Working with young Athletes can be an emotional rollercoaster, if you allow it to be.
They can have amazing wins and terrible losses. They can progress at a rapid rate and then apparently stall for no reason.
The key to staying stable is to take a long-term view. And one way to do this is to accept:
Junior Results Probably Don't Matter.
If don't believe me just look around. You'll see former junior State, National and World Champs who never 'made it' in the senior ranks.
Below are some of the reasons I don't get too excited, nor disappointed, about the results of my Junior Athletes.
After reading this, feel free to post any additional reasons (or reasons you disagree) below.
1) Early Exposure
In South Africa, in my particular province, we played Rugby in junior school as our main winter sport. Other provinces chose to play football (soccer).
In the first year of high school there was a fair divide between those who had a few 'seasons' under their belt compared to those who were totally new to the game.
In essence, the selection criteria for the u13 and u14 age-groups was more a selection of Early Exposure than it was of future success.
Of course, over time, the disparity decreases until it becomes negligible.
Whether it's because their parent is a Coach or Official in the sport, where they're growing up, or purely through 'luck of the draw', Early Exposure can have a dramatic effect on the early results of young competitors.
Great results in the early years aren't necessarily a result of talent, commitment or training. It could just be that they got a head start.
2) Sibling Order
Our son (5) attended his first football (soccer) practice a few weeks back. He'd never really seen/experienced the sport so it took a few sessions for him to understand a few basic concepts.
Our daughter (2) has only watched her brother participate and already has a grip on what happens at practice. When she first signs up I wouldn't be surprised if she appears more talented than some of her team mates.
This often happens with younger siblings - they learn through an almost osmotic process.
This happens in competition too.
One Junior Athlete might be the eldest of their family, struggling with all the new concepts they're experiencing, while their opposition is the 2nd, 3rd or 4th sibling.
3) Relative Age Effect
If the cut-off for the sport's age-groups is January 1, imagine the potential difference between someone born on January 2nd and someone born on December 31st of the same year.
While they may be in the same age-group, the reality is there could be a 12-month difference in age, maturation and practice.
This will level off in the Elite/Senior ranks but can have a big impact in junior sport.
4) Maturation Age
I'll never forget my first lesson at high school.
The guy sitting next to me had thick, hairy legs; a 5 o'clock shadow (it was 8am) and these huge sausage-like fingers.
I hadn't hit puberty yet and assumed he was a teacher, or in the 12th grade at least, and called him 'Sir' for the entire lesson.
Turned out he was a few weeks older than me.
Early maturers often dominate in Junior Sport. They're bigger, faster and stronger. They have longer reaches and can produce more force.
Coaches often give them more opportunities and attention so they accelerate quicker.
But then everyone starts to catch up.
And pass them?
5) It's a Different Sport
In tennis, up to approximately, the 12's and maybe even the 14's Nationals, it is possible for the eventual champion to be a terrible player BUT a great 'moon-baller'.
This is the tactic of hitting high lobs to the opposition, which may difficult for them to return if they're smaller/weaker.
This tactic will NOT work at the WTA/ATP level.
Similar examples can be found in other sports.
In BMX, Juniors may clock almost a minute on a track (think: aerobic energy system) compared to the Elites who might complete the same track in 30-34 seconds. The Juniors will probably peddle more, jump less and need to be more aerobically fit (relatively) than their Senior compatriots.
In other words, Junior BMX may be measuring endurance and peddle-ability while the Elite category is characterised by explosiveness and jump-ability.
In a similar vein, the 100m race at the 5th grade level (taking approximately 20 seconds to complete) is probably a better gauge of speed-endurance than speed and explosiveness.
6) They're Only Competing with their Peers
Junior Sport success is judged on the abilities of the Athletes to beat those in their year groups.
Once they're in the Elite/Open category, however, they're competing against those who may be many years older and younger than them.
Take tennis as an example.
Regardless of how talented any junior has been in over a decade (since the Australian Open, 2005) The Big Four (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic & Murray) have the dominated the major events.
They've won all three Olympic titles and 44 of the 49 Grand Slams.
And prior to that, in 2004-5, Federer won five of the eight Majors.
In other words, it hasn't mattered what anyone's junior results have been, four players have dominated male tennis.
Take Home Messages
- Don't stress about a junior athlete's poor results too much.
- Don't celebrate a junior athlete's success too much.
- There are many possible reasons they could be winning or losing at any one time.
- Each kid is on their own journey, so stop worrying how others are doing.
- Develop a mindset of trying to improve a bit each time.
- Let them have fun.
Grant Jenkins is a Strength & Conditioning Coach who enjoys working with his Developmental and Elite Athletes. For more information please contact him here or follow him on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.