Athlete Development Model - Physical Maturity Q&A - English

Any practical tips for coaches on basic problem solving, emotional awareness etc)? As a coach, when I am out there, what can I do?

The role of a coach is often described as one who must solve problems, and as such it can be easy for coaches to try to resolve problems for athletes. The problem here can be that athletes never learn the skill of analysing and solving problems for themselves. So maybe the role of the coach is to help the athlete solve the problems themselves. As an example, say the session is on pacing at the idea is that athlete is supposed to be running 75 second laps of the track, instead of telling them they are too fast or too slow, get them first to work it out for themselves, maybe by just using their own watch, but later get them to do it without a watch, and get them to identify feedback from their body to tell them how they are doing, are they breathing too deeply for that pace etc. Don’t change from one coaching approach to another overnight, these skills and techniques can be introduced over a long period and take time for athletes to learn. We will more on this area in Part 5 – Personal Characteristics.

The adolescent brain is still developing up to 23-25 years - coaches need to be aware of the three key stages through that of athletes trying to work out what normal is; what their identity is & how they fit in & contribute to society.

Agreed, and this follows on from the previous question, coaches can spend time with athletes to help them learn and grow as individuals. They will make mistakes, but being supportive and help them accept that, and work out different approaches can help them mature. Its not all about swim, bike and run training. The athlete who is comfortable in their own skin and has a wider all round skill set in life skills is likely to cope better with what life throws at them, both in terms of coping with the demands, successes and disappointments of sport and life after competing at a high level.

Perhaps managing expectations of young athletes and focus on process goals and not performance?

This is a good point. During development athletes are likely to experience many ups and downs in terms of ‘winning’ events etc, especially if they are a late developer, this can be more of a negative experience if they just consider race results. Looking at their own development, setting process or personal performance goals can help them remain positive. It reminds me of a young athlete we worked with who was very small for his age and a late developer, but the coaches talked to him a lot about this and how once he grew its was very likely he would catch up. He bought into this to such an extent that for children’s racing he insisted on racing with cleats and bike shoes, rather than riding his bike in running shoes. With short race distances and the extra time in transition to swap shoes put him at even more a competitive disadvantage, but this response was when I need to be doing this in races when I’m older, I’ll have practiced it for 5 years and my competitors won’t have done it at all. He had learned to see the big picture and the long game even at 13 years old. A key skill.

Coaches need to consider that young athletes cannot thermoregulate, as their sweat glands do not work that efficiently until after PHV. Equally they cannot store liver or muscle glycogen as effectively as adults, so fuelling breaks need to be considered during sessions.

Agreed, good advice. Thermoregulation is one of the finest process of the body, with a finer degree of differentiation, one of the latest to fully develop and still highly adjustable at later stage. It is also vital for the athlete to understand how your own body is dealing with heat, getting them used to talking about varying degrees of heat, not just hot/cold.

You have a youth (15/17) who is fully grown, and that is probably why he wins all his competitions. His family organise everything around triathlon, the kid enjoy training and what he’s doing. But you know that in the long term he is unlikely to make the grade at elite level, once his peers catch up with his early development, what to do?

This is a difficult situation. Firstly, we cannot be sure they won’t make it at elite level, and the role of the coach is not to de-motivate anybody, but equally we need some honesty. It could be a good idea to find a way for the athlete to be able to compete against those of his own level in terms of physical maturity for experience. This may mean that they no longer win and may instil a level of realism in the situation. i.e. what is coming easily in terms of victory at present will soon disappear. The messaging to the athlete and parents needs to be carefully handled. The message might be – yes you are currently winning, much of this is due to early development. This will become harder as years go by and you may find that others will catch up and even overtake you. So, there are no guarantees of success, but the key is to focus on being as good as you can be, and let’s see where it takes you. Maybe a more common problem is inexperienced coaches working with athletes like this and promising them that they can be Olympic Champion, when in fact it is unlikely, and the family makes lots of sacrifices only to be disappointed in the long run. The key should be to do the sport because there is a passion, if it is your passion work hard and then see where that takes you.

I often get the same question from parents - what is the best age for the kids to start training in triathlon? What is your view? maybe in correlation to PHV - before or after?

