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Attracting and retaining young people to Athletics

  • 05-12-2021 5:58pm
    Registered Users Posts: 2,643 ✭✭✭

    With the season drawing to a close, I’ve been reflecting on participation rates in Irish athletics. As a country, we seem to have a lot of adults running in parkruns, adult running groups, etc. This is obviously fantastic, and of great benefit. At County, Provincial and National level, things look quite good up until about U14, then it seems to fall off a cliff. Instead of going into the minefield of reasons why, I wonder what could be done to improve this situation.

    In the town in which I work, we have an excellent athletics stadium. Within 1 mile of the school, there are 3 secondary schools with over 2,000 student in total, and 6 primary schools with another 2,000 approximately. Yet, only 50 students out of that 4,000 use the track on a regular basis. The council sports department have reached out to me to see can we organise athletics events, and I believe this is key. As a direct result of us doing weekly athletics sessions as part of PE, 3 students in my class have joined local clubs this term.

    How can we keep them involved therefore? As a teacher, it generally wrecks my head when our profession is given the responsibility of implementing all sorts of diverse national framework initiatives, some of which have nothing to do with education. However, in this area, I think schools definitely have a part to play. Could roving dedicated coaches employed on a full term basis have a role? It certainly works for the GAA, why not Athletics?

    Could more be done by our governing body? The Covid era was poor I feel, a lot of kids slipped out of the sport.

    Are us parents to blame for putting too much pressure on our children at races and killing their enjoyment? Some of the things I’ve seen at juvenile races this year have been shocking. Of course, similar happens in football games in every town and village every week. In adults races, everyone is high fiving and getting medals and thoroughly enjoying competing just for the sake of it, yet we encourage children by roaring at them and telling them they have to do better. Maybe we need to celebrate participation more?

    Finally, maybe the media could have more of a role. On the way home from the National cross country today, every manner of GAA, horse racing and English soccer was covered, but not a word about the multiple national champions that emerged from the thousands of participants in a wonderful day of sport in Gowran Park.

    We won’t solve any national issues here, but as my children head towards the teenage years, I hope to figure out enough strategies for them to buck the trend and stay involved in a sport that we all love.


  • Registered Users Posts: 2,376 ✭✭✭diego_b

    This is definitely an issue that has caught my eye. I'm a coach in my athletics club for the last 6 years and thankfully this year we've started to see some growth in membership and participation in the U14 age group upwards.

    A much older coach than me told me that back in the day (20 years) that he found the challenge was keeping the kids until they go to college as you often lose them then if/when they move. These days to me it seems to be a challenge keeping them once they go to secondary school. We as a club have tried to engage with schools much more in recent years, simply putting on competitions in some shape or form for example. To date they have only been primary schools comps but I would like to try get some secondary school comps. We'd hope (the plans were formulated prior to covid) that we maybe could have got some of our coaches into the schools and run a few sessions but that is a none runner now. Also you have the challenge that for most of not all of our coaches we all work full time during the daytime so can't go to schools without arranging time off work. I think there would be an opportunity there for AAI to maybe try get some of their RDOs (many of them are noted athletes) into the schools and simply promote the sport and opportunities it can present.

    For our club something I think that has helped this year though is that due to numbers we have our 12+ to u18 athletics training separately from the younger groups where possible so they get most focused training geared to them. We've also promoted this on social media, some of this has meant that former say u12 athletes have came back to the club now as u15/u17s where they were gone for a few years for a variety of reasons. It's an ongoing challenge but if we as a club hope to have senior athletes that can compete to a high standard we simply have to get more teenagers, train them and keep them where possible. We've grown our membership in the juvenile age categories by 50 percent in the last year so we're going in the right getting them to competitions, that's another conversation!!

  • Registered Users Posts: 1,207 ✭✭✭Wottle

    I coached juveniles for roughly 9/10 years, stopped in 2019 (I think, last few years are just a big blur).

    A few things I'd suggest, get rid of individual competition for primary school age, make it team based. So All Ireland cross country starts at u13/14 for individual comp.

