Talented Track & Field Athlete Pathway

by Steve Bennett
Former Head Coach Western Sydney Academy of Sport

The following information is intended as a guide for Athletes, Parents and other community members. It involves many recommendations that are in the best interests of athletes that are planning to make the most of their talent.


Little Athletics (Tots - U12)

  • Many athletes will start in this sport via Little Athletics. Many having seen Senior Athletics on TV in Olympics etc. will want to have a go at it themselves.
  • Little Athletics is mostly structured in a way that suits young kids up to the U12 age group. Beyond this age athletes should  have at least some involvement in Senior Competition in a variety of settings.
  • Young athletes (up to U12) should participate for fun in a variety of events and develop their skills. This should however never be enforced by clubs or parents. e.g. Running a 100m may not be as much fun when it is run after a 1500m, so why not do one or the other or  alternate the choice on a weekly basis. Athletes should not be forced or given incentives to participate in multiple events on the one day if they do not like it. Incentives like this eg school age championships should be ingnored in favour of quality performances in a very safe number of events. In fact parents should lobby to replace these counter-productive incentive systems.
  • Zone, Regional and State Championships are meant to be enjoyable experiences where athletes experience the thrill of representing. Make sure the athlete is aware that there are many other opportunities in the year to be at their best. These events are just another meet in what hopefully will be a long participation in the sport. Having to place in the top 3 at each level is arguably a burden of pressure that is unnecessary at a young age. Athletes and parents should recognize that there are many other comparable competitions and will be many more opportunities in the years ahead.
  • This sport is not just about competition it is about enjoying the participation in training as well and in developing new skills. Most Little Athletics Coaches have done the Orientation to Coaching Course and are well prepared to conduct training sessions that have a large variety of activities and not just basic level specific training for each event.. These sessions are intended to be fun experiences but they should also serve to build a broad base of skills that are needed to help athletes reach their potential as Seniors in many years time.

    For a great crash course on the latest best methods for developing athletes download these brilliant articles, From regular Western Sydney Academy guest Adrian Faccioni's website.

    Young Athlete Conditioning by Adrian Faccioni and Di Barnes

    Also have a look at Adrian's F-cubed Exercise Programs.

    more Training Ideas for Young Talented Athletes is at

    Also look at a page titled How to develop a young talented athlete into an adult superstar.

  • Training experiences at this age should be very varied and this should also mean being exposed to a variety of coaches. Improving posture and developing relaxed movement qualities are the best starting points. Training in only a specific way especially where athletes pick up and "train in" bad habits must be avoided. This type of training may give rapid results and enjoyment for the athlete, coach and parents BUT in the long run is not in the athletes best interests. E.g. Lots of long running to prepare for a better 1500m  may improve performance in the short term but may provide as a side effect over the longer term bad movement habits (poor technical model) that are damaging to better performances as an older athlete.

  • It is appropriate from time to time that any clubs Little Athletics Coaches, Parents and the athletes themselves are exposed to ideas from Level 3 Senior Coaches who are usually very aware of the latest methods of training and what they would like to see being developed in very young athletes. Many overseas countries have done research on what is the best to do with young kids down to age 8 that will maximize their ability as adults. The awareness of these methods is worth knowing more about. Someone like Michael Khmel (Coach of Matt Shirvington) or Peter Fortune (Coach of Cathy Freeman) would have a heap of good ideas that could enhance the training of any Little Athletics Coach and Club. There are many traditional teachings that have been recently updated :
    -Dynamic warm-ups need to be taught instead of overemphasizing the value of static stretching. Some recent studies even indicate an increase in injuries in athletes that use static stretching pre-workout or competition.
    -Dorsiflexion needs to be taught and drilled instead of teaching young athletes to run "up on their toes", this coaching tip is a disaster.
    -Athletes are still being taught to run with an inappropriate intentional forward lean. Where it is best to hold good posture and run tall.
    -Recent research indicates that some use of free weights is safe and very good for injury prevention for any athlete and can play a part in adding to the variety of training experiences.


