Sonia O’Sullivan: Keeping things simple is key for young athletes

European Cross Country Championships often produce the most unpredictable races

Sophie O’Sullivan, right,  and Stephanie Cotter in action during the junior women’s 1500m at the Cork City Sports. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

Sophie O’Sullivan, right, and Stephanie Cotter in action during the junior women’s 1500m at the Cork City Sports. Photograph: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

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Back on familiar ground again, and first of all London, revisiting some of my old running routes around Teddington – and also the chance to catch up with my long-time physical therapist and friend Gerard Hartmann.

Like many people in his line of work, dealing with athletes for many hours on the massage table, this often takes on more than just a hands-on role; it also involves talking with the athlete, even getting into their very minds.

And Gerard has always been one of the most positive and insightful people in my life – when I was an athlete, a former athlete and now as the mother of a young athlete. 

After arriving on the weekend from Australia, 24 hours cooped up in a plane with little room to move or stretch about, I thought it would be a good idea to introduce my daughter Sophie to Gerard ahead of the European Cross Country in Tilburg, the Netherlands, this weekend.

It just happened that with a few days of acclimatisation and recovery from the travel, Gerard was working in London, at his new city clinic in Knightsbridge, so we met up to give Sophie a check-up and realignment of any muscles and joints that may have been jammed up after the long flight and the awkward sleeping positions. 

We’ve been staying in the same house where Gerard first had a room in Teddington, back in the early 1990s, and began treating me between races on the European circuit.

A short bus ride from Heathrow Airport, Teddington is one of the best places to go running all year round, so many choices between Bushy Park, Home Park and down along the River Thames to Richmond Park. 

Last summer Sophie was running cross country in Melbourne, then returned to run the 800m at the European Youth Championships; this time she’s returning from the Australian track season to see how that converts to running cross country, as a member of the Irish junior girls team in Tilburg. 

Every trip for Sophie at this stage of her career is a learning experience, and I try to influence some things from my past experiences to help create the best possible transition from the other side of the world into a new season, and routine. As much as I try to create the perfect environment there will always be the uncontrollable – things you just have to deal with and put to the side while you plough on as best you can.

Solid foundation

I always take great confidence from a few of Gerard’s observations, the main one being to “always keep things simple”. There are times when you can overthink things, put too much emphasis on perfection, and complicate things too early in a young athlete’s career, when they should be just enjoying their sport. 

Junior athletes should be just that – junior athletes, learning and developing, every race being a new experience, just one new piece to the jigsaw puzzle. That often means spreading the gains over an extended period of time so that they build a solid foundation.

There’s no need for young athletes to spend hours on the treatment table; these are the years when the body can heal itself and recover. When building strength and endurance it’s better to naturally recover between hard sessions and races than to be forcing recovery, then thinking the body is ready for even more hard training when it may need another easier day of training. 

There is more to developing the young athlete than extra miles and faster sessions: agility, core exercises and body weight circuits all allow the athlete to develop in a natural state and mature naturally without getting ahead of themselves. 

You just have to look back down through the junior athlete’s results from previous European Cross Country Championships. The best juniors don’t always develop into the best seniors with a lifelong career in athletics. 

If you push too hard at a young age, there is nowhere to go when you are more mature and more able to handle the training loads. Often athletes spend years trying to get back to the level they were at as junior athletes, many get frustrated and give up and never fulfil their athletic potential. 

Small step

That is why that one thing Gerard said that stuck with me – “keep it simple” – makes a lot of sense. When you’re dealing with a young athlete, you can only gently nudge them along the path they wish to follow, let them lead the way and assist when you can.

But don’t try to complicate things and add in too many extras along the way. Just keep things simple and enjoy running and the success that it brings.

It’s always nice to win, sometimes good to lose, the important thing being to use success and loss as learning experiences that help the growth of a well -rounded athlete. 

The European Cross Country provides the most unpredictable races each year. There is very little form to go on, it’s hard to compare cross country course’s and track times, and plenty of the uncontrollable; the weather, the surface, the undulations and twists and turns. 

One thing for sure is there are many talented young athletes lining up for the first time, some will be more developed and trained than others, aspiring to stand out and be noticed. But this is just one small step on the ladder, one small piece of that much bigger picture still being drawn.

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