Long-Term Development in Junior Athletes
BY CHARLIE WAKEFIELD
THE IMPORTANCE OF VARIETY AND OPPORTUNITY IN ATHLETICS
I thought for a while about how best to start writing and decided that some personal context might be relevant so you (the reader) can understand where I'm coming from with this article, something I've been quite excited to write for a while now...
A LITTLE BIT ABOUT ME...
My name is Charlie Wakefield, and I'm a middle-distance runner from Norfolk currently studying for an Environmental Sciences bachelor's degree at the UEA. However, I spent the last year running in the NCAA, majoring in Psychology. I wasn't always solely a middle-distance runner, and whilst it's my focus, I still compete at a national level in another sport – badminton. It's a bit random, isn't it? Why badminton of all sports, and how did I get to the point where I'm still competing in both across the country at twenty?
SPORTS AND CHILD DEVELOPMENT
Growing up, my parents gave me the most incredible opportunities in sport, with my dad coming from a background in racket sports, particularly badminton, and my mum being the runner in the family. My younger brother and I were encouraged to try both, and from quite an early age, we trained, competed, and ultimately enjoyed participating in both sports. We were never coerced or funnelled into the two sports despite our parents doing both at a pretty high level and having the opportunity to try a variety of different sports.
I swam and played football, tennis, cricket, rugby, and hockey, amongst other sports, at various stages in my childhood, all the while running and playing badminton regularly. I cannot understate how grateful I am to my parents for providing me with those opportunities and supporting me in my sport from a young age, and I guess I would say partially through exhibiting the most potential whilst also enjoying badminton and athletics the most, I naturally gravitated towards choosing to take them further.
SPORTS IN SCHOOLS
The secondary school I went to had a very successful tennis program that attracted a lot of strong junior tennis players to attend the school and train alongside their GCSEs. However, one thing very noticeable I found that separated my brother and me from a lot of the tennis players around us is that whilst we were still competing at a high level, we were training less and achieving comparatively the same results.
My brother and I still participated in school sports, never missed classes to train, and largely kept our sport outside school hours with full credit to my parents for driving us all over the place to training and competitions. This contrasted with the tennis players who regularly missed class for tennis and were excluded almost completely from school sports by their parents and coaches. They essentially did nothing but tennis from a very young age. Some kids were training 18 hours a week on and off the court at ten years old with specific coaches and their parents paying a LOT of money for private lessons. Fast-forward 10 years later, half of them have quit the sport completely.
LONG-TERM ATHLETE DEVELOPMENT
How does the tennis school analogy translate to long-term athlete development in athletics?
The point really of this story is to illustrate the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. It is very often the case that parents try to live out their sporting dreams through their children and become so invested in their child's sport, having convinced themselves their child is internally motivated even from a very young age.
The reality is often that children are just going along with what their parents say. After all, it's not like an 8-year-old can drive themselves to training. From my experience knowing countless examples of this being the case, the dropout rate amongst children who are pushed into sport and motivated externally is far higher than those whose drive comes from their internal motivation after being exposed to a variety of opportunities and being given the choice to pick their own path in sport.
SPORTS SPECIALISATION IN YOUNG ATHLETES
Some argue that to make it to the top of any sport, specialisation at a young age is essential; hence, to give a child the opportunity to progress to an elite level, they need to be trained from an early age. Whilst in some sports such as gymnastics, I'd argue that this has some truth.
A paper written in 2013 for Sports Health titled "Sport Specialization in Young Athletes" found that "there is no evidence that intense training and specialisation before puberty are necessary to achieve elite status."
The paper then continues to detail the risks associated with sport specialisation at an early age, including increased psychological stress, higher injury rates, and higher dropout rates at young ages through burnout. It also states that for most sports, intense and specialised training in a single sport "should be delayed until late adolescence to optimise success".
Reading this paper was enlightening as it essentially shows that the scientific literature aligns with the assumptions I had made from my observations.
HOW DO YOU PARENT AN ATHLETE?
If you're a parent reading this, it might be a contrary revelation, or it may align with your views on the topic. However, as someone who has recently moved up from the juniors to senior ranks with some degree of success, here are my 5 top tips to encourage the best long-term athlete development for your child:
- Expose them to as many sports and active opportunities as possible from a young age. Ideally, these should be sports with a family interest or sports where you can help their foundations, but also through school, clubs, and camps.
- Have productive conversations with your children about how they find sport/training, and if they're enjoying it, so they understand you care, but it isn't life or death. A little bit of pressure is okay, but high parental expectations can be overwhelming.
- Enjoyment is the NUMBER ONE priority, and listen to your child if they want to try something different or aren't enjoying their sport anymore - (within reason, everyone rides that rollercoaster of motivation and demotivation but approach those conversations with humility and try to be constructive).
- Support your young athlete where possible, and potentially try to watch their training sessions sometimes to fully comprehend how they're feeling and where they may need support – most parents know their children better than their coaches do.
- Ask for feedback from coaches and try to be involved from a distance, so your child knows you're invested and interested, but also let them do their thing without feeling like their parents are obsessive about their sport – (again, within reason, give them space to make their own decisions in sport and what they pursue away from the classroom: encourage don't force).
HOW CAN I INCORPORATE OTHER SPORTS INTO MY ATHLETICS?
I'll explain this from a personal perspective....
Despite my primary focus being middle-distance running, I still play badminton at a high level. I was a sponsored, nationally ranked junior now representing my university at BUCS and training alongside my running. I find that the two sports complement each other to some extent.
The fitness aspect carries over to badminton well, but I still play badminton for middle-distance running because it's the perfect PLYOMETRIC session.
Badminton footwork is lunging, jumping, and balancing whilst engaging my core and different muscle groups in combinations I might not use when running.
On a badminton court, I'm agile and constantly changing direction, meaning that my muscles are used to movements that other runners who run in straight lines may develop injuries. Pairing badminton with gym work makes up the strength and conditioning part of my training. When I was competing in the USA, I couldn't play badminton as it had yet to make it over the Atlantic properly, and I was caught up in the training program of my college. When it came to racing middle distance in the summer, I'd trained as hard as ever, and yet I lacked the sixth gear I felt I had from the previous summer, where I achieved my current PBs over 800m and 1500m.
The explosive power I have comes from playing badminton, the work I do in the gym, and the work I do on the track/road/trails. However, without badminton, I lack the sharpness I feel I need to race well.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF TRAINING FOR ATHLETES
This is just one example of how someone can utilise other sports in their training schedules, and I'd conclude that it's a very personal thing how you choose to train. There is certainly merit in incorporating other sports in training, regardless of your event, and whether it be strengthening different muscle groups, injury prevention, or solely for enjoyment and pleasure, don't be afraid to mix it up, try new things… the results might surprise you!
ABOUT CHARLIE WAKEFIELD
Charlie is predominately an 800m/1500m runner, but he also runs 5K and cross country.
As part of our blog team, Charlie will primarily be making content focusing on middle-distance events.
His goals over the next 5 years include achieving an England/GB vest on the track and breaking the 4 minute mile!