Developing American talent

3.12.02 (

In previous articles here on I’ve touched on various aspects of kids in sport. In an article titled Pushy Parent I discussed my own philosophy of developing a plan for my children’s sporting future. Most of that philosophy came from accepting that my kids would need to develop some sound skills early on in life in order to have any chance for greatness later.

In an article about Kerry Classen in May 2000, I discussed Kerry’s sporting history and how his early years as a swimmer led me to believe he has potential for greatness.

What I’d like to do here is offer some ideas about why kids are doing less endurance training and give some specifics about the type and amount of training I believe is best to develop the aerobic capacity of young, passionate triathletes. I use the word passion first and foremost because it best describes the attitude a young athlete will need to do the amount of training necessary to develop world-class plumbing.

Some tough nuts might argue that passion isn’t the most important aspect of development—that there are many examples of kids doing lots of training early with no burning desire to be great athletes. The African distance runners are a good example to illustrate how kids developed tremendous aerobic capacity just by running to and from school. World record holders Haile Gebrselassie, Henry Rono and Tegla Loroupe are just three of the many Africans who did the early aerobic development and mostly became great out of necessity, not desire. They ran 12-16 kilometers per day for many years before their first competition. There could be an argument that their genetics played a greater role in their success. What I’m suggesting here is that the only way to find out if a child has the genetic potential to be a great endurance athlete is to do a considerable amount of aerobic training. It’s only where opportunity meets desire that success can be found.

But it’s not realistic to expect American kids to use the African model of development to achieve greatness. Almost all kids now are either bused or driven to school. This is certainly one of the fundamental reasons there is a lack of aerobic activity in most kids' lives, and it has played a part in leading us to the rather glum situation we find ourselves in now. It’s not just triathlon that is struggling to find the next great bunch of talented kids. Running and swimming are also looking long and hard at ways to encourage youngsters to do more work and coaches to expect more training volume be done. U.S. Swimming has even come up with a bonus scheme as an incentive for coaches and athletes to try and develop distance swimmers. It will pay $1,000,000 to the swimmer who wins an Olympic Gold medal in the 1500 or 800. The coach of that athlete will be paid $500,000. Serious money as an incentive for a big endeavor. Will it help to overtake the Australian swimming juggernaut? Yes, I think it will. Let's hope it gets some fast young swimmers to raise their expectations.

Australia is one place where triathlon coaches and parents of young triathletes should look for advice. Australian swim coaches who have produced many of the current crops of world record holders have seen very clear results from having young swimmers do more aerobic work.

Former Olympic Australian swim coach Bill Sweetenham has been hired as the new coach of the British swim team to break what he called Britain’s chain of mediocrity in the sport. He’s set targets for 13-year-old swimmers of 2,000k or more per year. For a 50-week training period, that’s 40,000 meters per week—or workouts of about 7,300 yards every day, six days a week.

In the September-October issue of "Swimming in Australia" magazine there is a rather lengthy discussion of this topic—starting early. Findings of a study to see what happens to kids who begin swimming very early are also discussed. The findings are very relevant to triathlon because parents of both sports are dealing with the same issues. They are up against a stereotype of the waterlogged, burnt-out wrecks subjected to great parental pressure competing in a senseless (and financially unrewarding!) sport. Parents are confronted with the stereotype of a kid who has no social life and no energy for school. The findings of this study show otherwise. These kids were above average academically and had significant and positive social status. Most were smarter to begin with so did as expected for above-average kids. Because there's not a great tonnage of empirical data available to bombard you with to support this one, my advice to parents is to go have a good talk with a long-time successful swim coach. They’ll be the first to tell you that a demanding sport like swimming will play a large part in helping a kid grow into a better person.

American distance running coaches who have been around for many years will tell you that there just aren’t as many kids willing to run a lot and train hard. The U.S. had a 35-year gap between high school 4-minute milers. In the 1960s high-schoolers Ryan, Liquori and Daniels were breaking that barrier. It wasn’t until last year that the 4-minute mark was broken again. It’s not just the mile, either. Where are the next Craig Virgins, Alberto Salazars, Rudy Chappas and Mary Slaneys? [PUBLISHER'S NOTE: For another interesting view on this see Running out of excuses by our running editor Greg Hitchcock.]

Here in New Zealand the contrast is even starker. In the eighties Kiwis Alison Roe, Anne Audain and Lorraine Moller were the best on the planet. My wife grew up running many 120+ kilometer weeks here in Christchurch in her teen years after she stopped swimming. She ran a 2:08 800 meters in school off of a program based on 95 percent aerobic work just like these other women. This was the Arthur Lydiard legacy in New Zealand. Now it’s been such a long time since these women were in the newspapers every week that young girls don’t even know who they are. There are no more immediate role models to try to emulate. There are so few distance running prospects it’s hard to even be hopeful. A 5-minute mile wins most senior track meets now.

