More time and money is spent in the U.S. on youth sports today than at any other point in our history.
All in the hope that we can develop better athletes. For you personally, it means seeing your child maximizing their untapped potential.
And yet for all the resources that are being poured into youth sports, we have yet to implement a clear blueprint on how to best develop a young athlete's physical abilities.
Sports organizations and even entire countries have done extensive research on the topic, however, and there are some excellent answers out there.
At the end of this month-long article series, it is my hope that you will:
- Know exactly what Long Term Athletic Development should look like
- Possess strategies for creating a better athletic future for your child or team
What Is Long-Term Athletic Development (LTAD)?
LTAD attempts to provide optimal physical and skill development strategies for kids as they go through different phases of maturation. In some models this begins as early as age 3.
With respect to the millions of dollars of research poured into these models, I'd like you to just think of it this way...
When a child is old enough to go to school, parents and teachers alike understand that this is hopefully the beginning of a journey that will slowly, progressively, take them to an elite college some day.
They learn the basics of reading, writing, mathematics, and other skills. With each passing day, month, and year, skills are layered on top of each other in a progressive fashion. There may not be a lot of big moments, just an endless series of small steps forward on the long, winding path to excellence.
Some kids move faster than others. Some go farther than others, yet the system is there to serve everyone who participates, and whether that elite college admission is achieved or not each individual graduates with a basic skill set that prepares them to take on bigger challenges later in life.
That is literally, exactly what LTAD is. The only difference is we are talking about physical skills.
LTAD Models and Lessons
"Compared with programs in other countries, the U.S. is several decades behind in its development and implementation of a comprehensive LTAD program." -National Strength & Conditioning Association website
We as Americans do a great job of winning, but we also do a great job of injuring kids, burning them out in their sport at an early age, and creating unhealthy lifestyles that lead to chronic health problems as adults..
You can certainly say that these are the costs of success, but it doesn't have to be an 'either/or' situation.
LTAD models preach development in stages. Mastering one skill before developing the next.
Now, the models you can research have vague terms like "Learn to Train" and 'Train to Train". These are nice outlines that essentially ask coaches to focus on skills acquisition over winning.
That's a nice idea, but what does it look like in practice?
Let's just take one example, a college athlete who makes an incredible spin move that lands them on ESPN's Top 10 Plays.
Go back in time to when this person was in kindergarten. Following a LTAD model, in this stage the athlete would be learning how to stop properly (a skill few HS athletes actually have mastered, by the way). Games like Red Light-Green Light would teach this basic deceleration skill, which is not exciting or YouTube/Instagram cool-looking but it is a critical fundamental skill.
At around the same age or a little older, jumping with spins in the air could be introduced. This could have been in a gym class, team practice, or in a training facility like ours. The athlete would now learn to develop better spatial orientation while building on the deceleration skill they mastered at a younger age.
Then, in high school, this athlete's training could regularly incorporate spin moves into more advanced agility drills and games. With the fundamentals mastered years before, this athlete is in a much better position to successfully master the larger skills.
A few years later, the Top 10 play is performed and celebrated by millions.
This is one of thousands of ways athletic skills are developed in stages. Jumping, pressing, climbing, throwing, balancing, kicking, lifting, sprinting, cutting, every physical skill has progressions just like academic skills do.
In each stage the training is age-appropriate, so we don't overload developing bodies to cause injuries, and we are following a path where science says kids in that age bracket are likely ready to successfully handle the challenge with the proper effort and focus put forth.
This is how LTAD should work.
How We're Currently Screwing This All Up
Naturally, this is nowhere close to how we develop most of our kids right now.
Physical education classes are evolving into unstructured strength training (likely lots of arms and abs) and 'fitness', which is usually a combination of distance running and core drills. This now is working its way down to the middle school level.
Kids play an incredible number of competitive games each season, with some on 2 or even 3 teams at once so they are endlessly competing instead of developing. In the high stakes environment where wins are the only goal, a young athlete will stick only to the things they're good at and avoid all the other areas they should be developing (like kicking with your left foot if you're better with your right).
And my profession, sports performance coaching, is as guilty of this problem as anyone. Too many of us want to perform the coolest looking exercises to show how superior we are, or drive too much focus to pressing massive amounts of weight. We try to drive business by making workouts fun instead of providing the monotonous but effective emphasis on repetition with basic skills
Worst of all, rarely are all these activities integrated into one overall plan for each athlete.
To go back to the school analogy again, if you went to school at 3 different locations every week, how will they each know what you need to work on that day? Maybe they covered math on Monday, and your Tuesday school covers almost the exact same thing. This approach is almost certain to create too much work in some areas and not enough in others, when a more coordinated approach would cover everything you need for success.
Sub-optimal training and no overall plan is, in general terms, what most of our kids are provided right now.
A Better Way?
Instead of a quick fix and instant gratification approach, long term athletic development prioritizes slow and steady skill acquisition.
And to drive this point home, you're going to have to wait until next week to discover some potential solutions to this growing problem.