Creating enjoyment is the key to keeping kids in the sport and reaching their potential in adulthood, writes Toni Minichiello

When I first got involved in coaching 34 years ago, I thought at the time that all I was aiming to do was teach youngsters how to perform and in turn that would make them better.

The better they got, the more they’d enjoy the sport and in turn the more they enjoyed the sport the better they would get. Simple.

Planning for a season’s competition was straightforward – a county championships, an area championships, the English Schools and about four league meetings, a couple of open meetings, a representative match and that’s your season.

There were about 10 competitions over a five-month outdoor season. If you got it really right then the competitions would fall on alternate weekends, giving you a weekend off and of course then plenty of time to train.

So the rough plan of action was to compete then reflect on the competition, take time to analyse the performance and where those identified improvements could come from, train those improvements a couple of times at least and then unleash them on the next competition and stand back waiting for another PB to blossom.

The focus was always on improvement and on getting better or on getting more proficient, stabilise technique and from that solid platform, the improvements were bound to follow. My philosophy around competition is that it’s only about really about winning when you get to a championships and all other meetings are about testing things, personal improvement and creating the stability to improve. The other minor meetings are not so much about winning or even PBs, but more about smiling.

PHASES OF DEVELOPMENT

So now for the sciencey bit. I recently re-read an article called “A lifespan perspective on the career of talented and elite athletes: perspectives on high intensity sports” by Paul Wylleman and Anke Reints. (Now the disclaimer bit – “never read a science article in isolation of other publications” as no single paper has the all the answers, just a thread of an answer or idea. Much like coaching is about how you blend the information out there and apply it to your own unique situation and environment.)

In short the paper highlights 9-13 years as an initiation phase into sport, 13-15 years is a development phase, 15-29 years is a mastery phase then 29 years plus is a discontinuation from elite performance.

Before everyone starts shouting, those are not hard and fast ages to work to as there will be some drift but basically you spend 10 years building experience in a sport to be able to spend 5-10 years competing at the highest levels.

If you take a close look at that, most elite careers often span two or three Olympic Games, so it is not a bad fit.

For me, coaching has changed. The biggest task facing a coach today is to keep youngsters in the sport for 10 years, retaining athletes in the sport long enough to have built enough experience and enjoyment so that they can compete at their own highest capable level. We know that the peak performance years for athletes are in and around their early to mid-20s, depending on events, and we know the difficult years and where athletes fall out of the sport are between 16-19.

We also know that success as a junior is not an indicator of success as a senior. In fact, I’d go as far as to say an international medal-winning junior is probably a clear indicator of who won’t make the transition to a medal-winning performing senior.

So what are some of the reasons that came to light from the recent study done by Dr Karla Drew at Liverpool John Moores University into reasons for drop-out in athletics?

PRESSURES

» Education as pressure
» Coaches as pressure
» Parents as pressure
» Competition as pressure

THE “RIGHT” COACH

» Style of coaching
» One to one or bigger group, what works for the athlete t Coach/athlete relationship, communication
» Staying ahead of an athlete’s progress

SOCIAL SUPPORT NETWORK

» Technical support
» Physio as a support network
» Parents as a support network
» Fellow athletes as a support network

INTRINSIC OR EXTRINSIC MOTIVATION

» What?
» Why?
» Enjoyment

Intrinsic motivation is what you are trying to build in an athlete. It’s a stronger impetus and longer lasting. Basically it is the act of doing something without any obvious external rewards. You do it because it’s enjoyable and interesting, rather than because of an outside incentive or pressure to do it, such as a reward or deadline.

So part of coaching is about making sessions enjoyable, challenging and different. But certainly it’s important that you can explain how it forms part of an overarching plan. Ask yourself, is the session set for them or for the group or, worse still, set for the star performer athlete of the group?

There are a number of pressures that affect any athlete and it’s all about how the athletes cope with these pressures. Education is an obvious one, especially around the time leading to exams but also when the work starts to mount up and athletes get behind in their studies.

My view is always to ask athletes how the studies are going and work around their own time management. Building into the training plans days off to study and weeks off around exam time, if needed. Let’s be honest, missing a session here and there has little bearing on a performance outcome that can’t be caught up later.

Planning time is only part of it. There is also the reassurance the athlete won’t go backwards if they miss training, it’s all part of a bigger picture or a future plan. Coming down to training once in a week is a good thing to exercise and let off steam and improves the ability to study. Young people don’t lose that much fitness that quickly, really.

Mums and dads can sometimes become “pushy parents” and turn into a source of pressure wanting the athlete to succeed. They’re invested in their child’s development and of course want the best for them.

Explaining what competitions matter and what competitions do not is a start. We know early success is a sign of nothing. It amazes me when I see parents chasing kit contracts and trying to find agents for their children who aren’t even out of under-17 age group. When sport becomes a profession or a business, it is a short-cut to loss of enjoyment.

John Lyle, a professor of sports coaching at Leeds Beckett University, says success in a high performance environment is all about good/smart decision making. I’d go further and say that in order to make good decisions you need experience and a good understanding of the options that are on offer. Who is better placed to guide athletes through that process than the coach?

The coach is someone who can frame the “why” for an athlete. “Why are we doing this? Why will this make me better?” These are questions that the coach should constantly be asking.

HOW TO DEAL WITH THE PRESSURES

The opening gambit when a kid aged about 12 walks into a club is to keep them in the sport long enough for them to get into that ‘mastery phase’. This is what coaching is fundamentally about.

You can’t reach your potential without putting in the yards or the time. But on the way you have to deal with all these ‘pressures’ that are pulling at athletes during that 10 years of developing.

