What can cycling learn from football?
10 November 2014
Great Britain has been a super-power of cycle racing for as long as most youth riders can remember. So surely our talent development process must already work perfectly then, taking kids from grass-roots all the way to the elite podium at world level?
Youth Cycle Sport’s Mark Wyer identifies important issues affecting your child’s development within the sport, and how their enjoyment of cycle racing might be affected.
England’s early exit from the football World Cup and the analysis that followed was perhaps more amusing than interesting for those of us that are immersed in cycling and used to our recent success. However some comments on the development of youth football got me thinking. Can we learn from the problems that football faces and the culture of sport development in this country?
Chris Waddle was one of the most vocal critics of the current grassroots football development system. He had some really interesting things to say that chimed with some of my observations of youth road racing this summer.
His view was that at grassroots level youth football there is a win-at-all costs mentality. Youth coaches are under pressure from parents to produce winning teams rather than develop players. Tall players are stereotyped as backs or centre-forwards while small players are put on the wing and that’s the only position they play in. Players are encouraged not to take any risks on the ball especially at the back but just to hoof it forward. The teams are always made up of the early developers who are the strongest and fastest rather than the most skilful, and there is very little rotation of players through positions.
Researchers have discovered that in 2009 57% of players in football academies were born between September and December. This is the start of the football youth year and those players have a head start in physical development over their peers. This tends to mean they are faster and stronger and therefore get more match time, noticed more, and therefore picked for better teams or for more quality training.
So how does that relate to cycling and road racing in particular? Surely youth road racing has never been stronger and more popular? Well, I believe there are a few problems that could hold us back from producing more top stars. Some of these issues may start to affect other disciplines but they currently stand out more on the road (i.e. in youth circuit racing).
There is a huge emphasis amongst some parents on winning being vital for the progress of their children in youth racing – even in the Under 10s and Under 12s categories. I think some parents place too much emphasis on physical training at these ages to the detriment of technical and tactical progress. I think the win-at-all-costs approach has contributed to the following issues:-
The Equipment arms race
Many of you will be aware of the increasing concern about the “arms race” within youth road racing, with more and more money being spent on expensive equipment. I think we need some rules to level the playing field. In her autobiography “The Breakaway” Nicole Cooke writes enthusiastically about the Dutch youth tour she competed in where riders were restricted to single-speed freewheel road bikes. Not necessarily something I would advocate for racing at Hog Hill (!) but food for thought.
Overemphasis on points
So many times this summer I’ve heard complaints about the way British Cycling ranking points are being allocated at races. I think that too many riders or parents are worrying about their ranking position which seldom reflects the real position or changes anything. The exception may be for Youth A (Under 16) boys who need ranking points for qualification for the national championships and to set their category for when they become Juniors. I would do away with ranking points altogether and just have a set of races to enable qualification for the national championships.
Fear of failure
I believe there’s a danger that youth riders who have loads of early success can become fearful of failing to win. They’re expected to win every race and people assume something is wrong if they don’t. If riders develop a fear of failure they don’t tend to try out different tactics in events but always ride in the same way instead. Once they do come up against tougher opposition at higher age categories then they can become disillusioned and quit the sport.
Racing rather than coaching
So often I find that riders say they can’t attend coaching sessions because there’s a race on. I know that racing is fun and can help develop a rider. However, time with a quality coach is a rare commodity and it should be grabbed and cherished. The best coaching sessions include coach-led racing which can be just as fun as the real thing, and it can allow riders multiple opportunities to learn in one session.
The allure of riding up a category
If a rider is dominating their races it can be beneficial for them to “ride up” a category to stretch themselves (e.g. a Youth C rider might take part in races for older Youth B riders). However, this is often seen as the only solution. Youth A riders often think riding with seniors is going to help them develop. However if they are riding with 3/4 Category riders they will be with slower and less skilful riders than most Youth As. Now that youth road racing fields, even at local level, are so much bigger it’s worth riders sticking with their own age category and trying different ways of winning.
So what’s the best way forward?
Coincidentally, around the same time that I began considering these problems, British Cycling started a review of youth cycle sport. I suspect that I wasn’t the only one starting to see problems arising. Almost as I finished writing this article, British Cycling’s Youth Workgroup published its proposals as part of a review of all aspects of youth cycling.
The proposals being put forward look excellent but there’s not much detail yet. So my view is that your view is important. Respond to this proposal and put some ideas forward that will enable your child to win at 18 years old rather than (or in addition to) 10, and we can really make a difference.