The first steps in the Australian Mens 100m Championship in 2000

High School Age Athletes
  • High School age athletes should be encouraged to participate in a variety of athletics settings. This may mean a mix of Little Athletics, Seniors regionally, major Interclub and in State Youth Championships.
  • The major event of the season for High School Athletes are the Australian and State Youth Championships.  The State Youth Championships can be participated in by anyone. The Australian Youth Championships require that the athlete does one qualifying performance at a recognized meet.  http://www.athletics.org.au/competition/tf2000-01/qualstandards2000-01.htm
  • There are also the NSW Schools Championships and Australian Schools Championships which follow a similar format to the Youth Championships. The National Schools Championships held in December is a very important meet.
  • High School Athletes should find a Coach that is at least level 1 in their event group (for explanation see coaching levels below). This is a very important decision to make to ensure that the athlete is trained in a way that develops good habits and is prepared properly for competition both in the short term and in the long term. A coach needs to be chosen that demonstrates an interest in coach education, so that as the athlete makes progress they have the proven expertise to suit the athletes ability or they will be able to mature in experience with the athlete and become equipped to give them the best possible guidance. Very good coaches are humble enough to know when to pass on talented athletes to a more experienced coach if & when they grow beyond their expertise or are better suited elsewhere. It is sad to see the number of athletes that leave this sport because they do not want to leave and disappoint their Little Athletics coach even though they have clearly outgrown the situation and just need a fresh new start and some goals. Coaches also need to decide themselves what they are trying to achieve, the time requirements are too much for any coach to be able to do a really good job of coaching both talented high school athletes and a little athletics squad.
  • It is recommended that athletes in this age group focus on improving posture and postural strength by doing a variety of training activities for the trunk and general strength. e.g. Swiss Ball, Pilates, free weights  The ability to maintain good running posture is critical in improving an athletes resilience to training so they can be less easily injured when they are older. Many athletes gradually develop worst running postures from lack of this focus in their training and will eventually develop injuries to related to it. eg. hamstrings and backs.

    Recommended links are:
    Young Athlete Conditioning by Adrian Faccioni and Di Barnes

  • Athletes should practice perfect and be in a training environment where quality training is valued. This is an important age in terms of establishing athlete personal accountability and a smart work ethic. A value that often transfers into the athletes school work.


800m at Brisbane GP in 1999 - Juniors Alice Goodberg then 17 and Georgie Clarke 15 are the athletes on the left.

Talented High School Athletes

 For this article a Talented High School Athlete is one who has qualified or is likely to qualify for the Australian Youth Championships. These are athletes that could even mature into Senior International Athletes or represent Australia as Juniors (U20).
  • Talented High School Athletes should either find themselves a Level 2 or 3 Coach in their Event Group or be certain that their coach is personally committed to maturing to match their development over the long term with a focus on their event. Coaches who are committed are usually networking with other coaches and studying for more advanced accreditation.   At this level it is now easy for an athlete to outgrow a coach especially if the chosen coach is one who isolates themselves from other coaches. The sport at the top level has a technical demand that is much higher than what most people are aware.  Training for elite athletics is a precise art and is very time consuming for the coach. The best coaches have networks of coaches to be involved with , some are setup by their states sports institutes and many also even have the athletes from various coaches train together for their common benefit under the guidance of all the coaches. It is in these situations where coaches can develop the skills to one day be able to coach international athletes to success like Cathy Freeman. No coach can ever help an athlete reach that level of success in isolation.

