Monday, 18 May 2009

Coaching in the Fun House: Working with the Teenage Athlete

With the Ontario high school track season* now approaching its characteristic fever pitch, I thought it might be timely to offer some reflections on my limited but fast-growing experience with coaching teenage athletes.

Coaching teenage athletes, I have learned, is a bit like taking a trip through a carnival fun house-- full of novelty and surprises, both pleasant and unwelcome. And, as with the fun house, appearances are often distorted when it comes to teenage runners. The athlete you see one week, or one season, may look and perform completely differently the next. This is true of coaching in general, but is far more dramatic in the case of younger athletes.

But, before I elaborate, a little background on my approach to working with younger athletes. As anyone who has ever inquired about this will know, I have a strict policy about not allowing athletes under the age of 12 to run in the P-K group. I do work with younger athletes, but only seasonally, and very casually, through the primary school where I have been coaching for the past 7 years (which also happens to be next door to my house). My policy to this point has been to allow athletes to join the club group in the spring of their final year of primary school (grade 8 here in Ontario). I take this approach because, in short, I don't think distance running is really a children's sport. While it may be fine for athletes younger than 12 to try their hand at the occasional distance race, the sport of distance running in the full sense is one that is fundamentally rooted in year-round, intense and systematic training. As all adults runners know, such training is, as a matter of course, highly physically, psychologically and emotionally demanding (the word "work" is not a part of the lexicon of this sport for nothing); and, just as with intense labour in general, younger children gain little from the experience of serious distance training, and risk much in terms of their all-sided physical and psycho-social development, when they take up the sport seriously (i.e. intensely and year-round) before about the age of 15. As someone with an interest in promoting lifetime, serious, but balanced approach to the sport of distance running, my concern is to avoid that which is liable to jeopardize an athlete's long term participation or reduce his/her odds of realizing his/her full performance potential. My 30 year experience of watching wave after wave of obviously talented but intensely trained and heavily raced age-class athletes abandon the sport at the age of 14 or 15-- the very age when their enthusiasm for the training and racing process should be taking off-- while their later-starting competitors replace them at the front of the pack, has convinced me of the wisdom of later starting. I am backed, furthermore, by the Athletics Canada sponsored Long Term Athlete Development Guidelines (LTAD), which strongly recommend a careful, stage-based approach to youth development, in which serious specialization, intense year-round training, and high level racing are delayed until the youth the junior age groups (16 to 19). When we know that later starting is more likely to produce both future champions and young adults whose early experiences with the sport have been generally positive, there is no excuse for exposing very young athletes to the full rigours of the sport. When we do see very young athletes training seriously and racing long and frequently, there is invariably an adult instigator (however well meaning) not far in the background. It would rarely occur to, or appeal to, a child under 13 to train and race seriously independently of adult encouragement and/or facilitation. The onus, therefore, is squarely on the parents and coaches of young athletes to get things right in the early years.

But, even when teenage distance runners have managed to avoid the pitfalls of intense early involvement, their path through these years is rarely smooth and predictable. And, as I say, this unpredictability can produce some very demanding coaching puzzles. In my scant 2 years of working closely with high school track and cross country runners, I have already encountered as many, or perhaps more, complex conundrums as in the 20+ years I've spent observing and working with mature athletes, including, for example:

-an athlete who gained 12 pounds (without an increase in height) during the 6 weeks of her highest mileage and most intense workout sessions and who, for no reason discoverable by the most advanced medical science, passed copious blood in her urine for 3 months following every hard workout or run of over 1 hour (and at no other time, and with no other symptoms, save subsequent iron deficiency).

-an athlete who develops a side stitch at the 9 minute mark of every race or workout.

-a formerly highly successful sprinter with all the symptoms of clinical iron deficiency, including performance decline, with a completely clean bill of health.

-a successful and highly motivated athlete who developed debilitating muscle heaviness and soreness that persisted in spite of several weeks of complete inactivity due to an unrelated injury.

