Benita Willis is currently assisting Athletics Australia during the consultation process for the development of a Junior Sport Policy. Here, the 11-time Australian record holder, four-time Olympian, two-time Commonwealth Games representative, 2004 IAAF World Cross Country Champion, 2003 IAAF World Half Marathon Championships bronze medallist and three-time Australian 5,000 meters champion talks about the importance of balance in sport.
Q: Why is it important for Athletics Australia to have a policy in place around junior sport?
A: It’s important for coaches, parents and teachers to be educated and understand how far kids should be pushed at what age. Competition is important, but not necessarily the focus on times. Team competition and team athletics are really good. An evidence-based policy will help everyone understand what kids should be doing.
Kids, in general, are competitive; they want to do their best and please others. Kids all develop differently so we don’t want to discourage them from the sport. Then at the other end of the spectrum, we don’t want kids that are very good to be pushed too hard to the detriment of what they’re going to do when they’re a bit older.
Q: What trends are you noticing in junior athletics in your roles as a coach and also within the recreational running space?
A: Kids are running hard and competing hard from a young age. I see a lot of kids, even in primary school, being pushed by their parents and by coaches to make state and national teams. Their focus is also quite narrow – they want to be like their idols who are in their 20s and 30s.
When we talk about athletics, it’s a sport that you’ll get better at as you age and you’re not going to be a world champion when you’re in primary school. Kids are very good, but they’re being pushed too hard. Some of the goals that they are being set are achievable, but it will be to their detriment as they get older. We’ll lose them to the sport.
I see a lot of talented juniors getting lost to the sport when they’re getting into high school, especially by year 11 and 12. Once they start university, they don’t get back into it which is a real shame because they just don’t know what they could have been. I’m also noticing when kids get to 16 or 17, and they weren’t that good as a junior, there’s no support for them to continue what they’re doing as they get older. They don’t know what their potential could be.
Q: What do you think the key is to finding enjoyment in athletics long-term?
A: The key is being involved in athletics from a young age and knowing what it’s all about. Enjoying it from a social side, doing athletics with friends. Even from my school days in athletics, I’m still friends with girls who I knew when I was in high school – not from the same town as me, but I’m still friends with them 20 years later, and I’m a bridesmaid at their wedding and things like that. It’s a way to make life-long friends. That’s what keeps people in the sport rather than the focus on the massive competitive aspect of it.
Q: You found success across a wide range of running disciplines, did having a range of events to compete in contribute to your longevity in the sport?
A: When I was at school, I did athletics from a young age, but I also did hockey and lots of other sports including touch football. I competed at a high level in hockey, probably higher than I was in athletics. For me, team sports when I was younger were more fun. I liked going away on trips with team sports rather than athletics trips. I found athletics trips quite serious and boring.
As I got older, I enjoyed training more for athletics and the running because what you put into it, the more you got out of it. I think I liked running on different surfaces, even indoor tracks as opposed to outdoor tracks, cross-country, road – it kept it interesting for me. I wasn’t one of those people who liked one little part of athletics. The different sorts of terrain, the different sorts of competition – for example with cross-country it’s more about the competition than the time. The track is all about the time. Road races are all about the competition as well. It kept it interesting and kept me in the sport for a long time.
Having a career that spanned across four Olympics is not that common in middle and long-distance running, especially with females. Considering that I did a national title when I was 10, I have been in the sport for a long time. Not having pushy parents is a big thing for me. My parents always let me do what I liked and when I was 11, 12, 13 I didn’t really like competing in running. They said, ‘just do other things, play hockey’, so I didn’t even go to state or national titles.
Q: What was the most fun time that you had in athletics?
A: When I was a junior I still remember going to Perth when I was in year 12 for Pacific School Games. I got billeted with my sister. The family we stayed with all played different sports. We’d get back from the track, and there would be games of ping pong, or everyone would be in the pool. I loved the competition, but I also loved meeting families within the sport who you could relate to. Their kids were competing with me, and I enjoyed travelling and going to new places.
On the elite side of the spectrum, I loved going to major city marathons and being on Australian teams. Not necessarily always running well. Sydney Olympics was probably my best one when I was younger. Being part of the team, especially in World Cross-Country, I always competed well in World Cross-Country. I always think now that being part of a team – I was running for myself but part of the Australian team – we got two team medals there. Just being part of a team is something that I’ll always treasure. One of my favourite times in World Cross-Country was in Edinburgh in 2008 when we got a bronze medal in the teams. I didn’t win like I did in ’04 but the team thing was cool.
You can find out more or contribute to the development of the Junior Sport Policy by clicking here.