Developing Athletic Talent in Your Kids

First Duathlon

Last month I was invited to sit in on a call with Texas Children’s about long term athletic development.

It’s a fun project that lets me share my experience and work with friends.

Previous post on Raising Young Olympians.


I want to highlight three things “missing” from the LTAD literature.

All three are a focus for me.


EARLY positive athletic experiences

I’m on board with late-specialization.

Find, then stick with, something long enough to have a positive experience.

A positive experience matters more than the skill development.

In the kid’s mind, you want a link “effort with satisfaction”.


First Sled Trip – more riding than hauling for the little guy

Relaxation at MAXIMUM heart rate

The look on my kids faces the first time I brought them to treeline still makes me laugh!

It was a literal fear of death.

High-performance requires the athlete to move through their fear of death.

Like water, the earlier you get your kids feeling comfortable with “race effort” the better.

They don’t need to be throwing down weekly!

We stick with summer racing until middle-school age.


RACING is a skill

In the development profile you’re building for your kids…

…race experience is important.

  • Field Strength
  • Crowds
  • Noise
  • Arousal Control
  • Grace in Defeat
  • Grace in Victory
  • Learning different ways to win
  • Learning to persist and achieve secondary goals

Deep dive on performance in Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness recent books (link is my Twitter reviews).


1st Winter 14er

Bonus tip – not for everyone!

If you read Training for the Uphill Athlete (my review on Twitter) then you’ll learn that Kilian Jornet had an ultra-childhood.

If you happen to have a kid that’s into going long…

…let them!

My son has been building his endurance physiology since 3 years old.

His progression is WAY faster than I’d recommend for anyone else’s kid, or even his siblings.

However, it’s not my job to define his dreams…

…and he’s a really good training partner!

Raising Young Olympians

Great chat with Johan this week.

Long term athletic development => LTAD


Kid Johan – where it all started

Let’s start with Johan’s background

  • 1981 born
  • 1994 watches the Olympics and wants to get there!
  • Starts to specialize for Speed Skating (13 yo)
  • 2000 Jr World Champion
  • 2001 Defends 5000m Jr World Title
  • 2002 / 2006 / 2010 Three Consecutive Swedish Olympic Teams

There are themes that repeat in the LTAD literature.

  • From 7-10 yo the local parents set up a “sports school.” One day a week, they’d have a couple hours and try different activities
  • Very active childhood, but no early specialization, Johan’s skate focus started ~13 yo
  • Continued to play organized soccer/tennis, and lots of spontaneous ball sports, through his mid-teens. His skating coach supported all general training and encouraged him to continue
  • Ran, cycled, raced Swedish Nationals (road race)
  • Grew up in a small city, 125,000 population at present

Surprising to me, Johan didn’t come from a Skate Family.

His Dad was a Regional Class soccer player. As the family grew, his father’s focus shifted from his own sports to being a soccer and bandy coach for kids. He continued to run and race 1-2x per year. Johan’s mom was artistic and both parents worked full-time through this childhood.

His entry to the sport of speed skating was via a local club that handled training, talent development and races.

VERY independent in approach – the local club organized bus trips to race in the Netherlands and Germany in his Tweens, without parents, staying with locals.

Johan was the key driver in getting himself to a very high level. The Swedish Club system and local coaching infrastructure gave him the opportunity to train himself to a world class level.

Johan on Twitter and his coaching page on Facebook.


Johan today

Johan, and I, are very interested in helping our kids excel at sport. It was the #1 topic for our call. 

0-2 years old: we are a swim family, our babies all started out very comfortable in the water. If you want your kids to swim then, ideally, continue their natural-born comfort via positive experiences in the water, from birth.


2-6 years old

  • Movement skills via gymnastics – we didn’t progress into pre-team, very basic balance, agility and movement for all our kids
  • Swimming – a swim lesson, once a week, every week – from a coach, who wasn’t us.
  • Soccer Tots – from preschool age, coordination, bit of running, general play
  • Preschool – three years, play-based preschool where they learned skills to get along with other kids – early socialization in a play-based environment

7-12 years old

  • Just like Johan, lots of different sports: Thai Boxing, Jiu Jitsu, Indoor Climbing, Swimming, Soccer, Hiking, Running, Downhill Skiing, Uphill Skiing, Water Polo, Indoor Skiing
  • Some sports come-and-go, continue at least once per week swimming lesson.
  • Family policy is “do something” – we are willing to change what they do each season.
  • Lots of activity – competition mostly absent

In this phase, build self-confidence. 

Two examples are indoor climbing and skiing. Both sports involve: movement skills, problem solving, fear management and young kids can be better than many adults. Huge confidence boosters for our crew.

No judges, no scoring, we SHARE athletic experiences with our kids.


Little Johan in full flight

Race Experience

Something a little different. 

Summer Swim League from a very early age (5 yo) for each of our kids.

  • Intense 10 week summer season where they swim M-F and have a dual meet on Saturday
  • Touch the water ~80 days across their summer holiday
  • Finals event with 100s of kids, gives them big venue experience
  • Positive early race experience by winning ribbons at the dual meets, and eventually medals at the Finals event

Teen Years – like Johan, specialize if THEY want. 

Our only policy is that everyone does something, including us.

Our oldest is a swim specialist and soon-to-be 14 yo. She still does extracurricular cross-country running, track and skiing. Her summer swim focus, continues since 5 yo.


We only have negative-control

In other words, we can screw things up, but we cannot make it happen.

What makes it happen?

  • Positive experiences
  • Wide range of movement skills
  • An environment to excel – access to skilled coaches and motivated teammates
  • The child’s, and eventually the teen’s, inherent drive

It’s a long road to the top!


Final questions => be brutally honest with yourself…

What do I want for my kids, and why do I want it? 

A lifelong enjoyment of daily exercise NOT a self-identity wrapped up in winning!

Am I seeking to compete, or win, through them?

I want to enjoy nature alongside them. Many parents care far too much about results.

Understand my values & biases

We try to keep our kids, and ourselves, grounded by exposure to a WIDE range of field strengths. There is a benefit from getting our butts kicked every so often.

As parents, we are mostly positively reinforcing.

We offer immediate, negative feedback (and event venue removal) when we witness poor sportsmanship. We’ve left sports when we didn’t like the peers.