Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Trouble With Athletics

I love Little Athletics. I love that, for us, it is a family sport. I think it is great that the emphasis is on participation and doing ones personal best rather than competing against others. At our club, the atmosphere is welcoming friendly and supportive. But I think there needs to be more to athletics at a junior level in Australia in addition to Little Athletics.

My girls Flash (8) and Muscles (7) seem to be quite good at the running and jumping events. Indeed Flash was nick-named ‘Flash’ by her kindergarten teacher when he saw her run. Muscles was later known as ‘Flash Junior’ Both girls have been awarded age champions at their little athletics club. Flash was also club champion in 2010 and was also very successful in her first year of school representative sport.

This is Flash’s fourth year in Little A’s and Muscles third. In that time they have not really been shown the correct technique for elements of the sport such as starting, running, sprinting or long jump. They just go out there and do it! In all the other sports that my children participate in; gymnastics, swimming and soccer, there is streaming into ‘development programs’ for those children who show potential or enthusiasm for the sport. In these development sessions, there is a very strong emphasis on developing correct technique from the very beginning.

I have developed a love of the sport of running, and in my over boffin-ish way have read everything I could get my hands on to do with running techniques, to help myself be a better runner. I love the running magazines and websites. I love reading athletes own blogs. I have learnt that technique can have a huge impact on running speed, endurance and injury prevention and overall performance.

I worry that my girls and the other kids in little athletics are practicing their own ‘way’ of running week-after week. I am concerned that bad technique will be so ingrained that it will be extremely difficult to correct later on. Incorrect technique may also attribute to injury issues. If correct technique had been learnt from the beginning, it would become second nature. The athletes blogs I have been reading often focus on the difficulties of changing their technique. I wonder if this could be minimalised or prevented by knowledgeable and informed best practice coaching at a junior level.

From a grass roots level it is my opinion that the way Swimming Australia oversee the sport of swimming, right down to the club level, is very organized and thorough. All swimming clubs are under the umbrella of a their state swimming association, which is in turn  overseen by swimming Australia. There are different streams of competition and training catering for those who are beginning, or wish to participate recreationally, and those who are high achieving.

 There just does not seem to be the same level of cooperation and cohesion existing within the Little Athletics clubs and Athletics Australia. It seems to me that Athletics Australia has assumed all junior athletics can be handled by Little Athletics. However, the focus of little A’s is participation and personal bests. There does not appear to be pathways in place for talented or achieving athletes to move to the next level. Other sports in Australia start these pathways from a young age and perhaps starting at a young age is necessary for success. Athletics has a low profile in Australia, particularly compared to swimming. Our swimmers are extremely successful at an international level, particularly if you take our small population into account! Although there are obviously many complicated reasons for swimming’s success, I can’t help wonder if the lack of junior  athletic development plays a role.

I think Little Athletics is fantastic in terms of a fun, inclusive and recreational sport. However, like other sports, I think there needs to be some talent identification and the option of ‘streaming’. Then, talented or enthusiastic young athletes can be mentored and coached with the ultimate aim of high level competition in the sport. I think a good solution would be for little athletics to stay hoe it is, but for Athletics Australia to have a greater role in talent identification, coaching and mentoring.

I have read recently that little A’s and Athletics Australia are going to attempt to forge closer ties. I will be very interested in the outcomes. However, it may be too late for my girls. Although talented in athletics, they put so much time and effort into training for their other sports that when given the choice, the other sports will take priority. With no obvious pathway to higher levels, my girls are quickly tiring of athletics. I wonder if athletics is losing other talented young athletes for this reason.

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