Youth and Triathlon

I have 2 children, now ages 9 and 12 who showed an interest in triathlon almost immediately after I began racing in 2009. Both completed their first kids race later that year.  I get asked all the time by athletes or friends how to get their kids involved in the sport.  Unfortunately we live in an area where there are no established kids tri teams, so I’ve “guided” (I would not go so far as to say I really coach them) both in a way that keeps it fun and safe but gets them to a point where they can complete their races and have a good time.  So naturally when I earned my USAT Coaching Cert I began looking for information on coaching youth triathletes.  I even coached my son through the Virginia Run Sprint Triathlon where he took 3rd in the M10-12 AG.  But coaching your own child and coaching actual youth triathletes are 2 totally different things and if I wanted to look into getting a youth club going I knew I needed to learn more.  So when I heard that the Achieve Youth Triathlon Program was looking for coaches for a 6 week camp in DC for youth ages 9-14 I jumped on board.  Achieve is a non-profit program that provides a 6 week FREE triathlon camp designed to introduce underprivileged kids to triathlon.  The 6 week program was M-F for 4 hours a day and provides breakfast, lunch, bikes, helmets, and even swim suits and goggles for the athletes to use and ends with a USAT sanctioned race on the last day of camp.  It was a long 6 weeks, but I learned some valuable lessons about coaching youth athletes.

1)      Before anything else – the youth needs to actually be interested in Triathlon. Triathlon is not like baseball where you can put a week player in right field and let the game pass them by.  There are a lot of different ways to get a kid excited about tri’s – why do you tri?  Whether you like the social aspect, crushing the competition, or the party at the finish line, chances are you can find something to spark a kids’ interest.  For your own kids – take them to a race with you, let them make signs and ring a cowbell get them into the spirit!!  For a group, play the NBC Kona video, or show them pictures from races, show off your gear and your race bling – they love that!!

2)      Finding a balance between working and fun is key.  We found that in groups, the very best way to motivate the kids was to do relays and games involving swimming biking and running.  We even did some brick relays!  But kids love competition in any form you can come up with and it worked far better than trying to have everyone just go run or ride for 10 min etc.  For working with my own two kids outside of a group I’ve found that giving them individual goals that are achievable and are tied to rewards has always worked well.  Whether its running for X minutes straight or hitting a time goal at a workout, they know they get smoothies on the way home or something like that.  For running, I also have taken them with me to some Saturday morning group runs, and while they may not run the whole thing, the group has walkers and runners of all abilities and they get a HUGE kick out of being the only kids there and getting lots of attention.   But the key is really to make sure that it’s a positive experience.  Triathlon is an individual sport and the kids should be working at improving themselves, at this stage of the game its not about the competition.

3)      If you are just trying to get your own kids into it – just make it fun.  They don’t need to “train everyday” so don’t push it too hard or they will look at it as a chore. Training can be a family bike ride – race your kid down the street!  Running – I like taking my kids someplace to run, it makes it more interesting.  My son runs sooo much faster and longer on trails just because they are different.  Many parks in our area have trails and playgrounds.  Make it an outing – explore a trail – run a few minutes, walk a few minutes – end at the playground or maybe have a picnic.  Or you can simply simply race them around the block – most kids events are under a mile run anyway!  Swimming is the one sport that you do have to be a little more strict on.  They gotta get in the pool and learn to swim laps.  It doesn’t need to be a masters workout, but they need to practice freestyle for a few hundred yards a week at least.  Sharks and Minnows or Marco Polo won’t really help too much…  And for this one – don’t be afraid to take them to an expert for swim lessons.  Sometimes trying to teach your own kid freestyle is just too overwhelming.  I was able to teach my daughter, but not my son and sent him to lessons for the basics.  Once he had the basics I took over since he doesn’t want to swim competitively.  But a kids swim team is very similar to a masters group.  Don’t push it, but if your child is interested in it – that will improve their swim faster than anything else you could possibly do.

4)      You as a coach need to have your act together.  This age group will challenge you and ask questions (whether your own kids or not!).  Winging it is not an option!  You need to have a plan with set goals that the kids can understand and appreciate.

5)      If you are coaching a group – you need to have the right amount of help.  When you have kids with highly varying skills you need to be able to break kids up into manageable groups according to skill level and coaches need to be available for individual help.  2 coaches with 20 athletes in a pool where you have kids who can’t swim more than 5 feet mixed in with swim team athletes and everything you can imagine in between just wont cut it.  So be prepared and ask for help from parents even if they are not coaches.

6)      Limit parent contact during group workouts.  I know I just said to ask for help, but you need to control the situation.  You don’t want a free for all with 20 parents on deck shouting different things at their own kids.  This is distracting to the other kids and also undermines and many times contradicts the coach.  This can be done by establishing simple rules off the bat, like no parents on deck during practice (except for parent helpers etc).

As you can imagine we had our challenges with the program and I’ve had my challenges with my own kids, but the rewards of working with youth are simply awesome.  Triathlon is one of the very few sports that these kids can end up sticking with for the rest of their lives beyond College and even into retirement, so getting them into it early is huge for establishing the basis for a long active and healthy lifestyle.  Triathlon is a sport that anyone can do.  Anyone can learn to swim, ride a bike, and run. It’s simply a choice to learn and train.  You don’t have to be an all star to make the high school team, you can compete anytime you want.  So seeing some of these kids who came to us at age 9 extremely overweight, unable to swim at all and never having ridden a bike before learn everything in 6 weeks and progress enough to finish 100yd swim, 5K bike, 2K run was simply amazing!  Similarly with my own kids, watching them learn to push themselves and having fun at it has been highly rewarding, so don’t be afraid to get your kids involved and see where they go!