Youth and Junior: Games for skill development

What do Michael Jordan, Usain Bolt and Chrissie Wellington have in common?

Yes, they all dominated their respective sports. More interesting to note, is that none of these athletes specialised in the sport they would become known for before they were 16 years old.

Jordan mixed baseball and basketball in his youth and was passionate about both. It wasn’t until after a growth spurt in his late teens did he fully focus his efforts on basketball (and as a big fan, thank goodness he did!). Likewise, Usain Bolt was set on an international cricket career, then he was talent scouted to the track as a sixteen year old at a Jamaican high school meet. Most of us reading this article would be familiar with Chrissie Wellington’s story.

Importantly, the three athletes mentioned above arrived at their key development years with a passion for their sport and were willing and able to put in the big training hours when it mattered most.

And this is EXACTLY what we are trying to create when we coach juniors. We don’t want huge training hours or burnt out athletes at fourteen. At this age we wish to develop a love for the sport. All sessions should be focused with the participants’ longevity in mind. And what better way to do this than with games?

Before we start, let’s get clear on what a game is. A game is different to a drill as it has an outcome, such as a winning team or a score you are trying to beat. Rather than being ‘fluff’ games can be used very effectively to develop sport appropriate skills in a highly engaging way.

Below are some of my favourite triathlon related games, which we use for our junior sessions to build triathlon specific swim, ride, run and transition skills and fitness:

Warm Up Games

1) Buildings, Bull Dozers and ‘Helmets Up’: 
Scatter helmets on the ground in a designated area and split the group equally into two teams; the ‘Buildings’ and the ‘Bulldozers’. When the whistle goes, it’s the ‘buildings’ job to turn as many helmets as possible upright, while the ‘bulldozers’ are trying to knock the helmets over. At the end of the game, count how many buildings and bulldozed helmets there are and declare the winning team. Run several rounds for a best of five championship. Note: I like to add an extra element to this game and will randomly call ‘helmets up!’ throughout the game. This means the participants have to run to their own helmet, clip up and then run around a designated marker, racing to get back to me first. image[5]

What this game works on: I love this warm up game, as it prepares the participants physically for the session by getting them moving, and the concentration aspect makes sure they are mentally alert too. We also work transition skills with the ‘helmets up’ element, as they practice getting helmets on quickly.

2) Dolphin and Wading Relays: 
This can be done in a pool or ocean environment and has the participants wading (running in the water) or dolphin diving around a set course. A note with any relays, you want maximum participation so avoid big, long lines. If you have 12 participants, rather than two groups of six, look at four groups of three, or even better six pairs, so standing around time is limited.

What this game works on: Entry and exiting the water during the swim leg of a triathlon.

Swimming Games

1) Drafting Point Race: 
This game is done in a pool as 25m repeats. Place the participants in groups of three or four and for each 25m repeat, one group member starts a few meters away from the wall in a deep water start position (sculling and feet off the bottom in a horizontal position), while the other group members get to push off the wall. On ‘go’ all group members sprint the 25m to the other end, with the first swimmer trying to get to the other end before those behind them and the ‘drafters’ fighting to get on the draft. If the lead swimmer gets to the end of the 25m with nobody touching their feet, they get a point. Any drafting swimmer who manages to tag the lead swimmers toes gets a point. Swap positions each 25m.image[2]

What this game works on: Swim sprint session, swimming in packs, drafting skills and deep-water race starts

2) Buoy Swim ‘Knock-Ons’: 
Set out a number of buoys in a triangular fashion in the pool or open water and group participants into teams of three. On ‘Go!’ the first swimmer swims to the first buoy and upon reaching it, places their hand up in the air. This is the signal for the next swimmer in their team to go. Swimmers keep leaving in this fashion then keep swimming to subsequent buoys once the swimmer who left behind them ‘tags’ them. Set a challenge such as how many laps your team can do in five minutes or a race (handicap if you like) to a certain number of laps.

What this game works on: Sighting in between buoys, short rest interval swim session, teamwork and open water skills such as swimming in a group and drafting.

Cycling Games

1) Freeze Frame: 
Have the participants riding around in a cleared, designated space. When the coach calls ‘Freeze Frame!’ the cyclists are no longer allowed to pedal, and must use bike handling and balance skills to avoid putting their feet on the ground. The last person to place their feet on the ground is the winner. I have seen participants go for as long as several minutes! image[3]

What this game works on: Bike handling and balance skills

2) Formula One: 
Set out a large circular course with marker cones, as a ‘Formula One track’ for the participants to ride around (sorry for the timing of this in regards to Ironman Melbourne’s cancellation!). Also set up two ‘pit stops’ at opposing sides of the track, where participants have to dismount and run with their bike around the pit stop before mounting and going back on to the ‘Formula One’ track. Set a time challenge, such as five minutes and the participants have to see how many laps they can ride of the Formula One course in that time, but whenever the coach yells ‘pit stop!’ they have to mount and dismount at the next pit stop station.

What this game works on: Cycling skills, mounts/dismounts and running with their bikes

Running Games

1) Indian File: 
Place the runners into small groups of 4-6, of similar speed and ability and give them a course to run around. Line them up to go for a run single file around this course. The speed is easy/moderate, except when the first person in the line yells ‘go!’ the person at the back has to sprint to the front and overtake the lead of the line. Participants keep rotating through until they get to the end of the course. If you really want to extend, you can race different groups against each other or have handicap events where the stronger teams leave at the end. image

What this game works on: Teamwork, surges of speed and provides a ‘fartlek’ style running session

2) Fruit Salad: Races
Mark out a set distance or circle for the kids to run as their interval, which can be any distance you like (I’ve found a 150-300m circuit works well). Call out different categories and the runners leave for their interval when the coach calls a category that relates to them. They are racing all the others who are in the same category as them and first around the course for each round gets a point. Use your imagination for your categories, you can call colours the runners are wearing, what schools they go to, types of pets, how many siblings they have, countries visited – the possibilities are endless! In addition to the kids having a heap of fun, you actually learn a lot about them!

What this game works on: Provides a running speed interval session


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
Facebook: @Hemleys
Twitter: @hemleys1

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