The USAT Developmental Coach of the Year explains how to cultivate your kids’ triathlon talent the right way.
If you’re an active triathlete parent with kids, you may have dreams of your young ones succeeding in the swim-bike-run game. But, warns coach Ken Axford, it’s not just about throwing your kids into the pool and buying them a bike at age four to get a head start—there’s a more strategic way to plan for the multi-sport future.
As USA Triathlon’s 2015 Developmental Coach of the Year, Axford knows a few things about identifying and fostering young triathlon talent. Last year, he led seven athletes to earn USAT elite licenses and coached multiple youth and U-23 athletes to top finishes, and he is also the USAT Talent Identification Coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Region. He shares his advice for what he’s seen as a successful approach to building strong triathletes from childhood to post-college.
– Keep up the diversity. Sure, triathlon is three sports, but Axford discourages children from becoming specialized too early. “Studies show that specializing too early could make athletes more prone to injury,” he says. “Plus, if they’re overly engaged or all-in on triathlon at a young age, you can see them burn out. The well-rounded mental approach is very important for a healthy outlook.”
– Change it up. Because triathlon is a very unilateral sport, Axford suggests adding other activities that both complement and challenge young athletes. “While complementary sports such as cross country, swim team and track are great, younger athletes are often better served by mixing it up in the off season with dynamic sports such as ball sports and traditional team sports,” he says. “This provides developing bodies the opportunity to increase eye-hand coordination, strength, stability, explosive power and balance, and helps young athletes turn into well-balanced mature triathletes both physically and technically.”
– Learn the balance. It varies from person to person, Axford says, but kids who turn out to be successful triathletes are the ones who can balance doing multiple sports in high school, both for the mental and performance challenges.
– Continue the momentum. Fortunately there has been progress in universities offering triathlon as an official sport, but until it is widely recognized, talented athletes are often forced to choose one sport. “When an athlete steps away from triathlon for four years, it takes a while to get that going after college,” Axford says. There are successful programs in the Collegiate Recruitment Program—where Gwen Jorgensen and Katie Zafares were discovered—but to continue a successful post-collegiate career, Axford believes it’s important to keep athletes in the sport as they progress through college.