I think it's fair to say that most of the top triathletes over the years have done a significant amount of training in some endurance sport before they began training specifically for triathlon. Examples would fill this page. Many were world champions at a young age: Miles Stewart, Emma Carney, Joanne King, Loretta Harrop, Nicole Hackett from Australia, and Spencer Smith from Great Britain. The passion and drive they had to excel as young athletes has kept all of them in the sport 'til this day. Ever wonder why almost every single top pro, even the ancient ones, are still out there racing? It’s the same reason Michael Jordan is still playing basketball: They love it. People who can’t understand that probably won’t believe that their kids might develop that same type of passion, and certainly won‘t try to encourage it.

So how do we get kids to have passion for training, and what type and amounts of training should they be doing?

Passion: One of the key ingredients would be a parent who thinks it's great that their children want to do sport. They take them to see top sports people compete, have the sports magazines available and let them watch sport on TV. They take them to training. They let them bike to school and training. They don’t think it’s a huge burden to have their kids be athletes.

Kids also need a coach who has a passion for the sport and knows it should be fun, tries to make it fun along with challenging, and is fun to be around. A coach who encourages kids to train well and think big. Who shows examples of other kids who worked hard and ended up champions. A coach who can get kids to feel good about overcoming training challenges. A coach who will give the kids enough training to do.

Young triathletes should be doing amounts of training that are slightly more than those done by swimmers of a similar age. From ages 13 to 15, first- and second-year triathlete kids should be able to do up to 11-13 sessions per week totaling 12-16 hours per week. This might be 5-6 swims of 60-90 minutes each, 3-6 runs of 30-60 minutes each and 2 bike rides, one of 90 minutes and one of 2-3 hours. Then there should be some periods of higher volume when a kid goes to swim camp or a bike camp. Many thousands of young swimmers have done 100,000 meters of swimming in a week during a swim camp along with some running and other dryland exercises. At 3,500 meters per hour this is a 30+ hour week. Not uncommon at all for most senior (age 14-20) swimmers.

Most young triathletes should include a bit of fast stuff nearly every day, but that doesn’t have to mean high lactate loads or tremendous stress on their bodies. They should race often in school swim, run and bike races. If I get into details of specific workouts and racing now I think it will detract from the basic premise of this article, which concerns the volume of aerobic work, some of which involves skill development that needs to be done to fully develop a youngster's potential.
While I don’t expect my view to be a position paper for USA Triathlon on this subject, I would like to see specific wording and educational goals in the Level 1 and 2 coaching courses. Coaches should have ambitious targets of training volumes for kids of different levels of maturity and years in the sport. They should be given some tools to create a better environment for success. When you look at the club culture of various swim clubs across the country that have excelled (like Mission Viejo in the 1970s and '80s), you can see that the level of expectation was very high. Their standards were very tough and kids from across the country moved to Orange County to be part of that program. I’d love to see that type of environment for kids in triathlon.

While at a race in New Caledonia in 1995 I had a chance to spend quite a bit of time with Simon Lessing. He was utterly dominating the Olympic-distance races at that time. One of the things I remember most was that he had developed a relationship with a top French coach and was spending time training with the French national team, which included many of their top young prospects. What a fantastic opportunity for the French! It would seem a logical step for any coach of some young talent to try and get them to interact and train with some of the best. But is it being done?

Parents and many coaches are afraid of "burnout." That’s an all-encompassing term for a kid’s lack of desire to continue in a sport. Nowadays we can monitor an athlete for physical signs of overtraining. We have resting heart rate, training heart rate, blood tests for the stress hormone cortisol, low iron levels, muscle damage enzymes, etc. It’s very easy to test for physical stress.

Burnout is a psychological condition 99 percent of the time. It’s usually not some glands or organs failing, mononucleosis or chronic fatigue or any other variation that can be identified. Kids do get tired of all the work that has to be done to reach the highest level of sport. Most want to do other things at one time or another. Not all kids have the passion for sport to be as good as they can be. Not every kid is in a very stimulating and encouraging program. Maybe other interests become more important. There are plenty of valid reasons to stop, and that’s OK. What I’m suggesting is that if there are certain characteristics in a program to nurture and develop a young talent then they will more likely have some early success. The athlete will then have sufficient motivation to continue to put in the hard yards necessary to make it to the next level.