How to Develop Younger Athletes

As head coach of one of the nation's largest junior cycling teams, Pete Webber shifted his program from selection to athlete development.

Video Transcript

Pete Webber  00:05

Hi, my name is Pete Webber, I’m the executive director of a junior cycling team called Boulder Junior Cycling. The reason most kids come to BJC is to be with their friends. They may have a friend at school who’s into riding their bike or into bike racing, and they want to try it too. They can come to team practice and hang out with their friends and have fun.

One of the values of our team is we want to be open to everyone. There’s no prerequisites to joining our team, you don’t have to be an experienced bike rider to join BJC. You don’t have to aspire to be a bike racing champion. We know that there are many benefits to youth sports: it’s a healthy pastime, it can last a lifetime, and it’s a great way to learn life lessons. We want to make sure that’s available to everyone, not just kids who want to be bike racing champions.

Focus on Long-Term Athlete Development

Pete Webber  01:06

When becoming a coach for junior athletes, I think it’s really important that coaches start with a really firm understanding of this principle called long term-athlete development. In the coaching industry, we use the acronym LTAD.

What this is, is a framework for how to provide the right training and the right instruction for kids as they age. There are six or seven steps in a common LTAD model. It’s really important that youth sports coaches study up and research and understand long-term athlete development.

In youth sports far too often, we get sucked into just looking at the short term. We’re looking at kids who are on the podium or winning championships at a young age. We’re focusing our coaching and development opportunities on these early performers. But, the research tells us that there’s very little correlation between the young podium finishers, those early performers, and long-term success. As coaches if we’re too focused on the short term, we’re going to miss out on a whole bunch of other kids who are in the middle of the pack at a young age. We need to take a step back, have a long-term perspective, and make sure we’re giving all kids equal coaching and equal opportunities, not just the ones that are on the podium at a young age.

When you’re starting with young kids, it’s really about just developing their physical literacy, like how to move, how to be an athlete, developing their strength and agility. Then, as you move through the steps, you’re advancing towards the eventual goal of competition.

[Speaking to one of his athletes] What we usually do is, depending on the athlete, it’s like a rebuilding year. It would be back to a focus on local racing, less travel because you go to most of these UCI races, and there’s no U23 category offered. You have to race with the elite, and you’re like, “I can’t do that yet.” We’re like, “Build up and you’ll be ready for it in the future.”

Get Athletes to Wait on Specialization

Pete Webber  03:29

I often get asked about specialization in sport, meaning should kids do multiple sports throughout their life? When should they specialize on cycling? We do know that most elite performers come from a multi-sport background, and they didn’t specialize on just one sport when they were young. As coaches, we can make sure we’re encouraging kids to branch out, to continue to do a variety of sports. When they’re 10, 11, 12, they should be really mixing it up. We don’t know what sport they’re going to be best at yet. We want them to try a bunch of different sports to see which ones really click. Then they get older into the 16, 17, 18 [age range], then it makes sense to start to specialize on just one or two sports.

Keep in mind that many athletes do change sports, and the things they’re learning, whatever sport they’re doing, it’s going to translate pretty well across the boundary into other sports. At BJC, we really try to teach the kids all the different avenues of cycling, whether that be road cycling, mountain biking, cyclocross track, etc. At the high school level, we even require the kids to mix disciplines, and we don’t allow them to specialize in just one form of cycling until they’re older. Again, we don’t know if they’re going to be a climber or sprinter. Is time trialing going to be their thing? Enduro, mountain biking, whatever you have . . . so as a youth coach, it really makes sense to expose the kids to a lot of different disciplines and help them become experts at all of it.

As they get older, it’s only going to give them a lot of advantages. I do think it’s important that as coaches, as much as possible, we get kids into team environments or clubs, where they’re going to be able to ride and train and learn from other kids and other adults, and not just be doing this on their own.

Pete Webber  05:37

I think there’s a danger in modern coaching using [the convenience of] tools like TrainingPeaks or the internet, where coaches can find themselves becoming a USA Cycling coach in a remote situation, where you’re not actually face-to-face with the athlete. Sometimes that’s just going to be the reality. I think [a coach] can make the most of it. But generally speaking, I think it’s important we steer kids towards clubs, in a club environment, as the best way to have fun with their friends.

Hiring and Training Coaches

Pete Webber  06:07

We work with a whole staff of coaches on our team and we have professional coaches for all the different age groups. We invest a lot in coach training and it’s important, before we put coaches out in the field with kids, that we make sure they have a baseline of education. Most of the training that we provide to the coaches is not about cycling. Typically, the coaches are going to come to us with a pretty strong cycling background already.

