Coaching Roundtable: Grass Roots Development
So far our first coaching roundtables have gathered some of the world’s best coaches to provide technical feedback emerging international throwers like Julia Ratcliffe and Chris Cralle or training advice like how to implement weightlifting in training. But I want to switch things up for the next roundtable and get some perspective on how we can grow the sport as a whole as well as individual events, a topic which is of great interest to me as I try to replicate the success of the informal American youth hammer project here in Switzerland.
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”Grass Roots” a subject and term that was countlessly brought up during my time in Great Britain while working along side Richard Wheater and Kevin Tyler!! My first day, one of the biggest problems identified in Wales specifically was why between the ages of 18-21 were athletes dropping out of Athletics(Track & Field). As I studied this problem daily from a coach, athlete, club, and school perspective, I found the answer to be very simple. We would argue for hours upon days in meetings that never ended regarding funding and how much we as a federation should determine our budget regarding performance and development(grass roots), and after a massive amount of investigation into this subject, funding amounts will never have nearly the impact on any level of performance, weather elite or developmental as the element of pure competition. I came to this notion after years of watching Athletics in Europe, mostly in Great Britain at sub-elite levels and understanding the club/school system and how this relates to coaching in grass roots environments. First, everyone in Great Britain would tell me that in the US we never have to worry about grass roots in athletics purely because of the 300 million people we have. I then explained how sports in the US really work and that Athletics is a distant 5-7 rank amoung sports that young athletes in the US aspire to. The reason grass roots in the US mainly works has nothing to do with funding, population(yes it helps, but very little in regards to Track vs. Basketball, Football, or Baseball), or club systems(In the US very few people do Athletics in clubs) and everything to do with organization of competition! When growing up in the US you are within school year brackets, 1-6(Elementary), 7-8(Junior High), 9-12(High School, 13-16(College), 17-up(Pro). As you compete in various sports you can rise within the bracket but never compete outside of the bracket. It doesn’t matter what school you are in anywhere in the US, if your playing a sport like American Football and you are going to school in the 9-12 bracket then you are playing on Friday nights in the fall, or Thursday nights if you didn’t make the varsity teams all over the country. I would go to Junior athletics meets while working in Wales and everyone is getting ready for the 100 meters, one of the most exciting events in Athletics. As I watched heat after hear of the 100, I noticed many races with only 3-4 lanes with athletes out of 8 lanes and I found out this was because of age brackets that consisted of under 19 races, under 18, races, and so on all the way down to under 10 races. Then I start learning about the ”club system” and continually asked athletes why do they do Athletics for a club and not their school? Answer: my school does not have a coach for Athletics, or my School doesn’t support Athletics in my school. Therefore the athlete looks into a club to participate in Athletis, and finds a coach who wants to coach for the club. I then asked the coach why do they want to coach for the club instead of the school? Answer: schools have very little interest in the sport and competition is not supported by each school as much as others. I want to be very clear in saying I have no opinion on club sports, weather supportive or non supportive. I have a strong opinion that if you are trying to get youth more excited about anything in the world my advice is create competition and human sociology of achieving will happen. I would tell the coaches in Wales if there was ever a place to have 10 ages brackets races it would be in the US due to the population. So I then asked why so many age brackets and selections of races and this was obvious, it’s to create more winners, and then with this theory there would be more youth athletes continuing in Athletics past 21! I then found out why athletes were quitting Athletics from ages of 18-21, if you water down competition at the youth level, your not helping them, your not preparing them for the ultimate thing to deal with which is losing a race and continuing to keep racing. Personally as I went through the school brackets and competing in various sports growing up, very rarely did I win a race!! I knew that if I could win by my last year of the bracket that would be good, and therefore I realized at a young age that a long term work ethic is needed to have success in sports(And Life). If everyone is participating in the same age bracket and the bracket is 4-6 years this allows some of the more talented athletes at young ages to move up quickly and also for other not as talented athletes to improve over time and be successful!! Pure competition is what makes kids in the US want to be great and this comes with losing and hopefully winning! Pure Competition also is why coaches want to coach in a volunteer world, as most grass roots coaches do in the US. When everyone is playing the same game within the same 4-6 year age bracket, let me tell you as a high school recruiter having watched, talked with, and admired youth coaches they become extremely competitive and this is why they volunteer their time at such a high level. If you water down competition with many single age races then competition will be lower and when the day comes as it did when the athlete reached 18-21 and they lose a race because more kids are racing they will not know how to deal with it and remove themselves from the environment. Pure Competition is the invention of long term devotion to anything!
I think you have to really know what you want. If you want a system that is going to produce international athletes with great success then you go to the East German model without the drugs. Recruit talented athletes then give then the coaching, incentives, resources they need to be successful.
Alternately, you can build a large base by providing a general program based on introducing track and field to young athletes. I oversee such a program that has 700 athletes ( age 6-12 years old) who over the course of the year come in for one or more 8 week sessions. The main focus is on fun and introducing them to the basics of Running, Jumping and Throwing, track and field events and fitness. However, most of these athletes have average talent and few National much less International athletes are going to come out of this program. It does however, build awareness of track and field in the community and help develop the young athletes for track and field and other sports. The profits from the program also go to support the programs for older athletes.
In our case about 40% of the program for 12-14 year olds year olds come from the introductory program. This is a fair number as many of the 700 kids in any one year are in the program to work on speed/fitness for other sports or find that they don’t really enjoy the sport. In the 12-14 year old program most athletes have some talent but again the talent level for the most part is not elite.
As athletes start to compete in school meets we have a drop off in the number of athletes. Many come to recognize that they have limited talent and want to apply themselves to other parts of their life or other sports. Unfortunately, many leave too soon to really gage their talent.
At age 15 less than10% come from the introductory programs. The bulk in the program are athletes who have some initial success in their school track meets and at age 13-15 want to see where their talent takes them. A number of athletes are recruited by coaches or their school teamates who are already in the Club.programs
So the wide base has benefits but in the end one comes back to the East German model. By recruitment or selection most athletes come to track and field because of talent and this talent has to be surrounded by coaches and a solid organiozation.
Keeping these athletes involved is decided by a number of factors. The program has to work and athletes have to improve on a yearly basis. They must also find recognition for their efforts. As alluded to in your article building the social part of the program is also important so athletes want to be in program and enjoy being in the program. The relationship with the coach is a large part of this equation but the environment built and fostered by the Club is also crucial.