How to be a Youth Triathlete

By Bob Seebohar

The year was 2009. I had an idea to expose kids to the wonderful sport of triathlon but had no idea what type of response I would have. Back then, triathlon wasn’t too popular with kids so I held my breath and hoped for the best. My first triathlon summer camp, under my non-profit Kids that TRI organization, was a huge success with close to 20 kids attending. I taught them some skills and drills related to swim, bike, run and transitions and everyone had such a blast learning about triathlon. But the kids didn’t really “train”.

From elementary to high school, kids progress through different developmental stages. Some professionals utilize the Tanner Stages while others use age as developmental markers. Regardless of what model is used, what is important to understand is that kids are not mini-adults. When you say “triathlon” to most people, they think Ironman. I cannot begin to tell you how many discussions I have had about this with parents.

You see, because kids are kids and the developmental process is both fragile and extremely variable (think growth spurts), it is extremely important to remember that kids should really begin with the basics and not be thrown into a volume based training program. The proper progression for having kids enter triathlon is to first teach them proper mechanics and how to move their body efficiently. After a young athlete seems to have a bit of coordination in proper movement patterns, add skills and drills. These are extremely important and should never be overlooked for racking up the training miles. Basic skills for the swim can include learning different strokes, how to get used to open water swimming, sighting, breathing, and proper technique. For cycling it includes how to be safe on a bike, learning rules of the road, hand signals, verbal communication, bike handling skills, how to get on and off a bike properly, and grabbing a water bottle from the cage. On the run, skills really should focus on good technique first and foremost and can include things like how coordinate the arm swing with the leg movement, cadence drills, forward lean drills, proper posture, and breathing techniques.

Not once did you hear me mention train a certain amount of yards or miles as that should not be the focus for youth just beginning the sport. If they progress to more of a high performance level and have graduated their technique, then, and only then, should volume be a conversation. However, I will mention that it is important to note that as kids grow and their limbs get longer, they have to re-learn many functional movement patterns again so even though they know how to implement sound biomechanical technique that works for their body, it may not be the same as they continue through their developmental process.

Youth, and parents, should be patient during the developmental stages and emphasize form, skills and drills over volume of training. The great news is that most youth triathlon races are naturally shorter in distance, which supports the developmental process in a more positive manner.

If you ask me today, now 11 years coaching youth and juniors, if I would have done anything different, I would say absolutely not. I have never rushed the developmental process with any of my young athletes and am extremely proud of that. As a coach and parent myself, there is always pressure on youth being the “best” but rushing the very sensitive developmental time of their lives with too much training volume may not only hurt their physical, emotional and behavioral development, but it may also lead to injury.

Be patient, enjoy the process and find a good team and coach who shares similar philosophies as the ones I mentioned in this article. Kids are kids and they want to have fun, even at a high level of performance. Don’t rush them into adulthood and certainly don’t treat them like mini-adults.

Bob Seebohar is a Sport Dietitian, Exercise Physiologist, Strength and Conditioning Specialist and one of only a handful of USA Triathlon Level III Elite Coaches in the country. He has been a certified USA Triathlon Coach for 21 years. For more information about Coach Bob’s eNRG Performance Youth and Junior Triathlon team and summer program options, visit www.enrgperformance.com or email him at bob@enrgperformance.com.

Check out this article with a list of youth triathlon camps and races.

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