We want to make sure they’re well trained on working with kids and all of the differences between coaching kids and adults. So much of that is related to just having an emotional connection with the kids. We call it “filling their emotional tank.” Kids are there to have fun, to get pushed up, and we don’t want to make things too serious. New coaches coming in from the sport of cycling, they may be expert riders, but they haven’t been trained on working with kids. I think it’s important that we invest in that training time.

Teach Life Lessons to Young Athletes

Pete Webber  07:17

As coaches, we tend to focus on performance as a key part of our job. But when working with kids, it’s also important that we focus on teaching life lessons because we know not all kids are going to be on the podium. Not all kids are going to be high performers. But we can still make sport a valuable and successful thing for them if we teach life lessons.

[Talking to his athletes]

Once you get to the level and the age that you guys are at, it’s important to also step up as a leader. So that can be things like showing the younger riders how we do things . . . being on time for practice, being prepared, having your equipment dialed. And the younger kids will see that and they’ll just learn through observing. These are the types of things that kids come into our team, usually without a high degree of proficiency, and we can help teach them that.

I remember in particular, one kid that came onto our team was late every day, underdressed during cold weather, was never prepared, had a really hard time talking with his coaches. During his years on the team, we were able to overcome all of those challenges. This kid, you know, started coming to practice super prepared, he was dialed, he really would reach out for advice and coaching support, and now he’s a professional cyclist at the highest level. I know that what he got from our team wasn’t the training or it wasn’t the biking skills. What was most important were those life lessons that he learned.

[Talking to athletes]

In an individual sport like cycling, sometimes we can really get into tunnel vision, where we’re just thinking about our own goals or what we need to do. I know from experience that that’s not the best way to actually to help you make your goals because it’s not a balance, right? You want to have a balance in life of giving your community and also doing your own thing. So throughout the whole season, I really encourage you to think about not just what can you get from the team, but what can you give to the team.

How to Work with Parents

Pete Webber  09:38

I often get asked what’s the hardest part about being a junior coach and I have to say that sometimes it’s working with parents. Parents can be pretty serious about youth sports and they tend to view race results and performances as really important. As coaches, it’s important that you establish really good communication with the parents of your youth athletes and that you share your coaching philosophy with them, that you help teach parents about long-term development and how putting pressure on results at a young age can really backfire.

We want parents to be their kid’s biggest supporter, but not their coach. We want parents to understand that kids are going to learn the most when they’re working one-on-one with their coach and with their team, and then parents can take a step back. This helps kids learn how to be independent. It allows kids to make mistakes, it allows them to experience failure and we know that failure is one of the best ways to learn.

A Balanced Approach to Racing

Pete Webber  10:53

On the topic of racing, it’s important that we find the right balance of racing, when we’re talking about kids. I believe that it’s a mistake to have kids get involved with racing too young. Racing can be fun, but it can also be stressful. There’s always the danger that kids and families are going to take it too seriously. So we like to introduce kids to racing without results, and without pressure—say, just fun races or games, or sort of competition that has nothing important and no importance tied to it—at age 10, 11, 12, just introducing competition a little bit. At 13, 14, doing some racing, but not every weekend and not year-round because they’re just learning the sport at that point, and we’re trying to save up some energy for later. Then at age 15, 16, 17, 18, racing can become a little more serious. But again, always finding a balance.

Some of the other principles around racing that we think are important is mainly—racing should be done locally. Racing out of state should be something that comes later in a junior’s development. It should only come once they’ve mastered the fundamentals of racing at a local level. It’s always about finding that balance, not skipping steps in their development, racing just enough to keep learning, but not so much that they get burned out. Using it as a tool for learning, not as a way to measure or select kids for future opportunities.

[Talking to athlete]

You do five [reps], [then a] bottle flip. Once you land it, you do five more. Ready? 10 seconds . . . go. Everyone GO! Yes, Team B over here, won! We have the champions over here!

Bring the Fun Back into Coaching

Pete Webber  13:09

I think there’s a statistic out there that say that 70% of kids will quit their sport by the age 13. So what can we do to prevent that as coaches? Well, why do kids do sport? They do it to have fun and to be with their friends, so we always have to make sure that we make that the highest priority. They have to have joy, they have to love the sport. They’ll lose that if we put too much pressure on them at a young age. If the training is too hard or too serious for where they are in their development, if there’s too much emphasis on competition at too young an age, if there’s an emphasis on selection, instead of development. There are just so many other ways that we need to have a long-term view, making sure that all kids have a positive experience, they’re having fun, and they’re encouraged to stay with it over the long term.

[Talking to athlete]

Do you know how to do a bottle flip?