Toasting The Kids

from Chasing Mavericks

In the ongoing quest to uncover why our most talented young athletes are disappearing without trace, Toni Minichiello has uncovered another clue.

Toni Minichiello

British Athletics have published their qualifying standards for the Under 18 European championships.

Toni is wavering between apoplectic rage and the sort of disbelieving laughter that quickly turns to tears. Here’s why. You may need to pay attention. We’ve produced a chart to make it easier:

It’s impossible to keep up with Toni’s outpouring of scorn, so I’ll choose some of the highlights of our conversation. Toni starts the ball rolling,

“To qualify for the Decathlon at BA’s 6900 versus the EAA’s 6100 points you’d almost need another event”. (I googled it – I think that would be called a Hendathalon).

He continues, breathless with incredulity,

“The GB qualifying standard for Shot Put is not that far from the British record. That would be funny if it wasn’t so ridiculous”.

I do some rapid digging. Very few athletes, in either Heptathlon or Decathlon, have ever achieved higher than the current qualification stands at Under 18. I ask Toni why anyone would set such demanding standards,

“Why? Because they’re crazy. When Jess won as a junior she scored 5311”.

“So our most successful ever Heptathlete wouldn’t have qualified. Even with her Championship performance?!”

Athletics is killing itself and toasting young athletes in the process.

“For me that’s not the worst of it. When Jess qualified she scored 5116.  She had a stinker in the high jump but the qualification standards at that time allowed her to develop, to naturally progress and improve. Asking people to produce a championship performance before you get there is madness.  Look at the declining number of people in the sport. There’s no room for growth. Athletics is killing itself and toasting young athletes in the process”.

Here’s the chart again but with Dame Jessica Ennis Hill’s performance in qualifying and competition for the same event:

I ask the question,

“What if Jess had scored 5311 before the Championships. What would you do?”

“We’ve only got two options. One: we gamble and sit on the score hoping she’s picked for being close and possibly miss out all together. Two: we go again, which is what most do.  You find another competition, then another then another, until you get the score. The problem is, even if you get the standard the chances are you’ve burned yourself out in the qualifying process so you inevitably fail at the Champs. Good luck with that learning experience”.

Toni and Jess review the numbers Pre-Rio 2016

Toni draws breath and continues,

“Also, when do you train? When do you continue your development? I want to develop a great senior not a lost junior. To develop and grow you have to maintain the capacity to grow. If you train six days a week as a junior what do you do as a senior? Seven? Eight? Twice a day three times a day? Those things have a cost: both physical and financial. Good luck with that too”.

I come to the conclusion that, I suspect, is shared by many viewing the above chart,

“It seems, err, that British Athletics don’t actually want anyone to qualify?!”.

“You’d think. It must be a different agenda”.

“What would that be?”

“Maybe a belief that you need to push people more. I understand that for Seniors.  You can force the standard when maturation is over. However, for young athletes you have to go with nature and improve over time. There’s no way they should be thrashed to death. They need to be bubble wrapped and developed slowly”.

Toni tails, away, ruminating. He picks up again,

“It could be about numbers travelling, the money involved but then they’ve got 28 million pounds and they’ve already said how many they’re taking so it can’t be that. Given that the targets are so extreme they may be suggesting that they’re tackling the challenge of athletes who qualify with lower standards and then get heavily beaten at the championships”.

“But isn’t that the point of progression?”

We should be using the junior Championships to develop people, not demand medal winning standards just to qualify.

“Absolutely. If young athletes are weeping and wailing because they didn’t medal at a Championship, their expectations are being mismanaged by either their coach, the Governing Body or both. I read your article on Alicia. She’ll probably have to run sub – 13 seconds to reach the final which will be a first. If she does, then great. But that would be a bonus. The purpose of being at the Commonwealth Games is to learn and progress towards a bigger, long-term goal. We should be using the junior Championships to develop people, not demand medal winning standards just to qualify”.

Sadly, we’re not creating any incentives for people to stay in the sport. The subliminal message is, ‘We’re not interested in you. Go away’. Consider Karla Drews’ study. Where are all the young top athletes disappearing to?”

