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The key to a successful running performance has many facets, and for progression in performance to be continuous the body has to be repeatedly stressed to develop its energy making systems. When working with junior runners this requirement for maintaining a progressive training programme and at the same time keeping a balance with good recovery periods needs much more control than with senior runners. Although most juniors seem to have endless energy, they can easily be over-trained, especially when in the growth phase, and when school exams loom to add to the pressure.
This is the time when training discipline is needed. The ability to stick to a personalized training schedule that has been created specifically to counter all the pressures the junior has to face, and at the same time establish a programme that stretches the mind and body safely, cannot be done by the junior alone.
Junior athletes need help and guidance with their training programs, parents and coaches alike have a responsibility to personalize each junior’s workload, and to ensure that good communication exists so that regular assessment of how the junior is feeling is appreciated.
The proliferation of Child Protection policies in athletics is on the increase, and it may be of interest to note that one such policy, under the definition of ‘Physical Abuse’ states: “Physical abuse may also be deemed to occur if the nature and intensity of training disregards the capacity of the child’s immature and growing body, or predisposes the child to injury resulting from fatigue or overuse.”
Similarly under ‘Emotional Abuse’ the following definition applies: “Emotional Abuse occurs when adults fail to show children due care and attention or threaten, use sarcasm, taunt or shout at a child causing him/her to lose self confidence or self esteem and become nervous or withdrawn. These may also occur when an adult repeatedly ignores or fails to respond to a child’s efforts or progress, or places the child under unrealistic pressure to perform to high expectations constantly.”
Anyone under the age of eighteen is considered a junior under this policy.
This trend in establishing policies and ethical codes is to ensure that all juniors within our sport are able to fully participate in an environment, that is safe from neglect and physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
I am sure that there are many parents reading the above, who are possibly not aware that at times their encouraging shouts to their children may have had other parents gritting their teeth. Enthusiasm can be a powerful motivator if used correctly, but success in a race has to be measured more by the enthusiasm of the athlete than that of the parent - or occasionally the coach.
Instances of this are not rare; I personally know of several cases where juniors have been diagnosed asthmatic and had inhalers prescribed, when on closer examination the difficulty experienced with their breathing was a direct result of restricted breathing caused by emotional stress creating an oxygen debt. At no other time other than racing was there a problem. In three such cases involving junior girls this has been a common theme connecting them, in so much that they become emotionally upset within a race situation resulting in a tightening of the chest restricting their breathing. This then develops into the domino effect where lack of oxygen creates even more emotional panic creating even more distress. The main cause of this upset - which usually develops into sobbing, making inhalation difficult just at a time when exertions are usually at their highest - are their expectations in performance, which can either be self-imposed or by parents and coaches. It is surprising how many adults have little awareness of the pressures applied to young athletes by their well-intended shouts of encouragement. Encouragement is one thing but adults have to be sensitive in what they say to youngsters when racing. The pressure can start long before a junior arrives at a race with comments meant to motivate them into trying harder than the week previous. Most juniors do give of their best, and undue pressure to do better is usually counter productive.
In the situations I refer to the girls did not live up to the pre-race position they had expected, and usually at a time when being overtaken by a known competitor they then experience breathing difficulties. I don’t expect all parents to be sports psychologists, and I admit that there is a considerable increase in the amount of alleged asthma sufferers about, so by all means get a junior checked out at the Doctors if you think there is a breathing problem. What is important is to understand that the expectations of the junior athlete should be based on realistic goals set by their current form, and not the expectations of others on where they would like them to finish!
Another problem for juniors is that of training in groups. It is not uncommon to see a whole group of juniors training together with some youngsters giving more in percentage terms than others. With a little imagination, and a good handicap system all juniors in a group can have a workload matched to their current ability. When training outside a group without the expertise of a coach, it is important for parents to ensure that their youngsters are following a planned schedule, and not running haphazardly. School sporting activities have to be taken into account when working out the training programme. It is also important for juniors to have an easy week every month with reduced mileage and eased sessions. Fluctuations in pulse levels can be a good guide for interpreting the youngsters’ current physical condition, but it does require experience to evaluate this with juniors.
In general, it is the responsibility of parents, coaches, and club administrators alike to ensure that each junior is enjoying the sport, and is training, and racing at a level that is commensurate with their age and ability, and that sufficient time is given in allowing the youngsters the opportunity to discuss their training on a regular basis.