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If you’ve ever been lucky enough to witness the success of a young athlete you’ve helped develop, you know just how richly rewarding it is. (No, no, it’s definitely not weird to get choked up just thinking about a kid you’ve coached or mentored crossing a finish line. Super normal.)
Then again, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, you also know just how badly certain sports have botched their youth programs. Even coaches and parents with the best of intentions can find themselves overcome with a need to see their young athlete reach their full potential, forgetting that, in addition to their kid’s impressive athletic ability, he or she is also still just a kid. Multiple youth sports, from soccer to gymnastics, are full of stories about coaches and parents who clearly don’t have the best of intentions.
With USA Triathlon’s newly-announced plans to invest over $100,000 into its youth programs, there’s currently a lot of talk about how triathlon can serve as a model for doing youth sports the right way. Through the 2022 Return to Racing Youth Stimulus Package, USAT will increase opportunities and access for both current and prospective athletes, including:
- Free youth event sanctioning
- Free youth clinic sanctioning
- Free registration for youth clubs
- 10 free youth memberships for every youth sanctioned race and youth club
- Expansion of Youth Scholarship Program
According to John Lorenz, program director for MMTT (Multisport Madness Triathlon Team, a youth and junior elite triathlon program based in the Western suburbs of Chicago), that investment is a solid step. “One of the bigger issues we’ve tried to manage within our program is the cost aspect,” he said. Their program prides itself on reducing the financial barrier to entry by having an affordable fee structure and taking other steps, like keeping team bikes on hand that new youth athletes can use as they get into the sport. And they take a similar approach to the events they host. “We always tell people, if it comes down to an issue around fees, just talk to us,” he said.
While triathlon as a whole took a hit during the pandemic, Lorenz said youth programs were especially affected. “The pandemic also impacted the financial resources of USAT, which resulted in funding support to youth and development teams to be reduced,” he said. “As we move forward, supporting youth and development teams will be prudent to grow the sport.”
So, clearly, anything that removes an obstacle to entry for kids who might be interested in giving tri a try is most welcome this season. But as these young athletes get started in triathlon, how can coaches and other influential adults help make the experience a positive one? How do successful youth programs, like MMTT, bring these kids into the sport in a way that encourages them to stick with it—without burning out?
“You have to make triathlon fun,” Lorenz said. “When you’re dealing with kids at this age, it just has to be fun. We make it very participatory, and it’s not something that’s shoved down their throats.”
At MMTT, where Lorenz has been program director for almost 15 years, he’s focused on creating a family-type of atmosphere that acknowledges that there’s more to life than triathlon. Although they provide a daily training atmosphere, they do not require daily attendance; in fact, they encourage their athletes to participate in other sports. “I’m a big believer in athletes being athletes, and being involved in a number of sports,” Lorenz said. “The majority of our athletes are involved in their high school sports. Pretty much all of them do cross-country, swimming, track.”
The coaches at MMTT modify workouts as needed to accommodate the training their athletes are undergoing in their other sports, and that brings up another important aspect of doing youth triathlon right: developing trust with coaches and creating a relationship where the athletes feel confident enough to provide feedback. “We stress the importance of feedback a lot,” Lorenz said. “If we have X as a workout for the day, but you’ve already had a workout, or you have an injury, we’ll adjust.”
Establishing trust between the coaches and youth athletes is the primary objective, but it’s also crucial to develop trust between the coaches and parents. “If parents come to us and say their child is having a problem, that they’re not doing this or that, I’ll tell them that they need to let the coach handle it with the athlete,” Lorenz said. “That usually tends to work, since, you know, kids often respond to coaches better than they do to parents.”
Lorenz’s approach makes sense, considering what Olympian Joe Maloy, now head of development at USA Triathlon, said in his recent interview on The Triathlete Hour podcast. He noted that, while he knows his personal success will be judged by the medals earned by athletes he’s brought in and developed, he’s more interested in helping athletes build the habits and work ethic they need at the youth level so that, when they reach their 20s, they’ll have the skills they need to compete.
And, for the kids in Lorenz’s programs, it’s safe to say that one of those skills will be finding some joy, and maybe even a little bit of balance, in the sport as they climb the ranks.