    Next, all coaches within a club have got to be singing off the same hymn sheet, including the more senior coaches. I was coaching an u13 boy who plays football and squash on top of his running. I saw one of our more senior coaches talking to him after training, I went over and he was basically telling him he'd win more if he packed the other sports in. Crazy.

    Parents, they really need to just stay out of it, some really do get caught up with living their dreams through their child, I've had a few arguments here.

    Throw in a wide range of games at the start and end of session. I played dodgeball, rounders and laser run with them, they loved it.

    Every club should have an ambassador that goes into local primary schools and in particular 6th classers as I feel you need to get them interested before they go to secondary school.

    Maybe this could be part of a funded athlete's criteria, maybe 1 school per month and maybe that athlete's funding should be increased based on how many schools they get to.

    I see David Gillick, Phil Healy & Fyffes have recently teamed up.

    Other projects like marathon kids, my youngest daughter did this for last 8 weeks in school, she loved it and they did their last mile on Tallaght track, she told me after that none of her friends had ever been on a track.

    One club I'd keep an eye on is Clongriffin AC, some very good people involved and all I see from their social media is fun and smiles, will be interesting to see can they get their young kids to u18 level.

    My eldest is in 6th year and has completely dropped athletics while doing the leaving cert, her choice, yet she signed up for a 5k on NYD. She was that child who at 9 was racing at u11 XC, with a coach (me) who although tried to put the emphasis on fun was probably also too concerned with winning (I saw the light soon after).

    There's definitely a case of burnout and doing the same oul for last 10 years.

    I currently work in primary schools introducing kids from 3rd to 6th class to athletics.

    Last week the hour was spent playing dodge ball, bench ball, dodge ball chasing, relay and wall ball. I believe they're learning valuable skills, all while having fun.

    Fun really is the key

  • Registered Users Posts: 76 ✭✭longrunn

    Make it fun. If it's not fun then kids won't want to stay.

  • Registered Users Posts: 2,643 ✭✭✭ThePiedPiper

    Super post Wottle. The team element is very well made. Half the enjoyment I get out of running in races as an ol fella is the feeling of running for team prizes. I see my own kids and children in school getting way more stressed about racing than they do for team sports.

    I'm involved in a coaching and administrative level with a soccer club and we’ve spoken recently about children doing multiple sports. There’s often a complete lack of communication and understanding about the workload that some teenagers have, particularly if they’re involved across school, club and county at multiple sports. From what I’ve seen with past pupils, Athletics is abandoned by the more talented footballers. Every soccer and GAA team is different, so it’s not right to make broad generalisations, but when underage teams start having two weekly training sessions, as well as the weekend game, eventually something has to give. As a minority sport, generally not rooted in the school or local community, Athletics is the most vulnerable to being dropped.

    It depends, in the end, on what we want out of sport on a national and international level. What the UK did in the decade leading up to the 2012 Olympics was incredible, in terms of investing money into minority sports and ultimately, winning loads of Olympics medals. Talented juniors were nurtured and infrastructures put in place to increase participation and success on a global stage. In GAA and soccer in Ireland, there are Emerging Talent Programmes and Centres of Excellence for talented kids, in rugby, there are clear pathways through Provincial academies. To the best of my knowledge, there is nothing like this in Athletics. The talented footballer who is also a wonderful runner will be courted by League of Ireland clubs, and see a clear pathway, so most likely choose football and who could blame them?

  • Registered Users Posts: 5,277 ✭✭✭Sunny Dayz

    A really good topic of conversation. I'm a coaching assistant with teens as well as being a parent to one also. I've noticed a drop off once they get to about 14/15. I think much of it is to do with the following: increased schoolwork, whittling down the number of after school activities they have, being able to articulate what activities they want to do and lastly peers.

    Another thing which I think could be given consideration is that in the teens there's such a big age range, development and ability. A 14 year old boy is very different to a 17 year old boy. But yet in many clubs due to the number of resources and coaches, they are all trained together. Many kids are interested in training but a lot have no interest or confidence in competing. Could teenage athletics be split into two levels - a "fit4life" equivalent and competing athletics?

