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Young Athletes

We begin with some words of wisdom from coach Raphael Brandon:

"Remember, do not treat young athletes as adults in miniature."

We cannot afford to ignore this advice. The training theory and coaching methods used for most young athletes are based on the physiology of adults. This is because adult training has been extensively studied. That's where the knowledge lies and it often fails to take younger age-groups into consideration.

This invariably creates a problem because, in fact, the exercise physiology of children is different from that of adults. Children are not mini-adults. Rather, they have a developing physiology, from early childhood to late adolescence.

This means they have different capabilities for, and adaptations, to, exercise. For this reason, young athlete training programmes should not be just scaled-down versions of adult training.

The failure to establish correct training patterns for young athletes, unfortunately, goes way back.

Now is the time to reverse the failure of our schools and clubs to bring on young athletes.

Physical education has as its central premise the idea that children should be guided through a range of sports by someone who is not a specialist in most of them. Underlying this premise is the belief that each child will find a sport in which he or she has some ability.

However, experience tells us that this is rarely so. What actually happens is that physically gifted children dominate almost every activity, while those at the other end of the physical spectrum encounter little but failure. This is because achieving competence in any sport invariably takes time - time which is not normally available within the PE curriculum.

Now, while it is true that a girl of 13 is fairly likely to be able to throw a javelin further than she could at 12, her performance will not necessarily be technically superior.

Breaking the cycle of decline by building core skills

Whether children are training in a club or as part of the school curriculum, provision must be made for intelligent practice away from coach or teacher.

And for practice to work there must be lots of it. For example, anyone who has ever taken up a sport like tennis knows that it takes some time before it is possible, even with coaching, to sustain a collaborative five-stroke rally.

While practice does not make perfect, it does make permanent. Work on core skills needs a great deal of repetition, in the process of which the percentage of inferior efforts gradually diminishes, before competence is achieved. And without competence there is little hope of pleasure, which is, after all, what sport is all about.

Imagine that you were taken to a golf-driving range and coached through 50-odd balls, then did no golf for a year. On returning to the range a year later, would you really expect to be any more technically proficient? Of course not!

To return to our school example, technical skills achieved year on year within curricular time are likely to be fairly static, simply because of lack of repetition.

Because performance outcomes in PE are never tested, we have little means of knowing what level of technique a child has achieved as a direct product of his school experience.

Alas, the empirical evidence offers little in the way of encouragement. Experience tells us few A-level PE students can claim to master even the most rudimentary athletics technique.

The coaching of young athletes at club level is little better. This does not mean there may not be oases of good practice in schools and clubs - only that they are not the norm.