Building relationships with youth T&F/XC programs creates priority mindshare and counters the pull of athletes into other sports
It’s both sad and funny. Whenever I speak with high school track & field or cross country coaches the topic of youth programs inevitably comes up and it’s regularly accompanied by a grimace or general sense of unease. Often, in the same conversation, these coaches will lament about the encroachment of other sports, e.g. soccer, lacrosse, or rugby on their school’s student-athletes.
As a former high school coach and current USATF club coach, I find it extremely ironic to hear these two sentiments voiced at the same time. When I probe coaches about their uneasiness regarding youth programs I often hear concerns about meddling club coaches, worries about burning out/over training young athletes, or sometimes they are unable to articulate what has them concerned. Yet when I ask them about the other sports that are “taking” their athletes, they almost unanimously say that kids get “hooked” at an early age due to club programs. Hmmm…does anyone else see a missed opportunity here?
For too long high school coaches and youth coaches have simply not communicated. Ask yourself, do you know if there are any youth T&F/XC programs in your area? If so, do you know the coaches and when is the last time you spoke with them? What are the most common youth programs? There are middle school programs, CYO programs, as well as AAU (yes, it still exists!) and USATF programs. Middle school and CYO programs vary greatly depending on district/parish, often being relatively unstructured with little in the way of trained coaches. In contrast, USATF clubs are required to have at least one USATF certified coach and most clubs have multiple coaches with extensive coaching credentials. Regardless of what type of program(s) exist in your area, I highly encourage you to begin an ongoing dialogue with coaches of the program(s).
Why should you reach out to youth coaches? Simple—they are the one who are creating the first impressions and opportunities for your future athletes to experience T&F/XC. Don’t you want to help make those experiences as good as possible so that kids start to think of T&F/XC as priority sports vs. the sports they’ll do if they don’t make another sport? Worried about that meddling club coach that you’ve experienced or more likely simply heard about from another high school coach? Guess what? If you’ve got an ongoing dialogue with the youth coaches in your area, then chances are that you’re not going to have the “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario because you will understand each other and respect each other’s program, even if you would do things differently than the other. (How many high school coaches share the same philosophy or execute training programs in the exact same way?)
What about burn out and over training of youth athletes? I’m glad to say that if this were an episode of MythBusters, this is one myth that would typically be “busted.” The vast majority of youth programs do not advocate or offer training sessions that are likely to cause burn out or over training. Most youth programs offer between 2 to 4 practices a week, with 2-3 meets per month during the main competition season. Are there programs that encourage their athletes to do more and coaches/parents that push their kids too much? Of course there are, but they are the exception rather than the rule. In most of these cases, the coaches/parents encouraging excessive training or pushing kids too hard are the ones that have the least coaching experience. Here too is another opportunity for the high school coach to take advantage of communicating with the youth coaches (and parents) to share his/her coaching knowledge through direct conversation, books, clinics, or other methods.
I tell parents, coaches and the athletes I coach that our program is the one that says “yes, you can” instead of “no, you can’t.” We don’t have required practices and we emphasize that it’s a very social activity (I tell athletes that they’ll be able to talk with their friends 90% of the time—the other 10% they’ll either be listening or breathing too hard!). We also stress that while we are a team, it’s all about individual progression. We have kids as young as 1st grade come out from time to time, but we typically don’t let kids under 3rd grade participate regularly – defined as twice a week. From there, we offer up to four days a week of practice for our middle school kids. In rare cases, we work with our 8th graders to occasionally incorporate a 5th day of training if T&F/XC is going to be their primary sport in high school and we are trying to help make a gradual acclimation to the training load they will see as freshmen. We also know and communicate regularly with the high school coaches in our area.
The biggest concerns and leading causes of burn out and over training that I’ve encountered in nearly 30 years of coaching are young athletes doing too much physical activity from multiple sports and too much intensity in any one sport or across all of the sports the athletes are involved in. I advocate that parents and coaches look at the total number of hours of physical activity that young athletes are doing. It’s pretty staggering in some cases. For example, competitive club soccer players will average 4-6 hours of practice plus 1-4 hours of games per week! Add to that other sports and it’s very easy to see elementary and middle school kids logging 10-20 hours of physical activity a week! In comparison, the NCAA limits student-athletes to 20 hours per week of “countable athletically related activities,” which includes practices, ancillary training, competitions, meetings and more. Additionally NCAA athletes are required to have one day off from athletic activities per week.
How do we help prevent young athletes from over training? Again, one of the best ways I’ve advocated and seen used is to openly communicate with all coaches and the parents. Often they are unaware of what the other programs are doing. Once information has been shared, it’s not uncommon to see coaches acknowledging the training effect from the other sports and having the athlete work on a sport-specific skill versus doing more “conditioning.”
So what does all of this communication and effort get high school coaches? I strongly believe that the lack of alignment between youth T&F/XC programs and high school programs is one of the reasons high school programs are seeing attrition of athletes to other sports. By establishing an alliance with youth programs, high school coaches are helping to create more opportunities for elementary and middle school athletes to experience track & field and cross country. Increasing participation at the elementary and middle school levels will translate to larger numbers of participants at the high school level and more highly skilled athletes choosing to participate in T&F/XC when they enter high school. All of this is due to creating mindshare in young athletes that T&F/XC are priority sports. Working with youth programs will also serve to decrease the incidents of “meddling coaching” by club coaches once athletes enter high school as coaches from both programs will have an understanding and respect for one another. Finally, better alignment between the programs will also help to reduce incidents of over training as coaches and parents communicate, share knowledge and better understand what is being asked of youth athletes. Is it guaranteed to help your program—almost certainly in one way or another. What do you have to lose if you don’t try—just your athletes.
· Invite local youth coaches to have coffee or a beer in order to meet and get to know each other
· Share information about coaching clinics with youth coaches
· Encourage youth coaches and their teams to attend high school meets/invitationals and do something special during the meet to recognize them or have them involved (can you say, volunteers!)
· Let youth programs have access to your facilities after your practice (if practical). Most youth programs are non-profit and can’t afford to rent facilities, but most will be able to provide insurance coverage, especially if they are a USATF club.
· Mentor youth coaches. Let youth coaches come to your practices and shadow you or other coaches on your staff.
· Be open to learning from youth coaches! Some youth coaches have extensive athletic and coaching backgrounds. They just may be that perfect assistant coach you’ve been looking for, or may be an ideal sounding board that can offer a fresh, objective opinion.
· Add youth races to your meets. It’s easy to do and is within the CIF rules.
· Put on a youth clinic/meet that uses your high school athletes as instructors/aides. This could be a fundraiser.
· Pacific Association of USATF web site, www.pausatf.org, lists all clubs and can be sorted by youth and location
· Contact me directly: David Bayliss, firstname.lastname@example.org or (650) 492-1754.
Pacific Association USATF Youth Cross Country Chair
Founder/Head Coach Oak Hill Athletics & Racing