    On a personal level, my child has dropped his athletics training. The stop-start of training the past 18+ months through no fault of the athletics club but due to covid just meant he slowly got out of the habit. I thought with parkrun starting back in Sept that he'd get back into it, but he's tired when he gets in from school and has a lot of homework in 5th year. I really do hope that he will get back into running properly at a later date, college maybe or after than. I suppose all I can do as a parent is set a good example to him with my own training (as slow as I am!!).

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  • Registered Users Posts: 1,207 ✭✭✭Wottle

    DSD have a superb fit4youth group, it appears to be for teens who aren't too keen on competing, yet a few do.

    I was invited up to do a session with my laser pistols at the end of last summer, think we had about 25, it was brilliant.

    It's run by two former international distance runners who just get it.

    I think the pathway issue is spot on the money, unless you're a coach who's been around awhile, you just won't know what it is.

    So what is the pathway to senior level starting at 7 -10yrs of age for a sprinter, thrower, jumper, endurance runner?

    What is the goal, to produce national/international class athletes or to show people how exercise can benefit their life both physically and mentally?

    Are too many clubs focussed on competition and results?

    Take the parkrun ethos, just turn up and run/walk, embrace your community. Imagine if your local parkrun started a club with the same end goal, I reckon they'd be jammed with numbers.

  • Registered Users Posts: 2,643 ✭✭✭ThePiedPiper

    On the last point there, my 12 and 10 year old thrive on park runs and open races, and often get over nervous and underperform in their own athletics club races.

  • Registered Users Posts: 1,178 ✭✭✭MY BAD

    I'm lucky enough to know Dermot McDermott. I think he's one if not the best underage coach in Ireland. The energy and enthusiasm he brings is phenomenal. He has so many kids who just adore him. The main thing he does is make it fun for the for the kids. The work he puts in behind the scenes is something else. Just one example here.

    I think getting kids involved isn't a problem as long as the parents do their part. GAA rule the roost so a lot of parents push their kids that direction because its the least hassle the set is already there and plenty of coaches compared to athletics. The benefit of taken part in athletics for kids development in other sports is quite important and the results speak for themselves.

    Another thing I think is important is improving facilities. We live in the wettest part of Europe and where I live is one of the wettest parts of Ireland. We need more indoor facilities for kids for all sports.

  • Registered Users Posts: 10,381 ✭✭✭✭Murph_D

    Do we really live in the wettest part of Europe?

    I do believe in public indoor (and outdoor) facilities, but there doesn't seem to be much appetite for the kind of taxation that would underwrite them.

    The GAA has vast participation without recourse to much in the way indoor facilites. They do however have fabulous outdoor facilities.

  • Registered Users Posts: 1,178 ✭✭✭MY BAD

    Okay maybe not the wettest but it feels like colder rain 😁

    Don't get me wrong I think the GAA do a fantastic job it's ingrained in our culture at this stage. GAA training for kids is normally at the weekend particularly around here anyway. So that will most likely take priority. Its more appealing even if its raining on a Saturday morning than a dark Tuesday evening. On top of that it's a team sport. But they are only side points to be fair. The most important thing is to make it fun and enthusiastic coaches that the kids look up too.

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  • Registered Users Posts: 11,391 ✭✭✭✭Timmaay

    Fantastic thread. TPP I could of wrote out your entire 1st post word for word. Same problem here, 6 2ndary schools within 5k of our clubs running track, and our numbers are decimated the last few yrs.

    I'd worked hard as a teenage distance coach to build up to a dozen or so lads coming out fairly regularly, and several national medals between them, only to see that whole group evaporate (either left for "better" clubs or packed it in for other sport, 2 even left because they valued 4days in the gym more lol). It certainly was all a massive eye opener for me that whatever we were doing absolutely wasn't working.

    Fully agreed about the team elements, thats probably the single most important element, we are all social creatures, and kids will always remember the team performance that lets them collectively celebrate over any individual medals.

