Sunday, June 17, 2012

Preserving High School Athletes

Cross-Country Nationals

I know this isn't the typical article about high school running. Other articles will give the "perfect" training program or stress how much mileage kids should be doing. In talking to Bobby, I found that there are reasons why so few Americans have sustained long-term careers in running, the type that last from high school to much later in life. Rather than get into specific training plans, I'm offering basic guidelines. Too often we think we can generalize, but the best programs are ones in which each member of the team is seen as an individual. 


There always seems to be some controversy when it comes to the topic of training high school runners. How much mileage can they do and still remain healthy? How much speed work should they tackle? Should they race year-round? There are many aspects of a young runner to consider when a training plan is being created. Opinions will vary, of course, but there are some indisputable guidelines to follow that will likely lead to a more successful and healthy athlete. Too often, coaches don’t think about how running in high school will affect his or her athlete down the road. It’s important to look at the ways in which a high school coach can most effectively deliver his athlete to the next running program. This includes making sure that the young runner hasn’t reached full burn out at age eighteen yet has a good fitness base and the experience of racing well.  

One thing that makes training a high school runner more difficult is the constraint of a school program with the team being obligated to participate in certain races throughout the season. There’s little room for variation when races are usually held every Saturday during both cross-country and track season. It often means that the entire team must be on a weekly microcycle and the same mesocycle, even if some of those athletes might need longer rest phases during their training or develop aerobic conditioning at different rates. For example, if a runner does better on a ten-day training cycle, chances are he won’t race as well if he does a hard workout early in the week and then has to race on Saturday before he is fully recovered. For those who can recover more quickly, a seven day cycle of training isn’t a problem. Having to train an entire group of kids makes it nearly impossible to have much individualization. This means that for some, the training will be either too much or too little, and only for a select few will it be exactly what is needed. Renowned running and triathlete coach, Bobby McGee states, “frequency teaches skill and long periods teach fitness, but how these are introduced depends on the mental and emotional maturity of an individual.” The more a coach can create different training programs for each athlete, the better. It is essential to type the athlete first in order to develop an appropriate running schedule.

An optimal training plan for a high school runner can include running as much as 70 miles per week, but there are some teens who won’t be able to handle that kind of mileage. The good news is that most kids don’t have to run extraordinarily high mileage in order to achieve success in cross-country or on the track. There have been plenty of success stories of distance runners winning state in cross-country while running only 30 miles per week. Up to a certain point, the more miles the better in order to build fitness and stamina, but high mileage has to be within the capabilities of what the athlete can handle physically, emotionally and mentally. Too often the emotional aspect of running is not taken into consideration, and this can result in burnout, injuries and frustration in a young runner. It can be tempting for a coach or parent to want to push a young competitor when early talent presents itself, however a better approach is to consider the long-term career of this racer. If a mentor can step back and learn to develop individuals, and, rather than exploit success, help these young athletes identify their talents, he or she has done a good job The best athletes are those who can learn to read their bodies and discover what they need in order to run well. By the time a runner reaches college, he should have a good sense of self efficacy and know what his body can and can’t handle in terms of mileage and hard sessions.

It seems the biggest mistakes that coaches make in training young athletes is that they have the athlete specialize too early, the focus too much on interval training and they are overly focused on outcome. If the focus is on performance or the outcome of races, a coach risks making bad decisions. At younger ages, general skills and the basics of running should be taught with less attention to place and time, though by high school time and place become somewhat necessary evils. Ultimately, the best coaches are those who don’t need their athletes to perform for validation. They have no attachments to how their athletes compete other than wanting what is best for him or her, and know that it takes a well-rounded and balanced individual to make a great competitor. Though it worked out relatively well for Scott Fry, winner of the 1984 Kinney Cross Country Championship, to focus focus primarily on running, he wouldn’t suggest the same path for everyone else. He states,I wouldn't have changed a thing in high school other than give some more thought to life beyond running. I basically put it all into running. It worked out well for me.  I got a full-ride scholarship and had a lot of great experiences. However, I would not allow my son or any athlete I coach to be that self centered on a short part of their life and not begin planning realistically what they are going to focus on for a career long term.”  Those who avoid putting all their eggs in one basket when it comes to high-performance sports are more likely to have longer and more successful careers. Suzy Favor Hamilton, a three-time U.S. Olympian, is the perfect example of someone who found balance and achieved great long-term success.  

The "come back and see me when you're running well" approach usually won't make a great athlete, but, unfortunately, that's how many coaches operate. It’s true that an athlete has to be in good working order on all levels first in order to be put in the best possible position to work on fitness and conditioning. The idea of a person first, athlete second is good to keep in mind. However, considering the individual first is an area in which many coaches fail. As long as the athlete runs well, he gets the attention and support he needs, but abandonment is common when injuries occur or poor performance occurs. Even the best athletes are rarely taught how to weather the uncomfortable feelings that can arise during injury or down time, but it’s essential to manage oneself through these difficult times in order to achieve success in the sport. A competent coach will stand by an athlete through  both times of struggle and during stand out performances. 

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