Have Your Kids Grow Up to Love Triathlon

I am a firm believer that our exposure to sport as a child or adolescent plays a key role in developing our attitudes towards the activity as we get older. More often than not, what we enjoyed as a youngster stays with us into adulthood and vice versa, meaning that if you had a terrible experience with something it’s highly unlikely you will go back!

Therefore junior triathlon coaches, teachers and parents have a massive responsibility to ensure that a child’s introduction to triathlon is as positive, engaging, non-threatening and inclusive as possible.

See below, where I present two case studies I have witnessed personally. In the first one, a child’s positive experiences led her to a lifetime of participation in multi-sport and triathlon, while in the second, another child was turned off the whole sport for over 15 years.

Case Study One

To use myself as an example, I did my first Ironman at age 10 and loved it! My primary school, Kinlock Primary in Perth’s south-eastern suburbs, ran an Ironman as part of our annual athletics carnival. It was the very last event of the day and consisted of a 100m run/400m bike ride/800m run/obstacle course. The Ironman race was the highlight of my day. It was a great atmosphere with music and the whole school lining the track and cheering all the competitors on. I was hooked! I didn’t even realise at the time the links to the adult triathlon race. However the experience obviously made an impression as I’ve continued to love this multi-sport form of activity and I’ve now completed nine Ironman triathlons (amongst many other bonkers multi-sport and endurance challenges).

Case Study Two

In contrast, one of my best friends had a completely different introduction to multi-sport and this continues to influence her opinion of triathlon at times. A fantastic swimmer, my friend placed in the School Sport Triathlon Championships when she was 13 years old, which automatically qualified her for the state team. As this was her first triathlon and with no specific training (but a huge engine from swimming), she was very surprised and excited! Unfortunately, her first training experience with a triathlon group was not so positive. After being ridiculed for her bike and lack of cycling skills, her mum picked her up in tears and she refused to go back. There was no state team for her, she stuck with swimming and did not do another triathlon until her late 20’s some 15 years later. In our conversations, she still turns her nose up at the sport at times.

So, how can we ensure our kids love the sport and want to come back for more?

  1. Seek Out Modified Kids Events for them to Participate in

A great example of this is the ‘Iron Kids’ races that go hand in hand with Ironman franchise events. The kids got to run down the EXACT same finishing chute as the adults, receive a participation medal (just like the adults) and get called over the line by an announcer (just like the adults)……how cool is that?

Then of course you have the popular Weet-Bix TRY-athlon in many areas of Australia offering a triathlon completely for kids (I had to interview a bunch of teenagers recently about their ‘best sporting memory from childhood’ and it was amazing how many mentioned the Weet-Bix tri!). In fact, many triathlons these days have associated kids events with them. Next time you enter your own race, check and see if there is something your children can do as well, nothing like participating as a family!

What I love about these improvised, junior triathlons is that it leaves the young athletes absolutely chomping at the bit to grow up and keep doing these events. Their first experience is so positive and ultimately enjoyable that afterwards (without fail) I hear them excitedly chatting away about ‘when I get older, I’m going to do the whole thing!’

  1. Provide Positive Role Models

The strongest role models in a child’s life are the people they interact with on a day-to-day basis. So while highlighting high performing sports stars and triathletes in the media does encourage people to some degree, for impressionable kids true engagement with our sport lies in finding someone they know to lead the way and showcase triathlon in a positive light. This could be a teacher, friend or yourself! Talk openly about all the things you love about triathlon training and racing. Children are like sponges, they soak it all up!

  1. Celebrate every new achievement

It is very empowering feeling to reach for sporting goals and achieve it and triathlon is a great mechanism for teaching that anything is possible if you just give it a go.

The thing about triathlon, is all goals are completely individual. Focus on the child’s improvement and celebrate every time they achieve something new such as finishing their first event, running faster than before, hitting a PB, swimming out in the open water for the first time or completing a distance they didn’t think possible. Focus more on celebrating individual improvement and effort, rather than results such as placings and you are providing your child with the knowledge that the goal is always to do the best they can. And you can never run out of new triathlon goals to hit!

  1. Let them choose

A whole triathlon can be quite daunting to the uninitiated, so don’t force participation if your child is scared or not interested. This can do more harm than good (see case study two).

However, what you can do is showcase all the different ways they can do a triathlon, such as participating in a team. This way, they can complete the legs of the triathlon they are comfortable with and will hopefully be inspired to progress to an individual race in the future. Many of our great triathletes started in a team event ‘for fun’ with friends. A team is a great starting point and brings us to a key selling point for the sport, that there are so many options for participation available.

You can also take the kids along to watch an event. Seeing so many people of all different abilities, speeds and shapes having fun out on course is sure to inspire rather than intimidate.

What we see as a youngster sets strong foundations for the future so as coaches, teachers and parents of junior triathletes we have a massive responsibility to showcase triathlon in a good light. Keep it positive, keep it fun and focus on the great things about our sport and hopefully we have a whole generation of happy and healthy triathletes coming through.


Michelle Hemley

Michelle is a passionate triathlete, coach and nine times Ironman finisher. With a professional background in Physical Education, Exercise Physiology and Sport Development, her speciality is working with junior triathletes. Her ‘Swim, Ride, Run FUN’ program’s have seen over 250 youngsters participate in triathlon in the last three years in the Geelong/ Surf Coast area’. For more information on what Michelle and the team at Henley's has to offer, head to www.hemleys.com.au.
Facebook: @Hemleys
Twitter: @hemleys1

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