    Schools are absolutely vital in my view also, and probably a trick my club has missed, kids always tell me about the announcements of sporting achievements during the week, highlight for them is having their name announced to the whole school that they won whatever medal or ran whatever time in a school race. Meanwhile the clubs see schools as completion against them (kids choosing schools races over clubs etc).

    Dermot McDermott is a fantastic example of a coach who absolutely has his head in the right place, and has the skillset to make it work, he should be hired fulltime by AAI and be travelling all over Ireland coaching his methods to as many clubs and coaches as he can. Shane Healy is another inspiration also. Far too radical an idea for AAI, who only seem to care about their 5yr strategic reports that just lob in afew token remarks about gender equality and whatever the hell else is topical, but will do nothing to help the sport in the long run.

  • Registered Users Posts: 1,467 ✭✭✭lulublue22

    Just from a parental perspective oldest boy joined an athletics club from the ages of 12 - 14. He absolutely loved training (on twice a week ) which he never missed. However he had no interest whatsoever in competing. Unfortunately it was considered very very bad form by the club to go training but not to compete. Que endless stress where we would have to drag him to cross country events - he lasted 2 years and hasn’t ran since. While I didn’t think the club was too competitive per say ( many of those he trained with loved the competitions) it just didn’t take into a/c the differing needs / wants of the kids. Surely clubs can accommodate both ?

  • Registered Users Posts: 11,391 ✭✭✭✭Timmaay

    As a coach, its a hard one 2bh. Would you bring him to soccer or gaa twice a week and expect the manager be ok that he never ever plays a match? 2bh he wouldn't last very long there at all. It sorta needs to work both ways, the coaches volunteer their free time to a club structure, and club achievements that see the club growing is import in the overall picture. But yep of course it has to be factored in that you son is getting loads of of the club and will hopefully become a better person and find himself and all that, and should that not be enough for a coach to see? Personally I think your final line sums it up, surely clubs can accommodate both, yep most can, however my problem would be when the balance is very much with the non competitive kids who never race, lets say you got a club who is 80% non competitive, then you only got 20% of kids showing up to races, as a club you won't see much in the line of medals or achievements, which lets face it if its an athletics club then they are a vital part of what drives the club.

  • Registered Users Posts: 1,467 ✭✭✭lulublue22

    I totally get your point - it can be very difficult for clubs. I suppose from my perspective the pressure to compete in cross country totally turned him off athletics which is a shame. He loved running particularly road running.

    Re winning medals is that not a long term strategy ? surely clubs will go through troughs and peaks and if you can keep the 20 % competing and winning and the 80 % still attending isn’t that good for driving the club forward ? I would argue that the amount of children who take up an activity based on the number of medals won is minuscule at best - children take up activities as there is a family history of participation in the sport , a family connection to a particular club or mostly because Mary / Johnny up the road / from school go and love it.

  • Registered Users Posts: 5,277 ✭✭✭Sunny Dayz

    That's a good point to make. I've found a lot of our kids don't compete either. Many aren't interested. I think though that the standard of competition even at juvenile teen level is very high. It's great to see at the provincial and all Irelands - some of the athletes are fantastic and you are looking at kids who may one day represent their country. But it can be quite overwhelming to many teenagers who might not think they are "good enough". Drawing from experience with my own lad, he's good at club and county level and has often made it provincials - but there the standard is very high and it's tough mentally as much physically on them and heartbreaking when you child is reluctant to compete because they are not "good enough".

    Could there be perhaps different levels of competitions? Rather than say just U17 boys 800m - have different levels or different rounds held on different weekends so that they are competing with others of similar ability. A few have referenced the GAA for comparison - isn't there different leagues or divisions based on the teams ability.

  • Registered Users Posts: 634 ✭✭✭marathon2022

    Has anyone set up an athletic club in the last 20 years? I'd be interested in hearing about the process, the highs and lows. Grant access for facilities, community buy in and the likes.

    As a parent of a child who is super sporty I sadly don't see any athletics available locally except parkrun. I live in the largest town in Dublin yet never once seen kids athletics activity locally. The closest club of any note is lusk but again I don't know anything about their underage offering or facilities and I couldn't be arsed taxi ING the pup a few days a week to another town for athletics when we have swimming pools, martial arts, Irish dancing, GAA and soccer clubs galore on our doorstep.