Here’s the rub. The current situation appears to completely fly in the face of the averred intent of UK sport: to win more medals. Toni explains,

“As I’ve said before, in track you’re like a kite in a gale. However well-built and prepared your kite is, a blast of wind comes along and you’re out of control. What do I mean? Usain Bolt was a gale. It didn’t matter what you did because, in his prime he could destroy you. Shoulder to shoulder races are a gale: by definition there are multiple factors outside of your control. Field is completely different. It’s a controlled environment. In field you can be consistent. It’s a replication of movement and delivery of force. You can truly, truly control your competitive environment. You’re on your own. You perform on your own”.

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If you want medal success, it’s generally accepted that the more you can control the environment, the better the chances of success. Look at what Britain achieved in track cycling. Toni continues,

“If you long jump 7 metres as a woman, you medal. High jump 2.35 as a man, you medal. You’d be the unluckiest individual ever if you got 6600 points in the Heptathlon and didn’t medal. The kite in a gale scenario is far rarer.”

Once again, we seem to have a situation where the views of coaches are not being taken into account at the expense of a ‘strategy’ that appears to deliver less and less success whilst creating a damaging legacy to the sport. Toni is clear,

“If you have a performance brain, the current qualifying standard for Field events make no sense. We should be controlling controllables, taking care of business and building from solid, basic foundations whilst being smart. I firmly believe, part of role of the coach is keeping people in sport”.

“Is there a risk we don’t send anyone?”.

“You’d think so. It’s beyond belief. My advice to Rhea, one of my younger athletes, is to ignore qualifying. Know your end goal and keep working towards it, don’t let anything interfere with the direction you’re going in. It’s difficult for some athletes and parents to accept as they want to reach for the stars. But reach too soon and you crash and burn”.

Athlete Alicia Barrett

Sound advice for any young athlete (or their parents). Toni’s work with Alicia Barrett, at the time of writing about to compete in the Commonwealth Games, is a case in point. They’ve only worked together for two years and, in many ways, Toni is working with her as if she is an athlete of 18, not 20, due to her previous training regime,

“We’re working on building strength and technique that simply wasn’t there when we started together. She only trains five days a week. It can be difficult not to push but and this is critical for more people to understand, if I upped her workload now we’d see short term returns. But not in the long run; then it would actually be reductive. For now there are loads of facets to address.; flat speed, hurdle technique, start technique, strength..”.

He pauses for a moment, then apparently decides to let me in on his thoughts,

“We’re trying to teach her to hop”

“She can’t hop?”

He laughs, “Not efficiently. The relevance, in case you’re wondering (I was), is that you can’t do single leg plyometric work until you can hop efficiently and safely”.

Anyone who has read my previous conversations with Toni will understand his focus on ‘context’: keeping the long-term goal in mind in every short-term decision.

“Look at Jess. Think of athlete in their prime and all the things they are capable of doing. Then you consider what a training programme would look like to get to that point and then backtrack to their current age.  Alicia had a two-year gap to make up to begin with. She used to hit every hurdle with her knee and a straight lead leg.  Now she has a kink in her lead leg but only hits a  couple of hurdles. After every run she used to have blood on knees, a permanent knee scab! Now that blood is very rare”.

…everyone talks about experience without necessarily understanding what that means.

Are you comfortable with her going the Commonwealth Games?

“She qualified on last seasons’ times and she will benefit from the experience because of the way she’ll approach it, so yes but everyone talks about experience without necessarily understanding what that means. Performance on the big stage is what naturally springs to mind, but remember she is at University and needs a life/work balance.  Also you’ve got to find out whether she likes it, can she cope with professional athletics and how it works?  Does it give her a buzz? It’s about answering the eternal question of ‘why you do it?’ Remember,  ‘I’m good at it’, is not an answer, at least not an answer that will keep you motivated and provide purpose throughout a career”.

Toni’s tone darkens,

“People are making their judgement of Alicia now and some things are being said. But they’re judging her in transition. Don’t judge her performances now. Judge her performances in 2021”.

You can’t rush perfection. It’s the law of nature.

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