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25 | Developing Young Champion Athletes with Dr Steve Stannard

Do you have a kid who wants to be a pro rider? Is someone in your family a gung-ho runner and eats, sleeps and breathes running? We all want our kids and athletes to be the best they can be, but being the best young athlete isn't the most important thing. If a young person really wants to be a pro athlete, they need to be good when they are older, and have a prosperous, healthy career. We need to give them support, but make sure they love their sport in the long run.

In this episode, we catch up with Dr Steve Stannard, parent of successful athletes, a world-leading sport scientist and coach. Dr Steve is a successful cyclist himself, representing Australia. Steve tells us the aspects that can improve a developing athlete’s chances of success from his own experience.

Steve raced in Europe in the early 90s, before completing his Masters and PhD in Australia. In 2003, he moved to New Zealand and has since observed an era of incredible cycling talent in Palmerston North. We talk to Steve about the numerous factors that he believes have contributed to such impressive successes and potential difficulties that young athletes and their parents can encounter. The resulting advice is essential to developing young athletes.

Steve begins by explaining that success breeds success. In the context of young athletes, if they are surrounded by other like-minded athletes, hard work and success will be normalised and the standard of competition will be raised. He states that longevity is key to success, for two reasons. The first is that statistically, the longer the athlete competes in sport, the more chances of success they will have. Secondly, that the longer we persist with something, the better we get at it.

We also discuss the controversial nature versus nurture argument. Whilst at the very top level of a sport, some physiological luck is required, we conclude that nurture is most important and that a very high level of performance can be reached purely by hard work. Because the rate of training adaptations varies between (and even within) athletes, longevity is still critical to ensure that they stay in the sport and keep improving as their trajectory can change.

Therefore, longevity is the most important factor in developing young athletes. But how do we achieve this?

Steve says that the answer lies in the social fabric of the athlete’s community. He describes the local schools cycling community that his kids have all been through, where training, racing and hanging out together created a social glue that kept them all together and centred on cycling. At an age where teenagers can start to get their licenses and buy alcohol, the athlete’s environment becomes really important, as they will be attracted to the activities that their friends are doing. This has the opportunity to create positive, life-long habits as well as exceptional athletes.

Will questioned how parents can affect the development of an athlete. Steve explained that parents have the ability to clear the way and negotiate the progression of the sport. He gives the examples of a parent having the knowledge of what races to go to, getting them to these races or how to fix a bike. This can be very helpful, however, parents can also be the biggest road-block to a child’s success by doing too much for them. We have all seen examples of helicopter parenting. Steve suggests that the best answer for this is to lead by example and don’t push. If they are interested they will easily be able to follow along with the sporting activities and events that the family does. Steve notes that if the social fabric for the young athletes disappears as they reach the end of school causing them to stop, it can often be the group of parents that remains. He questions whether it was the child or the parent that wanted to be there more?

Steve coached his son Robert Stannard right until he joined the World Tour team Michelton-Scott, but he emphasises the importance of bringing other people into their network. “It takes a community to raise an athlete”. This phrase certainly holds true for Caleb Bottcher throughout his journey to the MTB World Champs. He explains his coaching philosophy of “make yourself redundant” by also teaching the athletes. This approach is most effective with other knowledgeable, trustworthy influences and certainly worked for Steve and Robert!

Will also questioned how repetitive competition within the example school cycling social group might affect the young athlete’s motivation. We look at the scenario where one or two athletes within the group may win week in and week out and how the others might become disheartened. Steve says that it is important to ask the athlete post-race: “How did you go?”, as opposed to “where did you come?”. The latter is merely a reference for how other people think the athlete went, but it is important to hear their take on their race.

Regardless, the drive to see improvement still remains. For athletes looking to be competitive, the endurance sports that we do are fortunate enough to have a huge amount of races worldwide that provide a range of measurements of success. For young athletes planning to travel, Steve stresses the importance of setting realistic expectations and that you can’t expect to go to Europe for the first time and win. He describes it as a process of going over and dipping the toe in. Firstly, see if you enjoy it and make connections. Learn to travel and learn to race. Try it, then go back again. He also explains that young athletes need to learn to win and need to learn to lose. They will do so between their local races and then when they travel to bigger races.

When evaluating a young athlete’s potential, Steve explains that it isn’t purely if they are doing well or not, but also their stage of development. Teenagers will hit puberty and develop at varying times and rates, so the athlete winning at 13 years old isn’t necessarily going to be the best in 10 years time. Scientifically, they likely won’t stop growing until their early 20s. The clavicle is one of the last bones to stop growing and can determine lung volume, so a lot can and will change!

We conclude by asking how we should direct the development of young athletes, given all this great information and discussion. Matt says that because kids already have a great ability to sprint, rest and repeat, that the priorities for young athlete development should first and foremost be fun, followed by building their endurance engine. This approach will positively impact longevity and they will be able to continue working hard as they progress. Steve says that early specialisation in kids is unnecessary and recommends that they do a range of sports and have one training day per week. This will help their holistic development and create an environment that promotes positive habits in life and training.

You can listen to this episode for free HERE

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