When To Start Nudging Our Young Track and Field Athletes Toward Greatness



Parents of track and field athletes

In a recent conversation with a parent of an elite 7th Grade runner from Massachusetts, I was asked when would be the best time for her to start getting serious about her training. I realized that despite my thirty years of NCAA I Head Coaching experience, I had never given this subject matter a great deal of thought. In my role as a college coach, I was accustomed to dealing with older runners and had never really given much thought to the beginning of the process.

We often read about college coaches signing multi-million dollar contracts, and yet the men and women in the trenches of creation – the coaches out there helping plant the seeds of determination and skill development are typically volunteering parents. As a result, it is easy to assume that the system works and that the most talented athletes will eventually rise to the top. However, it is quite possible that this “wait-for-the-fire-to-ignite-within” approach to skill development and commitment levels in the sport of track and field is selling our future elite athletes short.

Imagine a young musician, artist or scientist delaying the development of their skill-set simply to avoid burnout. As coaches and parents, we oftentimes sit back, waiting for the young athlete to find their passion – as if it is sleeping within simply waiting to be awoken. A new joint study by researchers from Yale- Singapore and Stanford University states that “the ‘find your passion’ mantra may be a hindrance, distracting the individual from the actualization of their potential.”

In that study, researchers asked the question, “Are interests there all along, waiting to be revealed or must a spark of interest be cultivated through investment and persistence?” From the results of this study, it appears that developing and nurturing passion can be highly effective, particularly when compared to taking a wait and see approach. With more deliberate action, it becomes the responsibility of the participant and their network of support to help grow that “passion” through a systematic plan of logical progression and pedagogy. 

So, how does this apply to your elite junior high track and field athlete? Maybe, it is time to rethink the traditional model in our sport of waiting for that inner fire to ignite or for the tangible line in the sand to be crossed at a particular age. Perhaps, with a sound training plan and the right encouragement – we can develop these middle school athletes into highly successful high school, collegiate and post-collegiate runners by getting them started earlier.

We must ask ourselves how do we start developing this passion in a healthy manner. A former runner of mine at Columbia University and highly touted author, David Epstein (See – The Sport’s Gene) suggests that positive feedback is linked to higher performance. He cited research by sports psychologist

Christian Cook in which subjects performed better and were less likely to repeat mistakes when they were given positive feedback at an early age of participation. “I don’t know if it’s counterintuitive that positive feedback works, but it’s not the intuitive way for [coaches] to act,” Epstein says, explaining that coaches naturally identify what’s wrong and instruct athletes how to improve. “If you had to choose between needing feedback when we did something wrong or when we did something right, I’m convinced now it’s when we did something right. And that’s when people don’t give feedback,” he says. “They pay attention to what’s wrong.” So, during this time – clap before correcting. There will be plenty of time to correct in the future.

Epstein’s thoughts were reiterated in a recent article by Jenny Anderson entitled, “ Parents: Let Your Kids Fail. You’ll Be Doing Them a Favor”. She lists three ways in which we can help younger athletes develop their passion and succeed:

            1. Praise efforts, not outcomes (clap before correcting)

            2. Cheer like a grandparent, not a parent. (clap before correcting)

            3. Realize the coach is your partner, not your adversary.

For a tangible example of how effective helping younger athletes develop their passion can be -  look no further than this year’s World Cup. According to Troy Engle (former USMA Head Track and Field Coach and current Director of Coach Development for Sport Singapore), Belgium and France have  “Two of the greatest sporting systems and coaching development programs in any sport in the world. Hardly a coincidence that they are among the four remaining team…there is a lot for all of us to gain from their best practices”

To answer the initial question of when is the logical time to get started with a more formalized plan for younger runners hoping to become elite runners. I would suggest somewhere between ages 11-13.