  • Athletes should participate in any development programs that are offered e.g. Regional Academies, Institutes, State based Squads, OzSquad , Institutes etc. These are a great opportunity for the athlete to enter a larger supportive community where they can grow in this sport and enjoy their involvement in a mature way.   This is also an opportunity for the coach to meet and learn from other coaches.
  • It is strategically important in Australia that athletes are tasting success as they enter their HSC years as there is a very high drop out rate from athletes that attempt to give athletics a break for the HSC. Most that have a rest from athletics never come back and reach the success of their peers that stick with it and balance their training/studying life. Often University years are the best chance athletes get to really make the most of their potential. But this only happens when they have tasted success enough to have excited belief ("the Dream") that being committed and making the effort is worthwhile. It is in year 10 at school where the opportunity is best seized this is age 15-16 and is usually immediately after Little Athletics finishes. Waiting a year for an athlete to start Senior Athletics clashes terribly with the increasing educational pressure.


Darren Clark Olympic finalist in the 400m at age 18 in 1984
seen here winning the Auckland Commonwealth Games Gold Medal


Related Information

Coaching Levels within the ATFCA
The Scheme is made up of a very basic Introductory Course, the
Orientation to Coaching Award - intended for Little Athletics Coaches & Schools
and three Levels of Accreditation,
Level 1 Basic CoachDirected toward the coaching of athletes up to 15 years of age. Comprises 23 hrs of study covering all events over 2 weekends. Exams are open book, plus a prac assessment in one throwing event, one jumping event and one track event.
Level 1 Event Specific Coach- Need to have done the basic course. Emphasizes the coaching of late adolescents and older athletes in a choice of 1 event group.
- Sprints, Hurdles and Relays
- Endurance Running and Walking
- Jumps
- Throws
Each option is one weekend. 12hrs of study. Assessment is a 1hr Multiple choice Exam and practical assessment in two events.

 Level 2 Young Athlete Coach
-Young Athlete (aged 10 - 15)  or Coaching Athletes with a Disability groups , must have extensive coaching experience across a broad range of events with children in this age group.

This course usually involves a 1 week residential school and a 3hr exam plus a practical exam involving the actual coaching of athletes.

Level 2 Event Specific Coach

This course usually involves a 1 week residential school and a 3hr Exam plus practical exam involving the actual coaching of athletes. The course is designed to give the committed coach a broad background in the Sports Sciences, and a higher level
of knowledge in one area of Track & Field Coaching.
 Before doing the course the Coaches must have an extensive experience of coaching late adolescent or Senior athletes at a State Level in that group.

Coaches specialize in an event group from:
-Middle & Long Distance Running
-Race Walking
-Multiple Events
This course usually involves a 1 week residential school and a 3hr exam plus a practical exam involving the actual coaching of athletes.
Level 3 - Senior Coach is the highest qualification currently available to Australian coaches. Candidates to become Senior coaches must have had extensive coaching experience, especially at Senior level, and preferably with Athletes in State or National Squads. They are expected to have a high standard of knowledge of Sports Science Theory and Training Theory related to their chosen event(s).  They must have held Level II accreditation for at least 3 years.
 The candidates must be considered, at the completion of assessment procedures, to be capable of coaching senior athletes up to Australian representative (i.e.. International standard)
The choice of specialist areas are:
-Sprints/Relays (100,200,400)
-Middle Distance (800/1500)
-Long Distance (3km,5km,10km,Cross Country)
-Hurdles (100,110,400)
-Long Jump
-Triple Jump
-High Jump
-Pole Vault
-Shot Put
-Athletes with a Disability
-Race Walking
A Supervising Level 3 -Senior Coach is allocated to mentor the candidate.
The Development & Assessment Procedures involve:
1.       The submission of a high level athletes training diary over a whole year.

2.       Practical Coaching:
 -  assessment of the coaching of your own top level athletes by a supervising Senior Coach.
 - assessment of supervision of a training session with National Senior Athletes from outside the coaches own squad.
 - analysis of techniques from video tapes of top level athletes.
3.       30hrs of study of General Sports Science in theory related to the chosen event group.

