Young athletes are being pushed to their limits more than ever. For many, the pressure to succeed begins at an ever-increasingly young age and most lack the physical and mental skills required to meet these demands.
One organisation committed to making a difference is Athlete Development, an AUT Millennium community service unit and world-leading research and development programme aimed at helping coaches, teachers and young athletes to ‘be the best they can be’.
Formed in 2007, Athlete Development’s key focus is assisting young athletes aged between 8 and 17 to enjoy sport and exercise by developing their physical and mental performance.
The programme has three Auckland-based academies, in addition to coaches in various schools and sports teams around New Zealand.
The academies are non-sport specific, which means there is a mix of athletes who play sports such as rugby, badminton, BMX, or who are not involved at all in competitive sport.
The programme seeks to create an environment which provides excellent learning outcomes and challenges young people to improve every day.
“The idea is to develop the athlete’s physical fundamentals, such as speed, power and flexibility, whilst also focusing on their mental performance,” says Programme Director, Dr. Craig Harrison.
“Dealing with emotions, setting goals and understanding how to create a balanced lifestyle aren’t just important for success in sport, they’re valuable life skills.”
Sports science research, through AUT University, forms the foundation of everything Athlete Development does and identifies best practice in the area of youth athlete development.
Harrison and Athlete Development follow the belief that, first and foremost, sport and physical activity should be enjoyed rather than endured.
“The foundation of what we believe in is that sport should be something young people want to do for the rest of their life, not just when there is a chance to win,” he affirms.
“We have athletes in our academy and school programmes who will go on to win Olympic medals, but that’s not our key focus. We believe in developing young people both mentally and physically, providing them with tools which they can use in everyday life.”
It is an interesting philosophy and a contentious one at all levels of sport. However, Dr. Harrison says that the research shows that more and more young people are getting injured.
“Over half of school-age children participate in at least three hours of organised sport each week”, he says.
“For many young athletes, it is considerably more. In fact, it is not uncommon for adolescent athletes to spend more than 20 hours a week training and playing.”
While increased involvement in organised sport is good for many aspects of youth development, including fitness and social interaction, research suggests that many young athletes are doing too much.
“Youth athletes are more vulnerable to injury during adolescence when their bodies are rapidly growing”, states Harrison.
“We encourage those involved in coaching and developing young people to monitor and manage their training regimes to prevent avoidable injuries.”
Athlete Development also focuses its efforts on educating and empowering teachers, coaches, sports administrators and parents to step up and lead in the area of youth athlete development.
“We’re regularly in contact with adults involved in sport to try and help them provide young people with sporting environments that enable them to flourish,” says Harrison.
“To do this we’ve created educational programmes and resources which are supported by the latest research and we’ve been getting some awesome feedback about them.”
As sport continues to become more competitive at a younger age, Dr. Harrison recognises that there is a need for young people to be supported more than ever before.
“We’re really proud of what we’ve achieved since 2007, as well as the impact that we have made on young people, schools and sports administrators.”
“Watch this space. We have six Masters and five PhD scholarship postgraduate students researching and working with athletes, more coaches in schools and more athletes coming through our academies. We’re really enjoying the journey.”