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Mental Aspects of Youth Triathlon

by Mitchell Greene, Ph.D.

As parents of young triathletes, your responsibility is to help preserve your child’s sense of wonderment and enthusiasm about triathlon for as long as possible. The chance to participate in three events (and two transitions) can give a child a unique sense of accomplishment that cannot quite be duplicated through any other athletic experience. The sobering evidence, however, is that many children soon flame out and leave the sport altogether, regarding it as more of a burden than a fun hobby. This is especially true for sports such as triathlon, tennis, and golf, in which there may be team elements, but athletes compete mainly as individuals.

youth triathlonThe fact that 70 percent of kids quit their sport by the time they reach their 13th birthday should convince parents of tri-kids that the sport is best viewed as a vehicle to teach lessons about setting goals, improving technique, living healthily and trying your best. Sport parents who overlook the big picture and overly focus on immediate results may quickly find that that their children want to move on to something else.  Wise sport parents foster a supportive, low pressure atmosphere in which their child can develop a good work ethic as well as skills in each of the three disciplines of triathlon. That approach works well for a child whether they ultimately stick with triathlon or move on to something that feels like a better “fit” for them.

Even with the best intentions, any sport parent can unwittingly communicate a message that shows they have lost sight of the larger purpose for introducing their child to the sport. Triathlete parents, in particular, often hope their son or daughter will be taken by the sport they themselves love. Therefore, it can be difficult to know how much to encourage or cajole and when to allow their child to take a break. It doesn’t help that kids often seem to love the training one week and are ready to throw their goggles in the garbage the next.

The bottom line is that the majority of youth participants in triathlon say that they want to try the sport because it looks like fun. “Winning” is much further down the “Why I train and race” list, and behind goals such as “learning to swim,” “trying to go fast,” “hanging out with my triathlon buddies,” and “finishing and earning a medal.” Below are some tips to help keep the fun going.

Reality Check: If you are expecting your child to match your enthusiasm for triathlon, you need a reality check. Wanting to take a night off from swimming or becoming worried about how they will perform on race day are completely normal concerns. Successful sport parents recognize the boundary between what they want versus the interests and motivations of their young triathlete. If you are not sure of the difference between your wishes and your child’s desires, just ask. Or, better yet, just watch. Notice where he or she expends energy outside of the school day. Is your child asking to train or does he or she need to be dragged out the door on Saturday morning? Does your young athlete want to run comfortably and finish or are they looking to beat the person in front of them? You may not want to acknowledge that your child is not on the same page as you, but this is exactly what you need to understand to keep it a fun experience for everyone.

Under-coach: A sport parent is better off under-coaching than over-coaching. This is especially important in triathlon where a parent can stand on the pool deck, lean over the gate in transition, or run alongside their child as they finish the last quarter mile. A triathlete parent recently said to me that as a triathlete himself he had his child over-prepared (and thus over-anxious) for her race. In his effort to explain a variety of possibilities that could occur during the race, he caused her to freeze up. This is a far too frequent occurrence, particularly for triathlete parents, who in their own races understandably try to leave as little to chance as possible. Yet in a child’s mind, over-analysis can lead to a fear that he/she might do something wrong or embarrass himself/herself.

Of course, your child needs information in order to perform, but sport parents must ask themselves: What does my child really “need to know”? Is this something my child could figure out on his/her own even if it slows him/her down or causes him/her to miss out on a particular opportunity? And, you should also consider if there is someone else who might be able to deliver the same information without igniting as much concern or push back. Remember, it is easy to comment, but your youngster may hear your advice as criticism.  Sometimes the best thing you can do for your child athlete is to say nothing at all.

Race Preparation: Preparing your child for a race should mostly be about setting small, realistic goals. It may seem obvious, but it is worth remembering that the goals should come more from your child than yourself. If, however, his/her goals seem overly competitive, you can help by reminding him/her that this is supposed to be about having fun. For some, getting through the swim may be a huge accomplishment while others may feel that it would be fun to try and place in their age group. There’s nothing wrong with having particular results — including just finishing — as goals. It is critical however that obtaining that result not be the only goal, because races can be devilishly unpredictable. Working on gliding in the swim or downshifting at appropriate times on the bike, or keeping an even pace on the run might be side goals your racer can focus on so that they see that paying attention to things they can control is what eventually leads to finishing strong.

Priorities: Fitting triathlon into the busy lives of typical families requires understanding the family’s priorities. If you want to know what your priorities are, just look at the past week and where you and your children have been spending your time. How you rearrange your schedule depends on whether you want to move triathlon up on the priority list (and thereby move something down). We all have the same 24 hours to work with, and one mistake is to make triathlon training so much of a priority that it leaves your child overly segregated from the rest of the family at night or on weekends, or with one parent too much of the time. Priorities need to be re-examined month to month or at least season to season. Families need to obtain a balance by fitting triathlon into the other important aspects of their lives rather than vice versa.

Long term, not short-term: The idea that triathlon, and the healthy lifestyle it encourages, can become part of your child’s future is exciting to imagine. To help make this dream a reality, successful sport parents understand that children love to play and that triathlon must be a form of play. Otherwise, they are apt to lose interest very quickly. As Todd Wiley, former pro triathlete and former USA Triathlon youth coach, said “The training philosophy that more is always better does not apply to triathletes, especially at these young ages.” Wiley, who was trained as a sprinter as a youth, thinks tri-kids should not be significantly upping their volume until they are at least 14 or 15 years old. Wiley goes on to say that he would prefer to see the young triathletes he coaches compete in sports like soccer or cross-country to improve their fitness, and he discourages specialization in triathlon even though these days kids can train for triathlon during all four seasons. Wiley hopes kids can gain their love of competition in triathlon over time, and he knows from firsthand experience that triathlon must be something you love to do because even as a professional you cannot count on triathlon becoming the sole means by which you make your living.

So, remember, first and foremost, keep it fun. A little pushing is OK, but if you have to force your young athlete to participate in triathlon, I can assure you, it is no longer fun for him or her. You don’t want your child to feel forced into the sport or that they will be letting you down if they no longer want to participate. The same advice applies to all of us amateur (adult) triathletes. It’s supposed to be fun, not a second job.

Dr. Mitchell Greene is a sport and clinical psychologist, located in Wayne, Pennsylvania. He is the sport psychology consultant to the Philadelphia Triathlon and the SheROX triathlon series. He is also a contributing columnist to USA Triathlon. For more information about Dr. Greene and his practice, go to www.greenepsych.com.