Observations in coaching age class female athletes. May POMs!

A couple weeks ago coaching at an elementary school track practice, I watched as after practice all of the young men played basketball while all the young women sat and were not physically active? I asked them if they wanted to play if I was on their team and just like that 15 young women started playing basketball against the young men! Now weekly after practice the young women play basketball against the young men!
While many may not see this as a coaching problem- it actually is. This is the culture we are working against to keep young women in the sport! We already have established higher dropout amongst women than men in youth sport. We must ensure two things- 1) we do everything we can to inclusively keep as many young women in sport as possible- by encouraging participation and 2) being sound technically and tactically with our coaching of young women. If the X’s and O’s of the sport aren’t done correctly and we aren’t building these young athletes as people and participants of sport correctly then we are failing each of these young athletes. Coaching isn’t about throwing a program at your athletes and seeing who sticks like pasta against the wall, its about working with each athlete as a human to help them become better in all facets of life, and celebrating all victories- small (pb) large (win) on and off the field. In young female athletes that becomes harder as they age with the changes they face with puberty, societal pressures to look, and act a certain way- that often times do not involve sport. We as coaches have to make sure we are changing this. This leads me to some differences and challenges (opportunities) in coaching of young female athletes.

Over the last decade as an athlete and coach, I have observed plenty of young female athletes run post puberty times equal to or better than some collegiate times, as early as grade 9 and 10, but then never go on to run Pb’s again. There is plenty of reasons for this, however I plan to tackle more how to foster long-term success rather than the well-known reasons for early development.

In observing this phenomenon, I have noticed that the young females athletes who tend to peak at a young age typically, over race and train when young. What is important is to race and train enough at a young age (lets define this as grade 7-11) that they have some success, but not too much training that they are winning everything. Winning may be a result of the under training- and when done correctly this can yield amazing short and long term results. (note that this is the exact approach I took with the young female runners in the group who had success this year) You simply want to fuel their long term interest in the sport at this age. You do not want to make winning everything, or race times pre-puberty that will then be hard to exceed or match post puberty. What learning objectives can we take away from races? When you debrief with the athletes do you only talk about the win or the time? Or, lessons learned and how this will help them going forward? With the young athletes I work with we emphasize learning tactics and execution at a young age and taking away learning objectives that will help them as sr athletes over winning. I do think that most early success stories that fade, burn out are partially do the psychological burden of not being as fast or faster then they were when they were younger. If a young female athlete runs great and is better than her cohort in grade 7 or 8 or even 9 for that matter, simply because she has been training more, weather at, before, or during puberty, she leaves less room for improvement post puberty. Compare this to other young women whom do not do focused year round training, do not over train, gradually increase training volume throughout grade 7-10, enjoy the sport and get a little better each year. For example- Athlete A; the faster than her cohort in grade 9 focuses solely on running and is running 3-4 workouts a week and while maybe no exclusively trains for running- over trains during the competitive season- often with too much intesity vs Athlete B; the athlete whom has played other sports and slowly gotten better, slowly and carefully increased her training volume done very little intensity and trained at an age appropriate level. These athletes are eventually going to meet. Who is better prepared in the Sr. grades to continue to grow and excel at the sport? Athlete B of course! Athlete B is currently enjoying success, enjoying getting better and enjoying running. Athlete A is likely getting frustrated that athletes she beat previously are catching up to her, she may not be winning, and she may be having a hard time hitting those Pb’ s she hit when she was younger. This is why training by chronological age vs competitive age is so important. Just because a young athlete is winning things at 12-14 doesn’t mean they should be trained any differently than any other 12-14 year old athlete. This I find is one of the biggest mistakes in age class coaching!

Young athletes need proper guidance in how they approach the sport. For many reasons young women have the ability to peak pre- puberty or even delay the onset of full puberty through training- while this may lead to early success, it is almost always a failure in the long term. When working with jr athletes we should always think about what is best for them in the short term, as this will always set them up for their best in the long term.