4.      A choice of either of
         a/  5000 word dissertation on one or more aspects related to the chosen event group.
         b/ 3hr written Exam which tests for a depth of knowledge and understanding of the event group.
5.      Final Assessment - Practical Activities
 and an Interview Examination by a panel of Senior Coaches in the event group.


Wilson Kipketer (at left) the World Record Holder at 800m is one of the nicest "movers" that you will ever see.

Important Ideas

  • "Synthetic Tracks are bad for Training"-  Synthetic Tracks are used for the overwhelming majority of Elite Athletes. The new Technology Surfaces are much softer and therefore gentler than many years ago. By IAAF Rules they are supposed to have at least a 35% reduction in shock when compared with a standard surface (Mondo Tracks are guaranteed to be over 35 and are usually around 39%). The benefit with synthetic tracks is that they are regular surfaces unlike grass and the athlete has a much easier time running relaxed and smooth. Training on synthetic generally enhances an athletes smoothness of running and make it easier to stay balanced posturally when athletes are running very fast.  Athletes that do not train on synthetic often run into trouble when they race on it as because their bodies are not used to it and they can get sore easily. Any athlete that plans to race on synthetic (all talented ones) should be training regularly on synthetic surfaces throughout the year. The only precaution is that for large volume sessions the use of light fast training shoes (called racing flats) is recommended.

  • Competing  week after week for a large percentage of the year is not in the athletes best interests. It is very important to be prepared through training physically and emotionally to be able to get the most out of themselves when it counts in important competitions. Athletes that compete almost all year e.g. Track and then XC every week often struggle to get the most out of themselves when they need to. Races are usually the most likely opportunity for athletes to demonstrate a bad technical model. Bad technical habits cannot be fixed unless the athletes stay away from competition for a while and "train in new good habits to replace the old".

    It is also sadly very commonplace for young athletes to be doing almost no preparation yet competing in stressful events like the 400m or 800m. Count how many races Cathy Freeman does in a year over 400m and then answer the question of why it is OK for a younger athlete to do 4 times as many with minimal preparation. Preparation is a must for some events and the bad effects of racing too much cannot be overstated. I believe the number one cause of young athlete burnout is the "underprepared over-racing syndrome".

    Be wary of overcompeting in school competitions. In Australia these sadly still occur in what is the preparation season. The temptation and the incentive often exists for the athlete to overcompete and be underprepared. This is often where injuries occur ie. on days when athletes warm-up is cut short and the athlete is expected to overcompete. Take great care in competitions of this kind, prepare carefully on the day and choose events carefully within the safe absorbable limitations.

  • Athletics Clubs - Talented athletes should find a club that is committed to the needs of athletes both competitively and socially. Athletes need to have a support network that acts in their best interests rather than being in a situation where they are encouraged  to act only in the clubs best interests. Some clubs are very good at creating situations where they can support the athlete while the athlete is able to support their club in a way that does not compromise their development.

  • "Saving athletes for their late teenager years" - This is often a phrase used by coaches who plan to keep their athletes involvement low key ideally until they are older.  The problem is that most of these athletes do not stay in the sport that long or the ones that stay often develop injuries that with more thorough preparation would have been prevented. Athletes need to gradually learn the discipline of following a program that is designed specifically for them and have a plan designed that will develop everything that is needed over a long period of time. This does not mean allowing them to develop a slack work ethic and waiting until they grow up.
      Many other sports have athletes training hard at age 10 and up. What needs to be recognized in athletics is that until good levels of postural strength are evident is that injuries will occur as a natural result of doing a certain amount of training. However there are many things that need to be done early to help athletes have good movement habits later.  A better philosophy to approach the training of young athletes should be the really hard stuff will come later but there are plenty of things we need to do first to prepare for later.....variety of quality is the key phrase. Training is not always hard work some of it is very precise.

    More information about
    Training Ideas for Young Talented Athletes go to

    Also have a look at
    How to develop a young star athlete into an Adult superstar.


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