3 Strikes against the Developing Junior Cyclist… and How We Avoid Striking Out

The Lehigh Valley is an area rich with cycling tradition and a vast amount of opportunities for the young cyclist. Probably nowhere in the country are there more riding opportunities, cycling teams, organized rides, track races, cyclocross races, road races, and indoor cycling programs available to a junior cyclist. As a result, nowhere in the country is there a concentration of junior cyclist like there is in the Lehigh Valley. Interestingly, with the large numbers of junior riders and pool of talent, per capita, very few go on to race and succeed at the elite level. In fact, the great, majority of juniors don’t continue cycling beyond the junior years. While local riders may be on top the podium at the sub- junior level, why is it that (with small exception) we don’t produce top international stars U19 and beyond? Here are a couple of thoughts. I can quickly think of three strikes that are against the young developing rider.

Strike One! Early “Crowning” or Talent ID. Riders who physically mature at younger ages are often recognized as the next coming of Bradley Wiggins or Anna Meares; while late physical developers are often under-coached and overlooked. Research shows that it is most often the later maturing athlete who goes on to become world class. If we are picking champions early, and focusing our coaching and developmental resources on this athlete, we are often only picking a temporary advantage. As these athletes reach the age of athletic maturity they often will find the competition has caught up with them and they are just another fish- rather than the bigger, faster, stronger fish in the pond. This young athlete, who has been told how talented and gifted they are since they were 12, is now 18 and is faced with real competition. (perhaps from a “lesser” athlete they once easily beat). In the worst cases, the youngsters (and parents) don’t know how to deal with this. They end up, defeated, discouraged, and don’t know how to emotionally handle this and often drop out of sport and seek other arenas to feed their pre-maturely bolstered image.

The bottom line is that there are way too many variables to predict a young athlete’s potential in sport at very young ages. The only Talent ID programs worth their grain in salt are the ones that keep an athlete in sport long enough to realize their potential. I remember a conversation I had some years ago with Dr. Sergei Beliaev, head coach of the Ukrainian National Team competing at the Tour Dupont. He showed me a computer model of the development pathway used in the former USSR. There was a wide upward rising channel containing progressive developmental markers through the junior years. The channel allowed for quite a wide range of early abilities, excluding only the weakest athletes, but also excluding the very strongest of young athletes. Dr. Beliaev explained to me that these very early developing athletes often had been shown to reach an early physical peak and never developed into the world class elite. We have adapted such a “channel system” into our development program. We are careful to give proper coaching and attention to a late developing athlete, and at the same time, careful not to burden an early developer with too great a training load and expectations. The loading must be appropriate to the individual with the biggest goal of keeping the athlete enthused and involved with the sport through the age of athletic maturity.

Strike Two! High Training Volume (and misappropriated training focus). Studies have shown that athletes that delay the undertaking of high training volumes to a time later in their development are more likely to become elite athletes. In one landmark study done in Denmark, sports that are measured in Centimeters, Grams, or Seconds (CGS sports), success is related to an age- related delay in high volume of training. While early exposure to a sport can be important, training with high volumes as a pre-adolescent or adolescent maturity level will lessen the likelihood of a youngster becoming an elite athlete. Yes, of course there are exceptions-Tiger Woods comes to mind (although, golf is not a CGS sport). In our sport of cycling, Coryn Rivera is a good example of an athlete who trained and raced an exceptional amount when she was young, and has found success at the highest level on the road. However, the Danish study showed that on average, the True Elite performed much less training volume until post-adolescence, while the Near-Elite performed much higher volumes at a younger age. Interestingly, the True Elite continue to increase volume of training in their mature years, but Near Elites decrease the level of training. Success breeds the desire to train. A young athlete who trains with much volume at 13 may experience early success, encouraging them to train more. When the athlete who delays training volume until the post-pubescent years “catches up” and surpasses the performance of the early trainer, the early trainer tends to reduce volume because they are discouraged and the rewards are not present like they once were. The athlete who is experiencing late success, because of the later increase in training volume is now excited and encouraged by their results and increases focus on training allowing them to further their development.