If you are the parent of a young female athlete who is driven and enjoys running competitively, you should actively search out a coach who is skilled in young athlete development, ask them what their track record is with young female athletes? Do most of their female distance runners run pb’s yearly? Look at their group; do they have plenty of grade 11, and 12 female distance runners in the group? Or do they only have grade 9 and younger? When was the last time one of their successful female distance runners ran well after high school? Look for a coach who can articulately describe what training and volume can look like through the rest of their high school career, look for someone who properly describes what prep is required for their events ( warm up/ down race execution), where they see the athlete in 3-4 years, a coach who works with the athletes other sports and adapts training around the demands of the other sport, and a coach that deliberately under trains their young female athletes. Look for a coach who can give you a yearly and 4 year plan of your daughters training, how would it differ if they played different sports, vs an athlete whom is playing one? Does your coach hold certifications from Athletics Canada? Do they actively coach along multiple levels of the athlete success pathway? High school? Collegiate? Post collegiate? Knowing where your daughter fits into the spectrum of running from playground to podium is an important part, as without knowing where they have come from and where they are going and where they may end up, how can you properly prepare and build them to reach their goals? Young athletes should not be on the track (distance) 3-5 times per week at this age, and should be taking bi-yearly or even quarterly breaks from deliberate training.

Part of the culture you set as a coach, coaching young women is to inform them of this trend so they know, know why you are coaching the way you are, and why at times in their first couple years, it may be frustrating for them to think they could be doing even better, but explaining to them the reasoning as to why this is, can help set them up for success later on- even if they don’t continue on immediately in the sport, they have a high likelihood of running for fitness, fun, or mental well being or competition, through the rest of their lives should they choose.

As junior coaches we owe it the athletes we are working with who trust us with their running goals, to provide them with the absolute best practice coaching and preparation to help them reach their goals, after all we are simply the architects of the program they follow, if success isn’t sustainable and achievable based on the building blocks we provide, then we as coaches fail, not the athletes. With he deck already stacked against young women continuing in sport we need to be sure we are creating inclusive environments that provide opportunities for success- no matter what that athlete determines as success for them!

For information on how coaches, parents and the community that supports our athletes can help foster a positive culture of sport in young women, here is a suggestion from the literature;

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/11745398.2009.9686816
May performer of the month!
May saw the entire high school crew race championships and run plenty of PB’s. Two surprising, races- for different reasons were selected for this month!

Male POM goes to Miles. In December when we found out Miles had been given the diagnosis of Lyme disease and had extreme swelling in his knees, I never thought this season would happen for him. Miles didn’t do a single workout until the 5 days before KASSAA (8x200m/200m). We built slowly through the meets, to advance him and see how much his body could handle. Two stellar performances stand out that make Miles the POM for May. 1st– KASSAA 1500m where he ran an amazing race with a huge kick to lose to a very talented and great kicker Nick S. His second race was his slight PB in the OFSAA heat- perfectly executed to make the OFSAA final! He went on to race the 1500m final and then run a PB and come 11th in the 3000m final on Day 3! Once again- This season was a season we never thought would happen- This is a true testament to Miles attitude, work ethic and patience to follow the plan and hold back- even when I knew he was itching to do more! Congrats Miles, really looking forward to seeing what else you can do.

Female POM for May goes to Hana Amari. For her amazing 4:54 and 10:33 1500m and 3000m victories at East Regionals! What was suprising about this weekend was she took 12 seconds off her PB from the previous week- which she took 10 seconds off from the week previous to that! Hana ran fearlessly and had a blast doing it. She managed in her weaker event to take down a girl who would later go on to be top 5 at OFSAA a week after this girl ran away from Hana! She then came back and executed her race perfectly to take the victory in the 3000m the next day; all while having the most fun I’ve seen her have all season! Great runs Hana and I am really looking forward to what you can do in the future.

I will see you both in a few weeks to give you your prizes!!

P.S. Huge shout-out’s to the groups graduating athletes;

Bella Adams for Selecting St. Lawrence Kingston for Nursing next year- Looking forward to still having you around and seeing you reach your Nursing goals!

Alex Drover has decided to take his academic and athletic talents to McMaster next year! He will be in great hands with Paula and the Mac crew. Last time Mac got a top jr athlete from Kingston he turned into a two time national team member while at McMaster! Looking forward to seeing what you can accomplish in academics, and athletics. But perhaps what I’m looking forward to the most next year is watching you and your Mac team lose to the Queen’s Men next year 😉 .

Proud of both of you for making amazing choices to better your future- now lets get you ready for post secondary!

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