These and other less dramatic problems, such as athletes who choose to abandon or take a prolonged break from the sport not when things are going poorly but precisely when they are going very well, seem to be entirely the province of the teenage athlete. Adult runners have their share of problems too, of course; but, on the whole, their difficulties are far more standard, their bodies more predictable, and their performances thus much more straightforwardly the product of successful, consistent training.

Coaching the teenage athlete is also, however, uniquely rewarding-- and often precisely because of unpredictability of the process. Managing to help an athlete solve or work through the above sorts of difficulties is in itself very gratifying. And there is very little in the realm of adult coaching to match the wonder and excitement of an athlete going from the very back of the pack one season to the victory stand in the next-- a frequent occurrence in the world of high school track and cross country running. Then there is, very simply, the thrill of watching young athletes compete-- which they often do with a fearlessness and abandon rare among more mature competitors-- with the knowledge that you have had some part to play in their preparation. At their best, teenage athletes are highly coachable, and it is both thrilling and daunting to consider that, as often their first coach, you are uniquely responsible for determining the quality of their formative experience in the sport-- a very significant determinant of their likelihood of becoming lifelong runners.

In the relatively short time I've spent working with younger athletes-- both primary school and more recently high school-age runners-- I've determined that my underlying goal should simply be to prepare them for a lifetime of running, regardless of the level at which their talent and inclination may ultimately deposit them. This preparation should entail, first of all, instruction in the rudiments of being a distance runner, including basic knowledge of how to execute a standard training program. These rudiments include: knowledge of the meaning and purpose of different training paces, from warm-up to the tempo run, and everything in between; an understanding that progress comes from attention to detail and long term commitment; and, that distance training is very difficult, yet also very rewarding because it is so difficult to do. Equipped with such a grounding, the teenage athletes with whom I work will be, I hope, capable of adapting and thriving in the sport wherever they happen to find themselves, from their college programs to their busy adult lives. Many will also, no doubt, go on to become coaches themselves, passing the best of what they they have learned from me through the lens of their own experience and on to another generation of young athletes, just as I have from those influences that have shaped my perspective.

*Note: Ontario, Canada's most populous and urbanized province, is famous (or, as some in Canada would suggest, infamous) for its massive and slickly organized single division high school track and field championships (OFSAA), which are the culmination of a series of three increasingly competitive regional qualifying rounds starting in early May. So absorbing does the OFSAA quest become for Ontario athletes that many end up setting personal bests in the finals that ultimately hold up through 4 years of intense, NCAA division one training and racing. I have even heard of one former top Ontario athlete describing her NCAA championship experience as "a bit of a let-down compared with OFSAA"! As a former participant in the OFSAA system myself, and as a long-time observer of its effects, my feelings about it are highly ambivalent. From the point of view of long term athlete development, it is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it provides a virtually free and wide-open system of talent recruitment and an intensely exciting focus for youth involvement. On the other hand, so intense is this focus that the system threatens to undermine long term sport development. Many athletes (or rather their parents and coaches) are driven to accelerate their training far beyond what is reasonable for their age, oftentimes starting as early as grade 7 and 8 in anticipation of OFSAA stardom. Meanwhile, slower developing athletes are at risk of being discouraged by the often overwhelmingly high and intense level of competition in this system, with many no doubt leaving the sport never to return. My own approach to the system has been to accept it as a fun and exciting focus of the sport in this province, but to discourage athletes from reading too much significance one way or another into their results when it comes to assessing their longer term (i.e. at least post-high school)potential . My graduated system for working with teenage athletes-- a system in which their total training volume and seasonal involvement are quite modest in grades 9 and 10 before becoming moderately high and intense in grades 11 and 12-- in any case tends to work against OFSAA success in at least the early grades. Typically, my younger teenage athletes run only 5-6 days per week, 30-40mins per day, including only two faster sessions per week, and for only 7-9 months in total during the year. Athletes 16 and up will typically run 6 days per week, 10-12 months per year and 50-60mins per day on average, with 2 harder sessions and a longer run per week during most weeks.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suggest a banana only diet the day of races for that kid with the stitches.

20 May 2009 at 02:14  

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