Youth & Junior: Starting Strong
With more and more organisations and clubs around the country rolling out junior specific programs, I am really excited to be involved and hope I can offer you valuable insights and inspiration for your own initiatives.
Triathlon is a very unique sport in that it is so young. Most current coaches and competitors began their triathlon careers as adults and we are only now seeing the first wave of competitors come through the ranks who ‘grew up’ as triathletes. By this, I mean they participated in triathlon as young children rather than being recruited to the sport from a swimming, cycling or running background in their mid-late teens.
This offers coaches of junior programs the opportunity to create their own path, as many don’t have preconceived notions of what a junior triathlon program should look like. Therefore, once coaching they simply re-hash a variety of games and drills that they enjoyed and found useful as a kid. Easy! This concept is not so clear-cut in triathlon.
Before we get stuck into the main content of this first article, let me briefly introduce myself. My name is Michelle Hemley and I am absolutely passionate about triathlon and active lifestyles. My professional background is in Physical Education Teaching, Exercise Physiology and Sport Development, I have been involved with Triathlon for 12 years, am a nine time Ironman finisher and I began my junior triathlon coaching career in my home state of WA working with the School Sport WA Team, Triathlon WA’s Triathlon Excellence Squad and various school and Tri-Star programs.
To cut a long story short, I now live in beautiful Torquay and run my own sport development and coaching company. Three years ago, we ran our first Junior Triathlon program, an eight week introduction to the sport for primary school aged children in Geelong. We had eight participants and one coach – me! Fast forward to today and we have put nearly 300 juniors through our triathlon specific programs and I’m proud to say, that many of the original participants are still hanging around in our squads. At the time of writing this article, our Term 4 ‘Swim, Ride, Run FUN – Junior Triathlon Programs’ are nearly sold out and we will have eight coaches involved in conducting our fun, safe and inclusive programs.
So how did we grow like this and what considerations need to be taken into account when setting up your own junior triathlon program?
Junior Specific Coaching Approaches
As I mentioned in the introduction, a junior program should be specific to juniors, not simply a watered down version of what we give adults. While as the children get older they can be integrated in with some of the adult sessions, I am a big believer that you can better cater for the needs of the junior/adolescent athlete with separate, skills based sessions aimed specifically to the age group. Another thing to note: twelve year olds will not benefit solely from being given a ‘program’ to follow in their own time like an adult triathlete(I see this all the time and cringe!), they need demonstration of skills, along with constant feedback and interaction to make it enjoyable and so they improve.
The main focus with juniors should be fun, games based sessions that have the kids falling in love with the sport. The following junior specific coaching approaches make for highly engaging sessions that keep the kids coming back for more week after week:
High Participation – Plan for your sessions to be interactive, where more often than not the participants are MOVING! The more active you can make the session the more engaged the children are, the better they learn and you are minimising your chances of behaviour issues (I’m sure there is research that proves the longer kids stand in a line at sporting activities, the more likely they are to start whacking each other!). Be organised and have your session planned and equipment set up at the start of the session, so you can seamlessly move through the activities without any unnecessary delays.
Inclusive – Inclusive sessions simply mean you can cater and challenge all abilities within the one session. This goes hand in hand with high participation, as you don’t want the faster kids always waiting around or the less advanced kids feeling like they are holding everyone up. A simple way to do this is to use time rather than distance in your activities. For example, run a ten minute challenge and see how many loops the juniors can do of a marked cycle and run course. This is a challenge for everybody, they get to practice transition skills and mounts/dismounts, plus nobody is waiting around.
Skill development through games – Games are a fantastic way to practice skills, more highly engaging than drills and when structured correctly, can achieve the high participation you are after for a fun junior session. In a future article, I will details some of my favourite triathlon specific games for juniors.
Safe Practices – Children do not have the same self-awareness as adults, so you need to ensure that sessions are set up with the upmost care in an environment where potential accidents are minimal. Develop a basic risk management template which foresees possible future mishaps and plan for how you are going to avoid them.
Choice of Coaches
When we look at triathlon coaches, everyone has a specialty; some work with long course athletes, some are purely on-line while other run squads, while other coaches may be more beginner athlete orientated. So don’t presume that the awesome triathlon coach who had 10 Kona qualifiers last year can handle that group of 20 excited eight-year olds and get the most out of them! I would highly recommend sourcing coaches that are specific to the needs of your junior programs, so the athletes are able to have the highest quality session possible. Work with your coaches strengths and match accordingly. For example, in our programs I use qualified Physical Education teachers to conduct any program that have more than 10 participants, as these people are specifically trained in developing physical skills and group management. I also have a specialist cycling/draft legal coach who takes our teenage athletes for cycling skills sessions. By having everyone working in their special interests and areas of expertise, you are creating a better program for everyone.
Create a long-term pathway of involvement
Remember, our aim for junior programs is to expose the kids to the sport so they want to keep competing. So when the junior program finishes, you need somewhere for them to go! Make sure there is a pathway for your juniors to stay involved and develop in sport.
My development pathway looks a little like this:
Primary School Aged (Grassroots Engagement): The focus here is engagement, fun and skill development. We want the kids to fall in love with the sport and utilise a lot of high participation games. As well as junior specific programs for this age group that run in Term 1 & 4, we offer year round swim squads and running groups that the children can attend casually.
Secondary School Aged (Development): The focus here is still on engagement, plus skill development becomes more progressed as they get older and start to use more advanced equipment. A major focus at this time is retention as the teenage drop-out rate from sport is high so the more social, challenging and fun you can make these sessions, the more likely the teenager is to stick around. Even though at this age it is easy to integrate teenagers into your adult program, I have found great success in keeping at least a few sessions a week separate and purely for this group. Think of this age group as a ‘transition’ with its own needs and entity.
Adult Streams: Adult triathlon participation can be broken down into three streams; 1) Participation 2) Performance (Age Group) and 3) Performance – Professional. A well rounded triathlon program will have a pathway for the athletes to continue to participate and compete in triathlon however they see fit. Be honest, if you don’t run these sorts of services yourself, make sure you know the local programs and coaches you can feed the athletes to once they are at a certain stage.
Relationships with other sports
It is very unusual to see a junior triathlete patriciate in the sport as their sole activity, be prepared to have kids stepping in and out of your triathlon programs around other club and school sport commitments. Positive relationships with local sporting clubs will only benefit your junior triathlon programs, particularly when these sports start to understand you are not trying to poach athletes and triathlon training enhances the child’s ability to run out a soccer game. Take the time to nurture these relationships. Remember, at this age it is not about getting kids to commit to the sport full-on, it is to develop skills and expose them to positive triathlon experiences so they keep coming back. We have great relationships with many sporting clubs in Geelong and Torquay who promote our Junior Triathlon programs as a way to keep fit over summer. I have many junior athletes whom I see in Term 4 every year, once footy/netball/hockey/soccer is in the off-season.
I hope you found these tips useful. Good luck with setting up your junior triathlon initiatives, it is so refreshing to see the youngsters enjoy the sport and the things they come out with will have you in stiches.
In conclusion, I believe triathlon is a fantastic sport to expose kids to as it offers high health benefits and social connections, can be done in their own time around other commitments as they get older, is focussed on individual challenges and most importantly, they can keep participating in triathlon right into their adult years.
If we can make our junior programs safe, inclusive, highly engaging and fun, then the future of our sport looks very bright indeed.