There is probably no best age to start. It can start well before PHV. Key messages are to find good coaches and an environment for the child to enjoy the sport and develop well. Different athletes will respond differently, but a key is to let them develop a good all-round physical literacy and movement skills. This can often be achieved in other sports as well to supplement, or even initially be in preference to Triathlon. Two examples come to mind here; firstly the example of an athlete who was British Junior Sprint Champion at 19, up until the age of 15 he was doing a variety of sports and the focus was on Tennis and Table tennis, and at 15 he switched heavily to running, swimming and Water polo and only at 17-18 focussed on Triathlon. This follows Jean Cote’s Development model of Sport participation, where the athlete spent many year sampling different sports and then started to specialise in Triathlon.The other example I have seen is with children who spent a lot of time in Triathlon at an early age, and then decided to switch to another sport at a later age. Coaches in our club fully supported that, mainly because that is what the athlete wanted to. We all want Triathlon to grow and develop, but if we want other coaches t be willing to support athletes to come into Triathlon at the expense of say a swimming career, we should accept the other possibility too. In this case the young athlete went on to Represent his country at Rugby Union, so it would appear the right decision.

What should be the main goals of young athletes (10 to 15 years) and especially their coaches?

Firstly, it should be to encourage a love of the sport and sport in general, it should be somewhere they want to be and enjoy, so the first aim for coaches should be to focus on that. As we heard in the webinar from Emma, for some young athletes that can mean they just want to do the most training possible, others want a more social experience. Eventually the differences in approach of the mindset of the athletes will self-select to those who can compete at the highest levels. Secondly, safety, for coaches we want the athletes to be safe, fit and well, both physically and mentally. So, for example avoiding serious injury at a young age, when they are growing and ensure they have a long life involved in sport.From a training perspective, getting basic movement and sport literacy embedded is a key aspect, and developing skills as well. Fitness and building a big engine will start to develop naturally anyway if the child is loving sport and taking part lot. One perspective (which again we heard from Emma’s story) is you know as a parent of coach that you are getting it right if one of your key actions it to occasionally tell the child to rest or take time off, rather than having to tell them to train more.

Given the significant spread of maturation status in YOG participants, what’s your recommendation regarding the appropriate age group for YOG participation? Or do you have any other recommendations to manage differences in maturation status in this group of athletes?

The YOG athletes must be according to the competition rules, 15-17 year olds. That has been fixed and so these are the eligible ages, but if the question refers to what age of athlete should a NF select for their athlete this is a difficult question. The YOG obviously creates pressure, for some in terms of pressure on NOCs and NFs to “produce results” at early age (since their program are funded based on performance), and of course this pressure will fall over athletes and coaches. Producing results at an early age can be detrimental to long term development, and there are few examples of athletes who win a lot at this age, who then go on to be highly successful at Elite competition. There’s also evidence that not a lot of the athletes who competed in 2010/2014 YOG are still competing at elite level (even if we can find some interesting names), so the YOG performance cannot be related directly to future elite performance.

This isn’t to say that the YOG is a negative competition and it brings many wider benefits to the sport, and the development of the athletes, such as learning to become ambassadors, developing a wider passion for the sport, and social skills in addition to athletic experiences .  However in terms of development of individual athletes it usefulness is perhaps not in predicting future success, but in a learning opportunity.  There is some research that suggests that most athletes perform best at their second Olympics (or major games), this can be partly explained by more time to develop, but also needing to acquire experience. So one example is that YOG could be a major event where an athlete just acquires experience.  Whether this is experience is a positive or negative impact for a specific athlete, would very much be an individual decision.  Some would relish and benefit for the experience, whatever the sporting outcome, others may be too young and overawed by it.  Another perspective is that for some athletes, performing well may in the end be their most important event and the pinnacle of their career, something to look back on with pride.  We can never know at the time.    The answer perhaps for anyone considering selection is to think through some of these points and make a balanced decision, which considers more than just what is the best colour medal we can get.  Sport and especially for adolescents is too hard to predict and its impossible to make the correct decision.  However if the selectors look back, say 5 years later, and can safely say that the decision they made was done with the best all-round interest of the athletes in mind, then that is the most that can be asked for, regardless of the end outcome.