SAFESPORT PARENTING: Selecting a junior cycling coach


Welcome to the second of four articles in USA Cycling's series on SafeSport Parenting. This series is written by USA Cycling level 1 coach and member of the USA Cycling Coaching Education Advisory Committee, Kristen Dieffenbach, PhD.

by Kristen Dieffenbach

USAC High Performance Director of Endurance Programs Benjamin Sharp discusses strategy with a group of riders
In part 1 of this series we discussed the power of the peloton.  As we noted, cycling has a strong and vibrant community that can provide excellent support and opportunities for young riders to grow, develop and compete. However, we also pointed out that positive gains don’t come simply from riding a bike. They are the result of well-intentioned and well-informed adults who are prepared to work together to teach and guide young riders both as cyclists and as people. It is up to parents to provide an opportunity for what Tom Farrey, author of "Game On: The All-American Race to Make Champions of Our Children", calls thoughtful development as opposed to careless competition (the current cultural youth sport default model).
While the scholastic side of cycling is growing, many young riders still get their start outside of school programs riding just for fun.  As their interest grows, they and their parents look for organized training opportunities through either a local club or one-on-one coaching. As a cycling parent, it is your job to ensure the people you select to work with your athlete are well-prepared for the job on all fronts. Keep in mind that while winning a bike race may qualify someone as a gifted rider, it does not guarantee that he or she is a gifted coach qualified to work with developmental athletes.        
Before hiring a coach for your junior athlete, consider the following questions carefully:
  • Is a step up in training or racing something my athlete really wants or is it something I want for him or her?  There is a very important distinction between the two. If the athlete is ambivalent about having a personal coach, then he or she is not ready.
  • Is my athlete ready to work with a coach one-on-one? By the very nature of our sport, safe and effective cycling requires a good degree of self-discipline and maturity.  The ‘maturity’ or developmental age of your child may be ahead or behind his or her actual chronological age and these areas may flip flop as the young adult grows.  Rarely does maturity happen all at the same time or occur at a nice, steady, predictable pace.  It is not uncommon for physical growth to occur while emotional maturity or social maturity lags behind or vice versa. 
  • Consider how your child handles criticisms, critiques, success, frustration and failure.  Understanding your child and what he or she needs is important when seeking the right coaching fit.
  • What do I want for my child and what do I hope she or he will gain from cycling? Try to think short and long term gains and about his or her whole development as a person, not just as an athlete.
  • Am I ready to step back into the unconditional love and support role of a sport parent? Am I willing to let the person I hire teach and lead?  A key part of successful coaching is a solid coach-athlete relationship.  One of the most important lessons a young athlete can learn through sport is how to develop and handle relationships.  Choosing the right coach means choosing someone you trust so you can focus on your role as a parent.
Once you are confident that hiring a personal cycling coach or joining a coached team is the right thing for your junior athlete, it is time to begin the screening process to find a coach who is appropriate for your athlete’s age, developmental stage and cycling skill level. 
  • A good place to begin is with ‘paper’ credentials.  What certifications does the individual have?  If he/she will be working with your athlete in person, ask to see up-to-date first aid and sport first aid training qualifications. 
  • Having knowledge of the sport is an obvious basic and a qualified coach will have earned at least the entry level (level 3) USA Cycling coach license. 
  • What is the coach’s educational background?  What is their background or training to work with and teach adolescents and teenagers?  Ultimately, at the heart of it, a coach is a teacher and with junior athletes, the teaching element is especially important given this valuable time in development.  You wouldn’t tolerate a classroom teacher who only knew the subject matter but didn’t understand how kids learn and respond.  Shouldn’t you expect the same from your child’s coach?  
  • Obtaining a USA Cycling coach license requires a coach to pass a background check.  But are you familiar with what that check looks for?   Be sure you are satisfied with the screening if you anticipate your athlete traveling with the team in a coach driven vehicle or taking overnight trips.
  • What is the prospective coach’s philosophy? About racing and competition? About junior development, in the sport and out? How do these ideas match up?  If a developmental issue is in opposition to a competition goal – what is the coach’s standpoint? Ideally, in a positive developmental environment, winning is important but character and life skill development are the most important goals.
  • Beyond understanding how to work with adolescents and teenagers from a teaching standpoint, what does the coach know about physical training prior to, during and immediately post puberty?  Adult training models do not translate to young bodies simply by lowering the mileage or dropping the watts.  Understanding the physiology of growth and development is crucial to prevent overuse injuries that can impact both short and long term health both for male and female athletes.  Have a conversation with the coach about what they look for or monitor as it relates to physical growth and development.
  • What does he or she feel is their role and level of responsibility when coaching juniors? Are you on the same page?  Don’t be afraid to ask about specific situations and how the coach might handle it.  For example, do they tolerate swearing? What is their policy if an athlete is having trouble in school? How do they foresee helping your athlete balance the demands of training and being a teenager?
  • Talk to other junior parents and if possible, observe the coach in action.  Does his or her actions match up with his or her philosophy? What is his reputation as an athlete, if he still compete? Is she the kind of role model you want around your athlete? Does he espouse and emphasize similar values?  You are hiring someone to help your athlete grown, not to be their buddy. 
Up to this point, the focus has been on the parent’s assessment of the coach in determining if the person has the skills and qualifications to work with a developing athlete. While the parent may be the paying partner in the relationship, the athlete will ultimately be the ‘student’.  Engaging him or her in both the screening and the decision making processes is an important step for personal investment and to help ensure that the athlete and coach are compatible.  Prior to seeking a coach, talk with your athlete about what they would like in a coach and what they expect from a coach-athlete relationship.  Discuss what you are looking for as a parent and make sure you are both clear on how you see a coach-athlete-parent relationship working.  Once your safety and certifications check is complete, be sure you interview with the coach one-on-one and allow the athlete to do the same in a safe, controlled environment (e.g. over the phone or at a location where you can observe but not eavesdrop on their conversation).   A group meeting is fine, but it is also important to have both an adults-only conversation and a coach-and-athlete chat.  Prior to making any hiring decisions, be sure to have another parent athlete discussion to bring up any concerns.
Ultimately, when you invite someone to coach your junior athlete, you are also inviting them onto your parenting team. You are inviting them to share in the responsibility of raising your child and in shaping his or her development.  Take your time in selecting and interviewing prospective coaches and be sure to engage the athlete in the process as well. 
Next month we will explore the next step: Building a Successful Partnership with a Junior Coach. We will explore the roles and responsibilities of the parent, coach and athlete in the talent development equation.  

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This Article Updated March 24, 2017 @ 07:14 PM For more information contact: