I WAS driving home after a lovely athletics session coaching a group of six to eight year olds, and I got to thinking that while I have mentioned the benefits of running for adults in my column numerous times over the last few months, I have never spoken about the huge range of benefits that athletics can have for children.
I started athletics when I was seven years old, I can still vividly remember my first ever session — it was me and two older lads, one of whom went on to play football in the Premier League believe it or not, so if that’s not reason enough to get your child involved in athletics, I don’t know what is!
After that, though, I never looked back, my dad dedicated many hours coaching me and driving me all over the country to train and compete. I may have moaned from time to time about it back then, but I am forever grateful for the opportunities that athletics gave me.
I ran competitively for ten years, with the pentathlon or the hurdles my events of choice, and my greatest achievement was captaining the Irish Schools Pentathlon team at an International event in Scotland.
Anyway, all that aside because I am not here to brag about 20-year-old achievements, I do want to give some insight into the benefits athletics can have for children. I’m sure we are all aware of the benefits of sports and exercise in general for children so I don’t need to delve into that, but just a reminder — it keeps them fit and healthy, it teaches them determination and discipline, it encourages self motivation, and it builds confidence.
Athletics is the backbone of any good sports person and can complement all sports in terms of building speed, endurance and coordination. I would probably go so far as to say coordination is one of the real skills that athletics can give a child — from the simple act of getting children to do jumping jacks correctly to teaching them how to run, jump and throw, it all involves a huge amount of coordination that doesn’t come naturally to some. You may scoff and think, sure everyone can run, and they can, but not everyone can run like Usain Bolt, that takes a certain amount of natural talent and a lot of training.
In my experience, there is a lot that children need to learn to run correctly and once they master the skill it can have a hugely positive impact on the other sports they play like rugby, GAA and soccer, to name but a few.
There is a place for everyone in athletics, it can be broken into three different categories; running, which includes sprinting, long distance and hurdles; throwing, which includes javelin, shot put and hammer, and jumping, which includes long jump and high jump. I was never a long distance runner as I did not have the mental stamina but I was fast so I stuck to sprinting. Some people are neither but they are strong and good at throwing. For the most part athletics is a year round sport — cross country in the autumn, indoors in the winter and outdoors during the spring and summer months.
It is a very cheap sport to get involved with, no big financial outlay for equipment or gear, children just need a half decent pair of runners and their football gear is good enough. It can be as competitive as you want, many children within our club do it purely for the enjoyment and some do it with a focus on competition.
I remember talking to my husband before and he was saying it was important our girls play team sports, but there is a huge amount of comradery in an athletics club so don’t discount it as a team sport. Children don’t generally decide on a discipline until they are older so they all train together.
Often, they are put in groups with children from different classes, different schools, and slightly different age groups, and there is no gender separation so it’s a lovely way to get children to mix with different children. It goes without saying that obviously Covid safety measures are front and centre of every training session at present too.
During the winter, we do long forest runs with the children to build endurance and there is a huge amount of support and encouragement between the children. They encourage each other to keep going, they say well done to each other when they get back, so while athletics may not be a traditional team sport, there is still a huge amount of sportsmanship amongst children in an athletics club.
There are so many wonderful athletics club across the county and so many homegrown heroes for children to look up to like Derval O’Rourke, Sonia O’Sullivan and Rob Heffernan to name but a few. I really would encourage you to give it a go and take your child along to see if they might enjoy it. We trained tonight in the wet, wind and cold, but every child left the session with a smile on their face — tired but happy, and that’s what athletics is all about.