May 18, 2016 cburnham

Thoughts On Athlete Development

Early on I knew that I wanted to give back and support kids that have the drive and motivation to be good at a sport where the learning curve can be pretty steep and intimidating.   I wanted to give kids opportunities to really enjoy the sport that made a huge impact on my life and achieve their goals.  What began as mentoring a few local young cyclists each year eventually led to the opportunity to work with USA Cycling and run the West Coast Mountain Bike Development Camp, and soon after that, the opportunity to work with Bear Development.  In addition to Bear, I have had the pleasure of working with several high school mountain bike teams over the last few years which has been an awesome experience, as well as continuing to work with several junior and U23 athletes independently.  All of these experiences have been immensely rewarding, frustrating at times, and extremely valuable in my understanding of athlete development. 


In no particular order, I wanted to pass along some of the knowledge learned over the years to help those up and coming in the sport.  This is by no means definitive, but some commonalities and lessons I have learned over the years.  Many of these are from my own experiences, mistakes, and observing the results of others mistakes.  Making mistakes is how we learn and hopefully this will help the juniors, U23s, and the rest of ya all starting in the sport later in life.


  • Young riders, not just in pure age but in “athlete” age or experience, respond to training differently than athletes with 5+ years of experience. Training should be challenging but manageable, and tailored to their abilities.  All too often I see juniors and U23 riders try to mimic the training of their favorite Pro.  Just because Bradley Wiggins trains for 30 hours a week doesn’t mean that is the best thing for a 17-year-old mountain biker nor will it make him as fast as Bradley Wiggins.  Most Pro cyclists have years of riding in their legs, a base that allows them to build from big weeks versus just being broken down by them.  Respecting where the athlete is in their development, regardless of their age is crucial for long term development.   Not all 20 year olds are in the same place developmentally.  Even athletes competing at a higher level may not have the training experience or volume in their legs to benefit from more advanced or higher volume training. 
  • Athletes that are younger in age can benefit from more variability in their training. Physiologically, they respond quicker to training stimulus and the variety helps maintain motivation.  Most athletes under 15 are best served by not following any formal structure.  Just riding their bikes, doing group rides, and racing is enough to drive improvement in younger athletes. 
  • Delaying early specialization can benefit young athletes later in life and sport.  There are many studies (1, 2, 3) showing the dangers of kids specializing in one sport at an early age and how that can negatively affect their motor development and overall learning of movement patterns.  At some point in the development process an athlete will have to specialize in one sport to reach elite level ranks (where that point is can be debated and is most likely different for each athlete), but the later we can push that the better it is to the athlete as a whole.  The risk of overuse and burnout drops significantly in multi-sport athletes and in programs that allow “play” (more on this below).  I would even argue that it is best for junior cyclists to participate in multiple cycling disciplines.  Track cycling can be an awesome way for young cyclists to learn tactics and group riding skills.  Mountain biking can increase bike handling and overall strength.  When Dr. Andy Pruitt was running the Specialized Junior racing program this was a requirement for the Specialized Junior Athletes.  They all had to participate in at least two disciplines.  It didn’t matter which two but they had to do two.  Many of those athletes from that program have continuing racing and become lifelong cyclists (which really should be the goal for all junior development programs).  
  • Development may mean sacrificing immediate results for long term gains. Early experience is often more valuable than one good result.  Putting an emphasis of achieving valuable experiences and learning in increasingly challenging races will result in wins later.  Of course ending up on a podium is a great experience, but that may not be realistic for where an athlete is in their development.  If an athlete can come away from a race have learned something about positioning, tactics, fueling, a better perspective on fitness, or any other multitudes of technical skills than it is a success that will pay off in results later. 
  • Parents, stop doing stuff for your kids. Be a good cheerleader, supporter, but stop packing their race bags, making sure they have their race nutrition and recovery nutrition, or making sure they packed their shoes.  Let them make mistakes, it is how we learn and become better athletes and people.
  • Not all athletes should be professionals. Yep, that is the hard facts.  It is less than 1% of adolescent athletes that go on to be professionals. Thus, that probably shouldn’t be a goal of any development program even though some athletes may ultimately have that option.  There are many life lessons we can learn from sports including self-discipline, mindfulness, confidence, responsibility for ourselves and teammates, effective goal setting, and good decision making skills that can be invaluable later in life and should be the core of most development programs. 
  • You got to keep it fun. As soon as a program loses that it will greatly lessen the chance of success for its riders and the program itself.  I don’t know any highly successful people that don’t enjoy what they do at some level.  I have never met a successful pro that didn’t enjoy their sport.  This also applies to the programs themselves.  Keeping things fun also applies to the directors, support staff, and coaches in development programs.   Most development programs are acts of love for the sport, giving opportunities to riders many didn’t have coming up in the sport, and out of the kindness of directors, coaches, and support staff.  Those people don’t stick around if the overall experience is not enjoyable, rewarding, or fun.  
Goal setting and ownership of that goal is a core principle in the Bear Development program.

Goal setting and ownership of that goal is a core principle in the Bear Development program.

Like I mentioned above, this list is not definitive.  There are so many aspects of developing good, young athletes that it would be hard to cover all of it. I would love to hear thoughts from others that have helped develop young athletes.  What worked and what didn’t?  Ultimately the more kids we have on bikes the better!

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