Listening to an Ash Barty interview this morning, she discussed her year off from tennis and how it has enhanced her tennis performance. For me, it poses the question about the culture of training within junior sport and more specifically cycling.
Both tennis and cycling have a major individual aspect. Tennis players spend an abundance of time grinding forehands on the baseline and cyclist clock their fair share of minutes churning an uncomfortable gear out on the road. This is what it takes to "make it" but should this reside in a junior athlete’s career?
A thought-provoking article on junior tennis states: "tennis creates—then reveals their personality, their character and determination to succeed." This is the same in cycling and maybe a more important aspect of the sport than making it to the major league.
After a hotshot junior career, playing tennis tournaments around the world, Barty took last year off to play cricket and reassess her sporting passion.
After a year off, she is back and with intent, overcoming world number seven, Briton Johanna Konta last night. She has climbed her way to number 23 in the world rankings and credits her year off. Talking this morning on RSN radio she discussed her mental adjustment after taking a break from tennis - she's enjoying the sport, is more mature, less stressed about her performance and during her year off was able to find new ways to enjoy life outside of tennis. Exemplified by the fact she discussed the AFL for the majority of the interview. Even at the elite end of sport enjoyment is still a key base, a building block, to refer back to when things are not going so well.
For me, in the Under 19s, Under 17s, and Under 15 categories, performance doesn't matter at all. It's a skill, enjoyment and learning phase, a time to develop passionate athletes, who maybe one day can have a red-hot crack at being a professional.
I imagine coaching is hard, it's a big responsibility, especially in the junior ranks where a coach is so influential. It's more of a "life" program when coaching a junior, thus, I think their program should be very conservative - let the athlete discover why the sport is enjoyable and not rule out other careers/sports/hobbies. It will reduce their performance but, does it really matter if they place 5th, not 2nd in the Under 17 East West North South Tour of St Kilda? When you are one month out the Tour de France, that's when you can live like a hermit.
Should a 17-year old train every day? For me, no way. Yes, he should ride, it's a fantastic sport and a great way to holistically develop as a person, but having days off to play other sports/hang out with friends, should be part of the "program". I believe it will enhance the athlete's career and improve performance when it really matters.
The world of power meters is definitely present in junior cycling and its presence is only going to increase. The concerning part for me is the number of junior athletes that use them religiously, they are a fantastic training tool and you can narrow in on training, but how do you learn "the sport" if you are coached to operate like a robot. Power meters were not really a thing five years ago, as you had to mortgage your house to purchase one but it was fantastic - training was cycling, not staring at your head stem for 5 minutes on 5 minutes off.
All in all, enjoyment is invaluable and I commend Ash's bold move to take a year off.
See you back at the social club,
PS. You can listen to her interview here.