By Molly Hurford
If you’re a parent of a young cyclist, you might be struggling to figure out how to ‘coach’ your kiddo. It’s a tricky thing to do, whether your child is seven years old and just learning to ride a bike or 16 and trying to make it onto the National Team. At the end of the day, most parents want the same thing for their young cyclists: To foster a lifelong love of cycling, and maybe spend a bit of time on the bike together. But it’s easy to get sidetracked by things like TSS scores and power-to-weight ratios, weekly race series’ and stressful start lines. Racing itself isn’t a problem—in fact, it can be a ton of fun for many kids!—but it’s easy to turn cycling into something less than fun if you (accidentally) push your child too hard. While these tips won’t apply to every athlete, here are a few pieces of advice we’ve discovered over the years for coaching happy, healthy young cyclists:
Fun is always the top priority
First and foremost, cycling should be all about having fun. This should be self-evident, but it’s so easy to get swept up in competition and constantly being over-scheduled, especially if your child is involved in other school sports, or if they’re older and beginning to race in multiple cycling disciplines and taking it seriously. It’s great if your child wants to focus on racing and improving on the bike, but fun should always be a driver for why they’re out there turning the pedals.
Your workouts shouldn’t be their workouts
The younger the athlete, the less structured their workouts should be. And even older teen athletes won’t train the same way that adults do, so while it’s tempting to share a training plan with your young athlete, don’t assume that the interval workout you have on Wednesdays is one that’s right for them. For very young athletes, let them sprint when they want to sprint and go easy when they want to go easy. Intervals and structure can come later. If your athlete does want more structured training, consider consulting with a coach or finding a training plan designed for younger riders.
Seek age-appropriate groups and clubs
On the note of asking a coach for age-appropriate training, you may also want to outsource the development side of your athlete’s cycling career to a local club or group. In recent years, youth cycling has grown in leaps and bounds, and programs have sprouted up all over Ontario. Some offer more structured training throughout the week, while some are more sporadic, but any program that allows your young rider to meet other kids on bikes is going to have great benefits.
Skills over drills
Young cyclists are primed for skill development, whether that looks like cornering on the road or bunnyhopping logs on the mountain bike. But while this is a great time for skills acquisition, skills can quickly turn into a not-fun chore when presented as drills (like doing 30 repetitions of a bunnyhop over a log in the backyard). Rather than acting as a drill sergeant, act as a skills facilitator whenever possible. Set up those logs to bunnyhop in the yard or create a mini-obstacle course in the woods behind your house or with pylons in the driveway. Give your athlete the space to practice, but don’t force those skill reps. Most keen young cyclists will start practicing on their own—legendary Canadian MTBer Geoff Kabush often recounts his formative teen years playing in his backyard, first bunnyhopping onto a picnic table’s bench and eventually working up to getting onto the table.
Let them ride with friends too
Most parents get their kids into cycling because it’s a great family sport to do together—and if you’ve found this article, the odds are good that you’re an avid cyclist yourself. But kids shouldn’t only be riding with parents. Let them explore with other kids! For young kids, that could mean you and a few other cycling parents get together for parent-and-kid group rides, while for older kids, this might mean riding solo in a trail system or on a predetermined road loop (while carrying cell phones in case of emergency, of course!). These rides with other kids are also helpful for improving skills: Kids are more able to imitate what kids their size and age are doing, so while your child may struggle to follow you over a log on the trail, she may see how a girl her age is able to do it, and suddenly, that skill clicks into place. Watch a group of kids on bikes in a field: They’re constantly trying new things and testing each other’s limits, and this develops great riders!
Ensure proper fueling
Obviously, sports nutrition is an entire book in and of itself. (In fact, I wrote one of those!) But we won’t belabor the concept of youth sport nutrition here expect to say: Make sure your young athlete is getting enough fuel for the work he or she is doing, both on and off the bike. Especially as athletes get a bit older and into the teen years, it becomes more critical that they’re getting the energy they need to stay healthy and strong while riding. If you’re not sure about how much your athlete should be eating, or what constitutes a ‘healthy’ diet, set up a consult with a sports dietitian to talk through what a balanced plate looks like at mealtime and what your athlete should be eating and drinking on the bike.
Don’t force racing, but do make it available
Racing can be a great, fun experience for many kids, but don’t sign them up without their permission! Instead, make sure that they know about different racing opportunities and options, but allow them to make their own decisions. If your kiddo isn’t sure about the whole ‘racing’ thing, bring him to your next race and make sure you’re there in time to watch his age group racing. That might help him decide whether or not he’s interested.
Ask for guidance
The fact is that at some point, your young cyclist is going to either a) continue to ride for fun but stop pursuing it seriously, or b) he or she will want to take it to the next level and continue racing. In those early preteen and teen years, you may not want or need to commit to formal training with a coach, but you may want to seek guidance from one to get a general sense of what a training schedule should look like for your child and his or her specific goals.
Remember that every athlete’s journey is different
Your kiddo may drift away from cycling for a few years, only to come back a decade later to become your best riding buddy (that’s what happened with this author and her dad!). Your athlete may have a natural talent for the mountain bike despite your background on the track. Remember that cycling should be—as we said earlier—a fun experience for both of you. Enjoy this time together!
About the writer:
Molly Hurford is a journalist in love with all things cycling, running, nutrition and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing about being outside and healthy habits of athletes and interviewing world-class athletes and scientists for The Consummate Athlete podcast and website, and most recently launched the book ‘Becoming A Consummate Athlete.‘ She’s the author of multiple books including the Shred Girls, a young adult fiction series and online community focused on getting girls excited about bikes. Molly is a little obsessed with getting people psyched on adventure and being outside, and she regularly hosts talks and runs clinics for cyclists and teaches yoga online and IRL… And in her spare time, the former Ironman triathlete now spends time tackling long runs and rides on trails or can be found out hiking with her mini-dachshund DW and husband, cycling coach and kinesiologist Peter Glassford.