Some athletics developmental challenges

Every time January comes around we witness a flurry of Athletics competitions all around St Vincent and the Grenadines. It is the Athletics competitive season.
For the uninitiated, the conditioning or pre-competition season usually runs from September through to December of each year.  The competition season begins in January.
Over the past several years however some schools have actually held their Athletics Championships in the first term, the conditioning season.
One is not at all certain how many parents and children have as yet come to the recognition that sport is a science. Things are no longer done by guesswork. Coaching is a scientific undertaking and the coach engages in a systematic developmental programme designed to take the athlete from raw talent to elite status.
Here in St Vincent and the Grenadines we may well still hold the view that success in athletics can emerge from commencement of training in January for Inter House competition in January, February of March and the Inter Secondary of Inter Primary Schools Athletics Championships in March or April.
At last year’s Inter Secondary Schools Athletics Championships many were disappointed at the number of athletes who collapsed after their respective events at both the Heats and Finals. This was reflective of the poor preparation in which the athletes were involved. Some would suggest that many athletes do not engage in any form of preparatory work for the Athletics season.
In the conditioning period the athlete is expected to engage in exercises aimed at preparing them for the hard competitive season. This period is therefore filled with what is usually called over-distance work that builds the athlete’s endurance capacity.
In the recent past however coaching theory has developed and it is now thought that during the conditioning period the athlete can be introduced to some training in the specific distance in which he/she would be competing in the competitive period.
Additionally, every athlete now does some speed work and this has to begin in the conditioning period as well.
Any coach worthy of his salt would readily suggest that at the beginning athletes take things easy and gradually build up their condition. While we have come to the recognition that some coaches and athletes as well as parents seem only too anxious to have everything achieved all at once, the reality is that the preparation of an athlete takes time and without a sound foundation; without adequate conditioning, the athlete has little chance of achieving success.
It should also be noted that during the conditioning phase it is important that the coach seeks to facilitate general physical fitness, hone sport specific technical skills, while at the same time ensuring that the athletes are eating well with a healthy diet consistent with their training needs. The coach must ensure too that work is done on the mental skills of the athlete, a feature often neglected in the anxiety to see immediate results.
We cannot over emphasise the importance of attention to detail on the part of the coach in this and other phases of the athlete’s preparation. At the same time care must be taken to make the athlete aware of the causes and treatment of injuries common to practitioners of their respective athletics disciplines.
Here in St Vincent and the Grenadines there is little evidence that athletes are sufficiently aware of the importance of the conditioning phase in their annual preparation. Admittedly the schools’ programme has Football and Netball in the first term, the athletics conditioning period. This should not necessarily detract from the track and field athlete’s preparation. Indeed the athlete, whether involved in Netball or Football must still be able to engage in conditioning for track competition. Both Football and Netball require running as a fundamental part of their own preparation and so this would be of benefit to the track athlete.
Unfortunately the preparation for Football and Netball in this country even at the national level does not pay enough attention to conditioning and this has been evident in their regional performances. The case is much worse at the school level where the teachers seem not to have the time to adequately prepare their respective teams through the years.
Another major weakness here is the failure of the coaches to engage the athletes in weight-for age training. Few athletes engage in appropriate strength training. Too many are afraid of lifting weights because they fail to recognise the role it plays in their overall preparation.
Not many coaches feel confident enough to adequately take athletes through the weight training regimen since this often requires a fair measure of professionalism in the field. Not everyone is capable of undertaking this task.
What may well be necessary is strong liaison with physical trainers who have specialised in weight training.
The result is that track and field athletes rarely engage in a full conditioning phase in their annual preparation. This inevitably means that at the beginning of the competitive phase they are woefully short in terms of their preparation.
Competitive season
During the competitive season the athlete is expected to be engaged in training exercises specific to his/her event. Care has to be taken to ensure that the athlete is prepared to peak when it is most appropriate. That is a coach would want his athlete to be at his/her best when it matters most. This means that the coach and athlete would determine at the beginning of their conditioning period precisely when the athlete should be at his/her best.
As is the case in the conditioning phase of the athlete’s preparation, the coach is particularly important. He/she works closely with the athlete educating him/her on the purpose of every component of the training regimen.
It is critically important that the parents of the athlete are informed of all that is happening in the athlete’s preparation so that they can empathise and facilitate a balance between the athlete’s academic work and athletic development.
All too often parents are not appropriately informed of what is happening and should the athlete falter in his/her academic work.
The competitive season makes heavy demands on the athlete. The coach requires greater effort and the athlete has to be helped along the ay by the coach, parents, teachers and friends. It is a collective undertaking for someone involved in an individual sport.
There are no shortcuts in this sport and the athlete gets out just what he/she puts in.
As is the case with the conditioning phase the situation in St Vincent and the Grenadines is a problematic.
Since most of the students have not engaged in a full conditioning phase their competitive phase would prove a challenge. They are ill-prepared for the heavy workloads in this phase and finds great difficulty holding up.
The result is that many of the athletes improve on their performances of the previous year but only because of natural progression. They do not improve based on their involvement in a full year’s training programme as happens in many other countries around the world.
What is more is that the athletes are themselves very aware that they are not appropriately fit and go through their paces as best they could.
Unfortunately for some athletes they may be relatively talented and their House Masters and at times coaches may want to see them excel at their respective School Sports and Inter School sports, having them compete in a multitude of events. The athletes often make it through their school sports but then find themselves under tremendous pressure to really excel at the Inter Secondary Schools Athletics Championships, much to their own chagrin and the disappointment of their peers and parents.
Care must be taken by coaches to ensure that given the poor preparation coming from the conditioning phase the athlete is ill-prepared for the rigours of the competitive phase and must be educated as to the reason for his/her relatively weak performances. The athlete must not be forced into excesses for which he/she is not yet prepared physically or mentally.
The coach is at once a skilled person in the particular sporting discipline, a confidant, a stand-in for the parents, a friend, a brother/sister, to the athlete.
Unfortunately there are times when the coach seems to ignore the biological age and psychological maturity of the athlete, in the process wreaking untold damage to the individual in his/her charge.
Coaches are people who have received specialised training in respect of how to work with athletes.
At each stage of the athlete’s development the coach must take the time to educate the athlete about what is happening, his/her physical and psychological development. Care must be taken to educate the parents and teachers at the same time so that all are on the same page.
It is extremely important that we understand that in today’s world the development of an athlete is a collective undertaking. It is not the coach alone. The coach does not live with the athlete and therefore is not present to monitor eating habits. This is the parents’ responsibility. The coach is not at school to monitor the athlete. This is the teacher’s responsibility. The coach may not be a professional in the use of weights based on the age of the athlete even though he may know of the sport specific requirements in this regard.
In St Vincent and the Grenadines there is often a disconnect between the various influences on the athlete. There is not enough coming together of all the stakeholders to facilitate the proper preparation of the athlete for success.
All too often athletes are given unacceptable promises by coaches offering to get them here, there and everywhere if they adhere to their specific regimen. This is not good enough. It is important that the coaches are always honest with the athletes at every stage of their development. Athletes, their parents, teachers and peers must know and understand that success does not come immediately. It often takes several years to mould an athlete into a success. World class athletes often emerge into elite status after some six consecutive years of training. There are no short cuts.
The time has come for us to take the correct approach in preparing our athletes for success. The long, arduous road is ahead.