Jesse Owens 22 yrs old 1935 23 yrs old 1936

Carl Lewis 27 yrs old (1988) 30 yrs old (1991)

Usain Bolt 23 yrs old

Asafa Powel 23 yrs (2005) 25 yrs old (2007)

Tim Montgomery 27yrs old

Maurice Greene 25 yrs old

Ave age 25 yrs old

Florence Griffith Joyner 29 yrs old

Carmelita Jeter 30 yrs old

Marion Jones 23 yrs old

Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce 26 yrs old

Elaine Thompson 24 yrs old

Ave age 26.4 yrs old

Jessica Ennis major medals 23–24–25–29 yrs old Ave age 25.25 yrs old

Athletic Performance (A.J.Shephard)The age of peak athletic performance depends upon the key functional element required of the successful competitor. In events where flexibility is paramount (for example, gymnastics and brief swimming events) the top competitors are commonly adolescents. In aerobic events, performance usually peaks in the mid-twenties, as gains from prolonged training, improved mechanical skills and competitive experience are negated by decreases in maximal oxygen intake and flexibility. Because of a longer plateauing of muscle strength, performance in anaerobic events declines less steeply, and in pursuits such as golf and equitation, where experience is paramount, the best competitors are aged 30–40 years.

Caution is needed in drawing physiological inferences from athletic records, since the pool of potential competitors decreases with age. Moreover, the motives of older participants often change from competitive success (winning at all costs) to social interaction, and some participants in Masters events lack cumulated skills, since they did not begin competing until they reached their late thirties.


Strength peaks around 25 years of age, plateaus through 35 or 40 years of age, and then shows an accelerating decline, with 25% loss of peak force by the age of 65 years. Muscle mass decreases, apparently with a selective loss in the cross-section if not the numbers of type II fibers. It is unclear whether there is a general hypotrophy of skeletal muscle, or a selective hypoplasia and degeneration of Type II fibers, associated with a loss of nerve terminal sprouting.

Other possible causes of functional loss include a deterioration of end-plate structures, impaired excitation-contraction coupling, and decreased fiber recruitment. Both contraction time and half-relaxation time are prolonged, and maximal contraction velocity is decreased. Changes are greater in the legs than in the arms, possibly because there is a greater decrease in use of the legs with aging. Muscular endurance at a given fraction of maximal voluntary force apparently improves with age, in part because the muscles now contain a larger proportion of type I fibers and in part because weaker muscle contractions restrict perfusion less than in a younger person.

If on average an athlete reaches their peak at the 23–27 age, (science actual range 20–30 yrs old) then why is there such a rush to try and get an athlete to peak at a much younger age?. A solid development is more important than constantly pushing an athlete at too young an age. Development at the athletes natural physical development is paramount with close regular continuous monitoring of physical injury, and small niggles. Data on acute and chronic loading to determine if an athlete is at risk of breakdown or injury.

If the above data is correct, then investment in an athlete should be set as short, medium and long term goals. Part of that should be regular monitoring of any injury and injury due to over use. Continuous monitoring of basic functional movement patterns. If over use injury is evident then training and conditioning should be appropriate and competitions should be halted until fully fit. Then a battery of exercises in place until full capacity is restored and basic functional movement has improved.

Resilience, Perseverance, Grit (Angela Duckworth)

Resilience seems to be defined fairly narrowly as the ability to bounce back after adversity or disappointment; being able to manage and adapt to sources of stress or adversity

Perseverance tends to be associated with a steadfastness on mastering skills or completing a task; having a commitment to learning.

Grit is a more recent import, much researched by Angela Duckworth, and is defined as the tendency to sustain interest and effort towards long term goals. It is associated with self control and deferring short term gratification.

But however you distinguish these three terms they all boil down to the emotional characteristics of successful learning that are essential in keeping learners engaged in learning.

Explaining to the parents that maturation and training ages vary regardless of talent and capability. Just because an athlete is talented this does not mean the athlete is ready for higher loading. Good basic drills and movement patterns must be achieved before progression is made to the next level of movement or loading. A realistic measured introduction to the sport allowing the athlete to build physical and mental development is imperative. I call this the apprenticeship years, the athlete will be better in the long term. The athlete will be more confident and capable and hopefully maximise their talent. If we move an athlete on to early we are not being athlete. centred, and potentially setting an athlete up for risk of injury.

Managing the athletes and parents expectation is tough work. Get your own data to support your reasoning for your approach on athlete development from the outset. In my experience if an athlete and their parents can understand your plan (and sometimes they won’t agree) it is far better conversation than having no plan.


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