While the preceding is an example of the psychological reasons a young, high volume trainee may not reach the elite level, there are physiological reasons as well. There are optimal age related windows of opportunity related to the development of certain bio-motor qualities in maturing athletes. Developing the qualities of speed and power for example, is not dependent upon high volume, nor is it desirable to undertake large volumes of training to develop these traits.

Because the nervous system is fully developed at a very early age, it is desirable to train qualities that are highly dependent on nervous system development early in a young athlete’s development. The motor abilities such as speed, power, balance, and technical skills are highly trainable prior to, and during the stage of Peak Rate of Height Development (the most rapid phase of a child’s growth during puberty). However, it is important that the programming is done with an understanding of proper characteristics for speed and power enhancement. For example, 200 meters may be considered a speed development exercise for a senior athlete, 200 meters for a 11 or 12 year old is an endurance activity. Distances must be reduced, and loads (such as gearing) must be chosen to match the skill requirement and development of the rider. While this Pre-Peak Rate of Height Development (Pre-PRHD) period provides opportunity to train these qualities, it can also be a time to destroy them. Training under conditions of fatigue or distances that are too great will ensure proper biomechanics break down and will engrain less than optimal motor skill pathways for the youngster. Train slow to go slow, train sloppy to be sloppy. Training should be brief, fast, skillful, and fun.

Since the quality of strength is also heavily dependent on the nervous system, the Pre-PRHD Period and the PRHD Period can also be the time to begin strength training. Loads are kept light and the focus is on higher repetitions and developing the skill of execution. Significant strength gains can be made during these years due to nervous system adaptation rather than muscular growth. One of the largest windows of opportunity for muscle strength gain occurs directly (12-18 months) after the PRHD period. The athlete should not wait until this time to begin strength training. The basics and technique should be already in place so that the maturing athlete can take advantage of this window when it occurs during the Post-PRHD timeframe.

The focus for Pre-PRHD athletes should be on neural-based skills and shouldn’t be limited to cycling. The athlete should continue to enjoy and reap the benefits of multi-sport and fitness activities, including activities that involve running, jumping, throwing and changing direction.

The trainability of aerobic capacity is not as great for the Pre-PRHD or PRHD athlete as it is for a Post-PRHD athlete. While there will be some positive adaptions to training the aerobic system, it is only a few percentage points higher than occurs with normal growth and development. There is also evidence that the development of aerobic capacity in the very young requires a higher absolute intensity than it would for an older athlete for training adaptations to occur. Remember training must be fun! Kids don’t naturally perform long, uninterrupted activities. Subjecting children to prolonged exercise at higher intensities is not a recipe for a fun session. For this reason, cycling may not be the best choice for young children to develop aerobic capacity. This can be done with games and team sport activities where the focus is on play. Overall, placing primary focus on the development of endurance is a common mistake made by coaches and parents if you want an athlete to develop into an elite performer. Big volumes of aerobic training for the pre-pubescent athlete will lead to some adaptation, but only marginally above normal growth and development patterns. Placing too much emphasis on endurance will come at the expense of missing the opportunity to develop speed, power, and strength. By delaying the emphasis of training for endurance until post-puberty we 1) enable the athlete to adapt normally to the traditional training methods used to develop aerobic endurance, 2) allow for greater development of speed, strength, and power, and 3) avoid monotonous training and burn-out.

