One of my roles in sport is as a Coach in Athletics. Every club struggles to some extent with the issue of teenage drop-out rates, and there are various theories as to why potentially promising athletes fall by the wayside. The other day, I spoke to Andy Neal, an Athletics Coach based in Sussex, on the subject of teenagers in athletics. Andy himself moved in 1986 from being a low-level multi-event based track & field athlete to coaching. Qualified in all events, he specialised in discus throws, and is licensed through UK Athletics. In 2010 Andy became an accredited member of UKSC A (UK Strength Conditioning Association) in order to support the development of the athletes more fully. Andy’s philosophy of coaching is to help athletes acquire the right skills at the right time in the right way – helping them to reach their genetic potential.
Above: Andy Neal (centre) in Bulgaria
We started our discussion by looking at the lack of links between local athletics clubs and schools – many teenagers and pre-teens fail to receive encouragement to join clubs and try out new events. Once they do visit a club, they should have the opportunity to get involved in all events. UK Athletics promote the multi-event based approach, rather than early specialisation, and this need is even more urgent with teenagers who are struggling to deal with growth spurts and the hormonal and emotional changes associated. For teenagers who come to the sport relatively late, they have a better chance statistically of meeting with success. This goes against the long-held view in Gymnastics that because children are shorter and have a lower centre of mass, they are ideally suited to the discipline. The theory is that once children have completed their 10,000 hours, they are in the optimum position to start competing as they will have mastered the sport while still with that low centre of mass. The reality may be a little different: Beth Tweddle, for example, is a three times world champion, possibly Britain’s most successful gymnast ever, and yet if she follows her own prediction and the pattern of other gymnasts before her she will retire after London 2012, possibly before reaching her physical peak.
Left: Beth Tweddle
There is then a recognised disparity between preparing teenagers for sporting excellence, and the physical strain of growth and change they are already going through. But the current difficulties in training for excellence are rooted partly, Andy Neal believes, in a changing physique. If we look back to the 1950s and 1960s, and the recreational habits of children and teenagers, we see a generation of children used to tree climbing, running, jumping and lifting on a daily basis. Their gross motor skills and broad movements became well developed, and they had a broad exposure to sport and exertion that the current generation of teenagers has missed out on. For today’s teenagers starting a new sport they need a lot of back filling, learning, for example, how to run before a coach can successfully teach them to sprint. Neal suggests this physical naivety can perhaps be likened to handwriting skills – when a child learns to write he starts with a fat crayon, and he has to develop dexterity, learning to sense and make use of the nuances at the muscles and bones of his hand. In a similar way, a teenager (who may still be growing until around 19) is still learning to control his growing limbs, and has to start slowly. Coaches themselves need to be sensitive to the impact of growth and hormonal changes, and appreciate the risk of a teenager specialising too soon: as the body changes the athlete might well find that his former skill at endurance sports has waned and he is now physically more suited to the long jump or throws. Research (1) at theUniversityofHoustonalso showed recently that young golfers who learned earlier performed worse than those who learned later. So we might perhaps be limiting our future sports men and women by starting the learning process too early.
It begins to be clearer why the drop-out rates are so very high in the 16-20 age range. There is already anecdotal evidence to suggest that early specialisation encourages high performer drop outs.
Katharine Merry, a former English female sprinter was, at just 14 years old, the fastest girl in the world. Her international career started when she was 13, won 5 medals on the junior team, and then became a successful senior athlete, winning an Olympic medal in Sydney. She retired in 2005 after suffering from a bone spur growth on her right heel bone, and, after 2 operations, having never returned to her 2000 form. The inference from various sports commentators at the time was that Merry had specialised too early, and suffered burn-out.
Left: Katharine Merry
Clubs can employ a few tactics to try to counteract teenage drop-out rates. Ensuring the athletes can find some financial support to help them to attend competitions, buy kit etc, is a suggestion supported by Neal, who acknowledges that athletics is an awkward sport, with meetings likely to be all over the country. Disabled athletes can probably find funding for special modified equipment, such as racing chairs, but non-disabled athletes from low income families may well need help too. Neal told me about some forward thinking clubs who have invested in equipment to bridge the gap and help train new teenage members to acquire speed and precision in their movements. As Neal put it, “England Athletics are trying to work with clubs in reflecting on what they do. They are all for trying to help facilitate change, but understand that change takes time.”
Another serious influence upon teenager’s adherence to sport is peer pressure. The effect of not doing well in school PE can be self-consciousness, discomfort even, around the whole subject of sport. Joining a club, and not necessarily excelling, or possibly getting unwelcome attention from peers simply because the teenager IS skilful in his new sport, can be highly stressful experiences. This fear of failure coupled with poor experiences in sport may, according to a report by the British Journal of Educational Psychology (2), create antisocial behaviour in student athletes, and seems to affect both sexes equally. Females reported higher levels of fear of devaluing one’s self-estimate than males whereas males reported higher levels of fear of important others losing interest than females. Males engaged more frequently than females in antisocial behaviour in both contexts.
So what is Andy Neal’s own approach to training teenagers? Firstly, Neal told me he wouldn’t teach ancillary skills or technical matters, but concentrate initially on run, jump, throw. I asked him about how strength and conditioning training fits into an athlete’s training schedule, and we talked about lifts: are S&C lifts bringing sport specific skills to the athletes? Andy believes firmly that the two sports complement each other perfectly. UKSCA states that a clean and jerk involves a double knee bend, a triple extension, and a shrug: to an Athletics coach, that sounds like a jump. As Neal puts it, if there is a synchronicity and a firing of fibres in the right way, then it should transfer to the athlete’s sport.
And are things changing in athletics, to accommodate the 21st century teenager and to keep training motivated and specific? Andy Neal points to the coaches’ handbook “365” as a genuine improvement. It allows for lower ability athletes, with a mechanism in place to sustain motivation. 365 is designed to be used as an assessment tool, like the belt system in martial arts. The handbook has now been in place for around 18 months, and has already evolved and changed, encouraging the coach to introduce differentiation, to changer the task or the equipment to allow for better learning.
With the Olympics and Paralympics only months away now, it is an ideal time to recruit young athletes, but the test will be how many of those entering clubs in 2012 are still participating and enjoying athletics in 2014, and beyond.
(1) Hernandez et al. (2011). Age of acquisition in sport: starting early matters. Am J Psychol, 124(3):253-60.
(2) Sagar et al. (2011). Fear of failure and student athletes’ interpersonal antisocial behaviour in education and sport. British Journal of Educational Psychology, Volume 81, Issue 3, pages 391–408.