Understanding Juniors

Seeing junior athletes running with seemingly boundless energy can sometimes lead to complacency in understanding the problems they face as they mature through the growing cycle. In the first place the growth rate of all youngsters comes in fits and starts, with usually the biggest growth spurt in the adolescent period around puberty - when they can grow as much as six inches! This growth increase commonly starts at any time between the ages of 10 and 12 in girls, and between 12 and 14 in boys.

This can bring about two sport related problems. Those who enter the growth spurt early often do very well in age group athletics, and become used to success without too much effort. However, in their later teens when their slower growing peers catch up, they find it difficult not always being to the fore. It is at this stage that they experience psychological pressure to drop out of the sport. Equally, many of the later candidates for the growth spurt may feel unable to compete against their bigger and more powerful rivals and leave the sport early feeling they are not good enough at the sport to continue.

This is the time when parents, teachers and coaches have to be aware of the problem facing these youngsters and give them all the help and encouragement to get them through this difficult period. Now is not the time to constantly remind them that they were beating so and so last year and they should try harder. A sympathetic approach in understanding the situation can help to keep these youngsters in the sport, and with patience and time they can be back performing at their best and slotted in a position equal to their true ability.

Although there is a very recognisable difference in fat content between senior men and women, in young athletes the variance is even wider with the level in girls rising on average to between 24 - 28 percent, whereas the boys at 12 -16 percent have appreciably less. This elevated level in the girls leads to a relative lowering of both aerobic power and of muscle strength and power. Some adolescent girls are particularly sensitive to body-shape changes in terms of their perceived body image, and if coaches and others over encourage leanness, they may lapse into an unhealthy dietary regime.

The aerobic side of exercise involves heart, lungs, blood, and muscle cells. Heart rate in juniors may reach as high as 225 before puberty, but tend to fall to around 200 in their late teens. So do not be too alarmed if you come across this level of heart beat in a junior after a particularly hard run. Another point to remember is the breathing rate of approximately 60 breaths/minute compared to 40 breaths/minute in adults doing equivalent exercise. Juniors have to breath in more air to get the same amount of oxygen.

One of the problems associated with this high breathing rate is that youngsters can sometimes blow out too much carbon dioxide and create an imbalance in the blood pH raising the level of alkalinity, (Hyperventilating) which effects blood calcium and nerve function, leading to a degree of spasms in the hands and feet and numbness around the mouth. The condition looks worse than it is and can occasionally panic not only the youngster but also watching adults.

The simple cure is to get the junior to re-breath their own air for a minute or so, raising the carbon dioxide and normalising the pH. If you’re not sure of the situation or how to do it, hopefully you can seek assistance. The text book says:

Treatment : You basically have to calm this person down by making them sit and relax, explaining the situation to them. You also can help them achieve normal CO2 levels by having them breath into a paper bag that covers both their nose and mouth. Do this intermittently (breathe with and without the bag) for about 10 minutes.

On the anaerobic side the younger the junior - from about eight to sixteen - the lower the proportion of anaerobic energy they can generate, and the lower levels of lactic acid in the blood. Thus, the younger the child, the less their built in fatigue mechanism works. This lack of awareness of becoming tired can sometimes lead the youngsters into team or individual training sessions where they are unknowingly pushed to the point were they become overheated, dehydrated and distressed.

Children's perception of severity of exercise is less the younger they are. Adults sensibly stop when exercise is too hard, children tend to press on. In certain circumstances this can lead to them over doing it! The safest way to avoid the problem is to plan shorter periods of activity, where feasible, than would be the case in an equivalent senior squad. Drinking water or squash in the breaks during a session is a sensible procedure for all athletes, in particular for juniors.

The most important factor to watch out for with youngsters, is when they are not responding as usual in a training session. Don't always assume it is lack of effort, there are many reasons - especially with the junior girls - why they are below par and not up to their usual active self. Sensitive handling at these times ensures that the youngsters return each week in the knowledge that their problems have been noticed and discrete action taken.

Norman Matthews
England Junior Coach