Strike Three! The Competitive Wringer. There are more junior racing opportunities in the Lehigh Valley area than anywhere in the country, maybe even the world. Here is what I have seen riders do- Monday night Bicycle Racing League (BRL), Super Tuesday Track League, Wednesday Derby Group Ride, Thursday Fitness Park Criterium, Saturday Masters and Rookie racing, Sunday derby or road race. It’s easy to fall into the competition trap here. At the pre-junior (U13, U15, U17) levels, minimally there should be a 5 to 1 ratio between training/skills/fun to competition during the competitive phase. You would think with all the racing and training opportunities, Pennsylvania cyclist would be the best in the world. Well, (with a couple of exceptions) we’re not, not even close. Frequent competition or placing the emphasis on competition and winning at the young junior ages is in direct conflict with the principle of Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD). Youth Cycling in the Lehigh Valley is race, race, race at 12, race race race at 13 and 14, race more and more at 15 an 16, then you’re move to the juniors, where you have a chance to make to worlds team, now we’ve got to race more and more. Some (actually, very few) make it through the wringer and continue to compete successfully at the elite ranks. Is this really the best way to do it? Is it the most efficient and effective way to develop riders who can compete on a world stage? Or are we seeing early maturing riders with early success step on the gas hard early, only to burn out or become discouraged when the competition catches up (or they face international competition). Are we seeing young riders drop out of the sport long before they even begin to reach their potential because they are so frequently thrown into the competitive fire against athletes who are just more physically mature than them at 13 and 14? Are we taking very young riders 10-12, turning them into full time cyclist, with hours on the winter ergometers, so they can win in the summer against the other kids who are training full time in cycling? Are we losing kids to other sports because parents are being told their children need to specialize year- round in cycling and they are not ready to make that commitment? All these scenarios can be chalked up to the “competitive wringer” and it destroys the potential development of many capable juniors.

For developing juniors at the U15 or lower level the emphasis should be entirely on fun, the development of skills, and developing an understanding of the sport and the preparation process (train to train). The training focus is on the general age appropriate motor qualities discussed earlier. The coach is a teacher and an encourager. If cycling is the primary sport, then at age 15 and 16 the specialization process begins. The athlete trains for competition (train to compete) and the coach begins to challenge the athlete. At the early age of athletic maturity 18+ for boys and 17+ for girls, the athlete begins to train to win (train to win) and the coach becomes more of a facilitator. This is the basic concept of Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD), and early competitive pressure or frequent competition violates LTAD’s core principle.

Those are three strikes against the developing junior cyclist. So how do we avoid the strikeout and keep our juniors coming back for another at bat, maybe giving them a chance to hit that big home run at the senior elite level? Here are three things we do at Sprinters Edge keep us at bat.

1) We welcome any junior into our Foundation Program. If there is a desire from the youngster to give cycling a try and they exhibit the maturity and interest to participate in a productive way they are welcome. We don’t screen for “talent” at the Foundation Level. We know the best “talent ID” program is simply the one that keeps athletes around long enough for them to develop to their potential.

2) We use a scientific approach to give the athlete an age/maturity appropriate level of training. We have developed a multi-year, progressive system of athletic development for our cyclist. This takes in account the physiological trainability of each athlete according to both chronological age and their physical maturity. It is important that the coaches, staff, parents, and athletes are educated, understand, and are careful to apply the principles of LTAD.

3) We limit the competitive schedules of young athletes and developing athletes so that we can focus on the factors that will enable them to mature into winners at the elite stage. We do want our younger athletes to enjoy some level early success, we feel that keeps them excited and motivated. These successes are measured by breaking personal records, mastering new skill, and learning the sport. They are taught that the real competitive successes, only occur at the age of athletic maturity (when everyone is on the same playing level) and that we are not looking for a champion at age 14.

Note: Parents are probably more often, the ones getting caught up in the competitive wringer. It’s not easy watching junior take it on the chin while the “rival” parent gets the bragging rights. Take solace in the fact that if your child has the ability and if they truly desire to become a champion, they will do it when it really counts. Let them have fun, enjoy the sport, and delay their heavy training and competition schedule, because there is no training or racing that they can do at an early age that will replace the work that they will be able to do later. It is at 16, not 14, that the training and racing become more effective.