A sit down with Nick Bideau on 'the developing athlete'...
Whilst in Stockholm I had the absolute pleasure of chewing the fat with one of Australia's most credentialed track and field coaches, Nick Bideau. Not a man unfamiliar with controversy, and certainly armed with a very strong opinion, like him or not, Nick has 3 National record holders in his stable which means my ears were well and truly open. We talked about a number of subjects, but one in particular came to mind as a great discussion topic and one I'd like to share... The developing athlete and what it takes to become 'real' champion.
To be somewhat objective, let's quantify 'champion' into a medal chance at Olympics or World Championships, or even better - top 8 in the world. Ok, so on Aussie soil we are talking about what it takes to be at the current standard of a handful of homegrowns; Hooker, Pearson, Watt, Samuels, Lapeirre. Now I am certainly not at this standard, and none of Nick's current athletes are either, but he has certainly taken a number of athletes to this level and we have both seen it happen over the past years in athletics. No doubt Dr. Brian Roe would have much to say on the topic!!
So first off the rank is progression of performance. So often we see super talented and well performed athletes in junior ranks fail to make the transition to open athletics and meet the high expectations placed on their undeveloped backs. I certainly saw it a lot, and the guys that made my world junior team ahead of me back in 2000 are nowhere to be seen now. Or in 2002. Are these kids pushed too early? Are we expecting the training load of established and well conditioned athletes to be undertaken by these developing ones and they just break? Is it simply too fast a development for them? Or maybe it's just too much pressure!
Nick says no. He says that we really should see these athletes performing at a high standard in their late teens and very early 20s. If they aren't at a fairly competitive international standard around this age, then they probably are not going to do anything more than make teams. He used Cathy (Freeman), Gregson, and Risley as examples. All runners - I know - but fair calls on their quality as athletes and ability to perform early on. There was an article written a few years ago on kids under 15 running marathons and it said that other than being more likely to overheat, that young runners, conditioned appropriately, are not really in any danger of running these large distances. These athletes mentioned by Nick have all stepped up in senior ranks as well, and we can expect big things from those 2 boys over the next 18 months.
But then, I hear you ask, what about the Ben St. Lawrences out there? Great question! Blair Young was our best performed Olympic 400m hurdler outside Rohan Robinson at was running PBs at the ripe old age of 28! These athletes are hitting high standards well after this end of growth spurt and junior honeymoon period. Nick would probably argue they aren't the kind of elite that we are searching for in our youth today to bring home medals. Blair 'only' made a semi, and although he is now the Aussie record holder, there is a very slim chance of Big Benny to swim through the sea of Kenyans to come home with any jewelry.
So, then, how do we approach this developmental issue?? From one end, we are expecting these potential podium athletes to be performing damn well from early on in their careers. But then we want to make sure that they are staying in the sport and continuing on their paths to success and avoiding 'burning out'. Bedau has a simple answer to this. Linear and gradual progression. You can argue that it easier for distance running with this concept than, say, technical field events. But the principle is fairly basic and applicable across the program of events. 1. Take the athlete and their current training level. 2. Build their training load. 3. Monitor their ability to handle load. 4. Adjust accordingly. 5. Repeat.
It's never that easy, i hear you cry! And you are right. But it still seems to be a lost fundamental in this current climate of wanting success no later than yesterday. We are overcomplicating things in new wave training methods, supplementation, gadgets etc. whilst forgetting some of the basics of a human development. Surprisingly, Bideau's squad doesn't train ridiculously 'hard'. They are known for doing high Km's, but they only really push 1-2 sessions a week and most sessions on the track they should feel like they can do another set if they had to. How many elite athlete track athletes out there can say that?
So is this the recipe for champions? Who knows? It seems to be working well for Nick's gang, and agree with him or not, I think there is a lot to consider here with the treatment of our talented youngsters that hold the future of our sport in their hands.
Turning the focus onto technical events, I think that it is less likely to see some of the super athletes emerging so early in their careers as, say, with pure sprints or distance running. Chatting to Steve Hooker and Dani Samuels about their early career training sessions, they both had a very obvious and very simple development of basic movement patterns, and general body strength. Dani hardly lifted any weights in her first couple of years of disc (and still doesn't lift that 'big' for that matter) and Steve struggled immensely with gymnastics early on, but sill persisted with that side of basic strength and body awareness development because his coach Mark though it as very important.
In a volatile status of funding and our future, there is always the temptation of getting athletes going ASAP, especially the talented ones who can handle the training load short term. This short-sighted approach may get the athlete performing well quickly, but leaves them wide open to the side affects of a non-linear rise to the top without the proper physical and mental foundation in place. Symptoms may include: altered motivations to money/sponsorships/recognition, extremely sporadic training and competition performances, psychological or physical burn out, and injuries, injuries, injuries...
We see this every year, of course, and there is never any bad intention behind the management of the athlete (I don't know any coach or parent who is not pure and passionate in their minds), but it still happens and could be avoided. Clear, realistic, long term goals, and a complete approach to getting there is so important for these youngsters. Of course, every athlete is diffident and needs to be treated and trained accordingly. But look at those athletes and coaches who are doing this job consistently and well, and you will see some important answers on how to get there.