    I suppose from an outsider's viewpoint it's more got to do with there being feck all available. I reckon most town and counties are the same except for the established bubble clubs scattered here and there and from reading here it looks like the places are passed from generation to generation.


  • Registered Users Posts: 220 ✭✭E.coli

    It's funny growing there actually was a club in the area but I think the club died out following there move (circa 10 years)

    I dunno if they are any nearer depending on your exact location but Clonliffe and Portmarnock would geographically be slightly nearer and both have thriving juvenile sections.

    As for setting up a new AC Athletics Ireland do provide support in that regard

    They have updated the page with contact details for RDO rather than the actual specifics but if memory serves me requirement used to be 10 members, a committee structure.

    Alternatively I know I got into the club through community games in our local estate. Community hall was rented and put on circuits, sprints, games etc. This was linked to local athletics club and operated as a feeder club to an extent and proved fruitful as I know the estate produce 3 International level athletes and 2 age group All Ireland Champions long term from an estate of about 300 houses.

  • Registered Users Posts: 2,643 ✭✭✭ThePiedPiper

    There’s a growing trend I’ve seen in recent years that has been a bit of a bug bearer, junior athletes running a year out of their ages. I’ve seen some kids consistently winning their own and the year older age group championship races. I’m not sure what the real benefit in this is. A young fella I taught years ago was always 2nd to a kid a year younger than him, he was a talented runner, but no longer competes. The younger lad is still doing ok, but not really picking up provincial honours anymore, and seems more into football. I’ve seen, at first hand, the utter frustration and annoyance kids feel missing out on medals to kids that are champions in a younger age group. Is success at one age group not enough?

  • Registered Users Posts: 220 ✭✭E.coli

    I think that is a double edged sword

    I have seen plenty of "superstars" at younger ages who winning came very easy to and once others caught up in terms of development and all of a sudden they weren't winning as easy and had to work for the same results they "burnt out" (don't like that phrase personally). Likewise I have seen older age clubs unable to field teams without recruiting few younger athletes (growing up was one of those myself) if they didn't step up then the older age kids missed out on competing

    I think competing at older age can actually help some but obviously it harms others. I think the solution to this is to put more emphasis on team side of things where you are reliant on 5th, 6th, 7th scorer in say a cross country race or points system for clubs (similar to national league format) to become less reliant on the individuals

  • Registered Users Posts: 11,391 ✭✭✭✭Timmaay

    Going back to my point about non competitive kids, I was very much so talking about kids who have zero interest in doing any races, be it county xc or road races etc, not to mind nationals lol. Obviously managing expectations is vital for coaches and parents, some kids will never run national xc etc but always put on the club singlet for county's and road races etc, that should still be a very productive 2way vote of confidence, the club has its name represented at them county and road races, and hopefully in return the kid wears the club singlet with pride and loyalty which should help boost their confidence.

    In terms of nationals etc, absolutely the coaches and parents need to manage expectations, thats where as a coach I'm always mindful of trying to spread the encouragement out across all athletes, we all know of kids who might of won an easy all Ireland medal, and the same weekend another kid put their body on the line for a much lesser club "achievement", that 2nd kid absolutely needs to hear the recognition of their efforts from you the coach.

    Lulublue going back to your son (probably too late now), what I'd of suggested would of been to talk directly to their coaches and let the coach know the kid had no interest in xc and that it was counterproductive to pressure them into running it, however they had whatever road races lined up where they did hope to be wearing the club singlet for. If the coach still isn't happy and refuses at that to stop pressuring the kid to run xc then 2bh that coach is the wrong coach for your kid.

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  • Registered Users Posts: 11,391 ✭✭✭✭Timmaay

    Counter argument here, 5th, 6th or 7th scorers, lol fine for the big Dublin clubs but smaller clubs with the bare 4 become uncompetitive overnight. Only way I could see it being fair to a club who doesn't have the strengthen in depth is put some sort of handicap weighting, where the out of age kids points say only count for half team results. Overall them sort of ideas only make a difference in a small number of results so wouldn't be worth the complexity in my view though.

