Youth National Track & Field Championships

There are several national youth track & field competitions that offer attractive opportunities for children from 8 to 18 to compete and measure fitness and skills across a variety of running, jumping and throwing events. These national competitions include the USATF Junior Olympic Championships, Hershey’s Track & Field Games, and the AAU Junior Olympic Games. For athletes to participate in these national competitions, they must qualify through local and regional level competitions, and only those that qualify advance to the national championships.

Although some wish that the US would have a unified youth track & field national championship, and feel that the USATF, Hershey’s and AAU prioritize their own interests ahead of that of youth athletes, I believe that each organizing body offers a different experience to a different audience, and in this case having more choices and opportunities given that these are youth athletes (and not elite or professional athletes) is a good thing.

Being the ever curious parent and coach with an 11-year old distance runner who in 2011/2012 qualified for the regional USATF Junior Olympics in both cross country and track & field, I am interested in learning about the qualitative and quantitative similarities and differences among the three national competitions. Unfortunately there is no single source of information, and even the organizing bodies’ websites don’t offer complete, useful information about the goals and scope of their championships. Sometimes finding qualifying standards or archived results can also be a challenge.

At a very high level:

  • The focus of USATF and AAU is on the competitive events, and the national championships offer a more complete range of events across the two-year age groups (ages 8-18) without the Olympic community experience. These national championships are closer to what one might experience in a middle school or high school track & field invitational.
  • Hershey’s focuses on the Olympic community experience, and the national games provides a more limited range of events (including some non-traditional events) that is part of a multi-day Olympic “village” experience for the children (ages 9-14).
  • From personal experience, the USATF qualifications process for the national Junior Olympics is transparent in the local round (top 6 in each event qualify) and regional round (top 5 in each event qualify). I have been unable to find qualification standards on the AAU or Hershey’s websites, and would welcome anyone letting me know where to find them.
  • Hershey’s offers an “all expenses paid” trip for athletes that qualify for its national games, which is a terrific benefit to enable children to compete based on their athletic ability, and Hershey’s invests significantly in creating the Olympic “village” experience in Hershey, Pennsylvania (including tour of the Hershey chocolate factory). However, because athletes stay together in a village (chaperoned), parents won’t be able to spend time with their young athlete except for the actual competition.
  • For USATF and AAU national championships, families pay their own trip expenses, and while that is a consideration (especially if flying across the country), in my experience I enjoyed spending the time with my 11-year old son from dinner the night before the race, to early breakfast and talking race strategy, to some local sightseeing after the event.

What about the competitive aspects? My goals are to create a fun learning experience for my young runner, and prepare him for competition in middle school and high school where physical, mental, emotional, strategic, and tactical elements all come together to create the competitive experience and determine the race result. I want my son to be able to compete against and learn from the best. And I will support him and know that he will work hard to make the most of the opportunity.

The USATF Junior Olympic National Championships and AAU National Junior Olympic Games attract similar quality and depth of mid and distance runners based on my review of the 2012 boys 400m, 800m and 1600m events (see tables below – with 1500m times converted to 1600m). The AAU 800m times are faster than the USATF times, whereas the reverse is true for the 1600m. The 400m times are similar. The times from the 2012 Hershey’s Track & Field Games are slower across the distances and age groups, in some cases the differences are substantial, and the top 10 in each event are less deep than USATF and AAU (times drop off faster for runners 2 through 10). Because I only sampled boys results from three events in 2012, it would be unfair for me to make any conclusions other than the USATF Junior Olympic National Championships would best meet my goals for my son.

Doing the research is the easy part. Now comes the hard part. My son has to train, race and advance through both the Connecticut Junior Olympic meet on June 15, 2013 at Veteran’s Stadium and the Region 1 Junior Olympic meet at Icahn Stadium on July 5-7, 2013. The USATF Junior Olympic National Championships are held in Greensboro, NC on July 22-27.



  1. I will tell you that the USATF and AAU staggers their two year age blocks opposite of each other, which can really benefit a child as they age up. Sean went to the USATF National Junior Olympics for track and xc last year as a 7 year old Sub-Bantam and a December baby. We certainly plan to participate in the local CT USATF and hopefully regionals as well. He’ll be in the age 9-10 age group as an 8 year old, but we definitely plan to participate in the CT AAU qualifiers, as we think he’ll have a better chance at making nationals this year through AAU, rather than USATF, since he’ll be on the younger end of the grouping for USATF this time around.

  2. My apologies. I was able to locate the AAU age divisions. It appears they’ve got 1 year age blocks now. See below…

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