In education kids are under pressure to perform in SATs, then GCSEs then A-levels. Coaches might create pressure because they always want their athletes to perform well. There is also sometimes pressure from parents who want to see a return for the time and money they are spending.

Of course athletes will often put pressure on themselves, too.

It takes some time for a coach to realise that missing a day’s training doesn’t make any difference. If you miss 50 days, it might. But if an athlete misses one day, they’re not going to come back looking like a complete beginner.

I think with younger athletes they take longer to lose their fitness, but you have to work longer to bring it back. With older athletes I think you can bring it back quicker, but you can lose it quicker.

DON’T COMPETE JUST FOR THE SAKE OF IT

Athletes and their coaches feel they have to be at one of the Talent Hubs because from there they get on to the Futures programme and from there on to the Lottery-funded senior programme.

They think they have to be involved and that they have to win medals and break records to achieve this. But I look at it and I just think ‘you’re burning people out’.

Have we forgotten that it’s sport and it’s supposed to be fun? There is a real tranche of people who are smashing the living daylights out of themselves and over-competing and probably over-training.

There are a few worrying examples of what I’d call ‘runaway trains’ with Power of 10 profiles where you can scroll through their results forever. I’m seeing it more and more in athletics and I think that they are just burning kids out.

I worry that they are not training or making progress in the summer season. In the winter we chuck money in the bank and in the summer we withdraw the money but you have to also make small top-ups in the summer, too. Competitions also cease to be fun if you’re competing every single weekend.

If athletes want to compete, perhaps unnecessarily, I always ask them “why?”. Then, as I start to unpick it by asking “why, why, why?” we will often work out a plan for where and when exactly the next competition should be.

People would often ask me, for example, why Jess (Ennis-Hill) would do the shot and javelin at the Yorkshire Championships and the reason was two-fold. We needed to do some throws competitions before, say, Götzis a few weeks later and I also wanted to see if she could produce a performance at a place, with no disrespect to the Yorkshire Championships, where she might not be that motivated because it’s cold, wet and blowy.

I wanted Jess to be able to intrinsically motivate herself. The performance has to come from within. Like a switch you’ve got to be able to turn on the switch, on demand regardless of surroundings or situation. She might win the shot at the Yorkshires but Jess wouldn’t be winning the shot in Götzis and if things were not going well she needed to have the ability to find it within herself to motivate herself to compete better.

In the javelin it was about getting stuck in, testing it in a run-up under a bit of pressure and seeing if it held together. It was a bit false because she would be too rested for a javelin there in comparison to during a heptathlon where it’s the next to last event.

It was those kind of competitions where we would ask “why” because those smaller competitions lead to bigger ones. The only competitions that really matter to me are the championships. Everything else is building toward a championship moment.

For Jess at a younger age the young athletes’ league was simply about having fun. We knew we couldn’t get promoted because our team wasn’t too strong all-round so we didn’t care about the results.

Power of 10 is a blessing and a curse at the same time. Everyone is rushing out to compete to get further up the rankings but the smart way to improve is to rest, train, get ready, find a meeting that fits and then leap up Power of 10 with a big bound instead of trying to make small increments week after week.

FINDING THE RIGHT COACHING GROUP

Sometimes the style of coaching can make a difference. Some of the athletes in Karla’s study dropped out because they went to a bigger group, thinking the grass would be greener, only to realise they didn’t get as much one-to-one attention.

Finding a group that suits you is important. The social interaction in the group is also important. What are the dynamics of the group? Is it too noisy or too quiet? Are you training with your rivals?

Does the coach’s knowledge keep in pace with the athlete’s progress? An athlete might lose confidence and think about moving if their coach isn’t staying ahead of them.

Does the athlete get enough ‘time’ from the coach too? This can be tricky if there is a big group in a mere two-hour session or if there is a ‘superstar’ in the group who might attract more of the coach’s time.

Alex Ferguson once said that football players look at the coach or manager and are thinking: “Can he make us winners? Can he make me a better footballer? Is he loyal to us?” And I would read the latter part in the athletics environment to mean “does the coach believe in me?” Coach-athlete communication is key here.

REMEMBER, KEEP IT FUN

You don’t want an athlete to be doing the sport simply because their mum keeps bringing them down to the track and “because they feel they should”. Instead, creating that intrinsic motivation is crucial.

Lately, for me, athletics has become a bit too judgemental when it comes to young athletes working their way up the age groups. We can’t avoid having some kind of measurement in our sport. After all, we use a stopwatch and tape measure to record performances. But most of the results at a young age are not as important as simply having fun and developing a love for the sport.

An athlete’s life from their teenage to senior years will also be full of ups and downs. Athletics is not a straight-line graph, otherwise we’d all keep improving the entire time until we reach our early 30s.

Finally, a word about injuries. Of course, these are a big reason for young athletes dropping out the sport or failing to reach their potential. Using physiotherapy as regular MOT to find things is a good idea.

It’s a bit like going to the dentist. Your teeth might be fine, but you should still have a check-up every six months.

» Karla Drew’s research into drop-out rates among talented junior athletes was published in the July 18, 2018, issue of AW, which members can access in the AW Clubhouse here

» One of Britain’s best known and most successful coaches, Toni Minichiello guided Jessica Ennis-Hill from 13-year-old novice to the top of the Olympic podium. He was named Sportscoach UK coach of the year in 2012 and continues to help athletes primarily based in Sheffield

» This feature was first published in the November edition of AW magazine, which is available to order online in print here and read digitally here

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