  • Registered Users Posts: 2,643 ✭✭✭ThePiedPiper

    More emphasis on the team element sounds great. I remember a couple of years ago, we were an hour into a drive home from a provincial championship, getting a call that one of the kids had picked up a medal as a result of county results. That medal is treasured, but the big moment of achieving it was a letdown from an individual perspective. At senior level, this team spirit is much more evident.

    In lots of clubs, Athletics clubs are really just running clubs. Field events get little or zero attention. I think we’re missing a few tricks here. Most of Ireland’s Athletics medals in the early years came in Throwing. There seemed to be an incredible tradition and success in the Hammer 100 years ago. There are kids out there with serious potential at jumping and throwing that wouldn’t consider joining Athletics clubs in a million years. A young fella in my class this year is a superb shot putter and long jumper, but not anywhere near as strong at running. He’s not a member of any AC, GAA, soccer or any sport, and always assumed he was not good at sports. I’d love to see him competing, but would have no idea which local club would give him any proper coaching and encouragement.

  • Registered Users Posts: 220 ✭✭E.coli

    Fair point. Those figures were more examples but I get what you are saying. Perhaps there is a case to argue of a 2 divisional championship with say 4 scorer and 6 scorer like they do with county vs provincial (have scored a provincial medal previously despite not making top 4 for county)

    I believe they used to do this at interclubs if I recall correctly (was done away with since)

  • Registered Users Posts: 933 ✭✭✭jamule

    Defo the team element is crucial. I'd say we get about 25/30 out of 200 competing . Best buzz was seeing a few get team medals at county level.

    There has to be more relay events, we had almost 60 at a recent cross country relay. Field events are almost abandoned (long jump and turbo and the rest are non existant) , hurdles are forgotten about too.

    Schools are crucial but you need someone paid to get into them. Our club have got a lot more than the just 3 from thr original posters efforts (thanks A).

    Our club has added about 150 kids u10s in the last 2yrs , holding onto them and getting them to compete is the big challange. I wouldn't be worried about the ones that don't compete, make sure they enjoy it and they will attract more kids in, eventually you will get a star!

  • Registered Users Posts: 139 ✭✭purple cow

    I think thats an interesting suggestion to not allow athletes 'run up an age'. In the older age categories, athletes 'running up' can make up 5-7 of the top 12 in a regional event (i haven't examined it in detail, but that's my sense of it in Dublin anyway). That means that some running in the correct age category don't progress to a national final, while others get 2 chances to compete nationally. Which is fine, but it's a further confidence knock and potential reason for athletes to give up.

    I know that many clubs rely on the 'running up' athletes to make up a team, but maybe this could be solved by having 3 to score rather than 4.

    Short distance mixed relays is something i'd love to see more of at juvenile xc level.

  • Registered Users Posts: 424 ✭✭joe35

    I think a problem with athletics is it's such an individual sport. In football or other team events if a team wins, everyone gets a medal.

    There's no obvious distinction between the different abilities of players. The best footballer might not be the best defender etc ....

    In athletics from the first event, you are highlighting the difference in abilities of they athletes.

    This to me is the biggest problem. We have fairly large numbers in under 10 and 12. At cross country this year I made a note of giving more encouragement to the athletes at the back of the field.

    But I know 1 or 2 parents will be thinking, ah runnings'not for Johnny. Where as in football there is more room for hiding, or not exposing weakness. My own nephew, who isn't sporty at all. Got a run in a match a couple of weeks ago, last 5 mins, scored a point, and was absolutely delighted with himself. So he trains to get 5mins playing time and is happy as Larry. Gets to run a full race, and wants to quit after.

    While we won our county title. We had 15/16 entered in the race. Its very difficult to make athletes down the field feel good about themselves when running.

    Should team results, especially at county level, not be awarded on the day. Then a club could have an awards night and medals could be giving to all members.