Yes I know, triathlon already combines three sporting disciplines – swimming, cycling and running. But USA Triathlon’s 2015 Developmental Coach of the Year, Ken Axford, recommends that young triathletes should also pick up another sport.
As one of the many interesting links we post on the Active + Nourished facebook page, you may recall the article we shared by Triathlete.com “Parents: How to Raise Future Triathletes.” We had such strong interest in this post that we thought we would highlight some of the key recommendations.
Here are Axford’s key recommendations on how to raise successful young triathletes from childhood to high school:
1. Don’t specialise too early.
Axford notes that “Studies show that specializing too early could make athletes more prone to injury.”
“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.”
In our own research, “Early sports specialisation versus diversification for young athletes,” we found that the peak age for Olympic age triathlon is not until 26-28 years old. Even under the generalist 10-year expertise rule, young athletes may not need to start specialising until 16-18 years old. Current Australian studies have shown that you can reach expertise in sport within 7.5 years. This implies an even later start is possible. For ironman triathlon, the peak age is not until 32-33 years old. Elite status may then still be achievable from specialisation as late as 25 years of age.
We also found much-supporting evidence for increased chance of injury due to overuse, greater incidence of burnout, and dropout rates were higher as a result of too much pressure from early specialisation.
2. Young triathletes should also try alternative sports.
“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 offseason with dynamic sports such as ball sports and traditional team sports,” Axford 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.”
In our research, we found evidence that showed that elite athletes start sports specialisation later than non or near-elites.
• More deliberate play during the sampling years establishes a range of motor and cognitive experiences that children can ultimately bring to their principal sport of interest.
• Young athletes who experienced a great number of activities in their early years (0-12 years) were able to undertake fewer sports specific practice to achieve expertise. This is due to the transfer of pattern recall skills between sports, which is most developed in the early stages of involvement.
• Early diversification followed by specialisation may lead to more enjoyment, fewer injuries, and longer participation, contributing to the chances of success.
3. Multisport with life balance.
Those young triathletes who can learn to manage multiple sports in high school balancing mental and performance challenges, turn out to be the successful triathletes.
Once again, we found that:
• Sports diversification has a positive impact on socialisation skills, positive peer relationships, leadership skills, and overall emotional well-being.
• High amounts of deliberate play in the early years builds a solid foundation of self-motivation for enjoyment and self-interest. This will lead to more self-determination and commitment in their future participation in sport.
4. Continue triathlon after school.
Many young triathletes move to a single sport in college or university if triathlon is not offered as a competitive option. But Axford recommends keeping up triathlon post-high school years to continue the momentum.
So before rushing your kids at an early age to swim, bike and run, also consider the well-documented benefits of diversifying into other sports. The short term benefits you may see from early specialisation may come at the price of injury and burnout.
Ken Axford is a USA Triathlon Level II and Youth Junior Certified Coach. In 2015, he coached:
• seven developmental athletes to gain their USA Triathlon elite licenses,
• U23 female athletes to 4th and 9th finishes at the ITU U23 World Championships. Also finished 3rd at the ITU U23 CAMTRI American Championships,
• four of his youth athletes ages 13-15 earned podium finishes at USA Triathlon Youth Elite Cups, and
• seven qualifiers for the USA Triathlon Youth Elite & Junior Elite National Championships.
Axford directs and coaches at PEAK Multisport, the USA Triathlon High Performance Team in Colorado Springs. It ranked 10th in the U.S. at the end of the 2015 season.