If you look at the way youth sports is done in America, it becomes clear that something needs to change. In my article series on long-term athlete development—or LTAD—I’ll be examining this model as a potential solution to the way things are being done now.
The Current State of Youth Sports in America
To start, I’d like you to think about your experience as a young athlete. Was your youth sports experience positive? Fun? Enjoyable?
At a young age, did you learn fundamental movement skills—like how to run, jump, skip, and hop—and sport-specific skills? If so, was it done in a developmentally appropriate and progressive manner? Or was the focus on X’s and O’s and winning at all costs?
If you had to change the youth sports experience in America, what would you recommend?
Finally, what is the purpose of youth sports? What are we really trying to accomplish? Are we trying to produce 8-year-old city champions, or healthy, active adults who can give back to the game as coaches, officials, administrators, and sport parents?
Unfortunately, the experience is sub-par for many of today’s youth athletes. In our own echo chambers, we love to complain about the ills of youth sports in America—just look at this Twitter poll that I conducted last fall. When asked how they would rate the U.S. sports system as a whole, 55% of respondents said Poor, with an overwhelming 96% of respondents voting either Poor or Fair—with zero votes for Excellent!
And the results of this straw poll are similar to the ratings given by the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Report Card on Youth Sports, which gave the U.S. sports system an overall grade of C. Some may argue that this is grade inflation!
My point is: there’s got to be a better way to do youth sports in America—and the long-term athlete development (LTAD) model might be the solution. In this article, I’ll introduce the main tenets of LTAD, provide some definitions of key terms (so we’re all on the same page), and dive into the history of this model—because even though LTAD might be a hot topic right now, the ideas behind it are not new.
What is Athleticism?
Before we define long-term athlete development, we’ve first got to look at what athleticism really entails. I think we can all generally agree that athleticism can be defined as a broad set of traits that includes: strength, speed, power, agility, balance, coordination, endurance, and the ability to competently perform motor skills like throwing, catching, jumping, etc.
I have further depicted athleticism from the model by Drs. Rhodri Lloyd and Jon Oliver and the cardinal planes of movement. Indeed, strength and power must be displayed through upper body pushing and pulling both vertically and horizontally, and lower body strength and power must be expressed with both legs and on a single leg. The athlete must also be able to rotate and twist, and accelerate, decelerate and change directions moving forward, backwards and laterally and in all combinations.
Finally, I will argue that the above description represents only the physical domain of athleticism, and we should also consider the other three domains of athletic performance in a full model of LTAD—technical, tactical, and mental.
Now that we’ve defined athleticism, we can say that LTAD is basically the ability to develop these traits over time in a developmentally appropriate manner. Think about learning to ride a bike: you probably started on a tricycle, moved to a bicycle with training wheels, and then took the training wheels off when you were ready to roll. Or think about learning to write: first you learn the alphabet, then simple words (c-a-t) and sentences (the hat is red), before moving onto complex words, sentences, paragraphs, and so on. Similarly, athletic competencies should be learned in the same progressive manner—starting with the least complex movement patterns and skills, and gradually progressing as skills are mastered.
It’s also important to understand that LTAD doesn’t just refer to the period of time between youth and adolescence, but extends into post-adolescence (i.e., college athletics), adulthood, and late adulthood (think “cradle to grave”). So while it can be easy to get caught up in the performance aspects of LTAD, we can’t ignore the importance of a physically active lifestyle throughout the entire lifespan—especially at a time when chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes are related to physical inactivity (“hypokinetic diseases”) are so prevalent.
The ultimate aim of LTAD is to improve health and fitness, enhance physical performance, reduce the relative risk of injury, and develop the confidence and competence of all youth—not just athletes. (Unless you’d like to argue that we are all athletes!)
The History of LTAD
LTAD is not a new concept. It’s just a hot topic right now, which is a good thing, given issues with youth sports and childhood obesity. I love studying the history of a topic, since it gives us access to the laboratory of human experience so that we can learn from past trials and tribulations—so let’s unpack the history of LTAD.
Historically, the Spartans prepared young males in a rigorous education and training program known as the “agoge,” with the aim being to produce strong warriors for the Spartan Army. They did this through a staged approach, starting with an initial training period from ages 7 to 17 before entering into reserve status for two years, finally gaining full status into the Spartan legions as a warrior. So the simple concept of staged approaches to development has been around since ancient Greece.
The Cold War: Eastern Bloc and the U.S. Response
Fast forward from antiquity to the mid-20th century. Many of you will be familiar with the dominance in Olympic sport by Russia, Germany, and other eastern European nations during this Cold War period from 1952 to 1988.
Some have attributed this athletic success to the scientific approaches in athletic development, strength & conditioning, and sports science (not disregarding the doping issues) including the work of Verkhoshansky, Bondarchuk, Issurin, and others, and captured in the context of LTAD by Bompa (Total Training for Young Champions) and Riordan (Sport in Soviet Society).
In addition, many Eastern Bloc countries developed youngsters for national competition through a sport school system. Youngsters were tested and selected by the schools for specialized training that included “a daily routine that creates a healthy balance between physical and mental exertion and relaxation,” as noted by Ruediger Ziemer, headmaster Potsdam Sports School. By 1971, there were nearly 4,000 sport schools in Russia and by the later 1980s (around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall), there were approximately 6,000 schools in Russia serving over 2 million student-athletes.
Across the pond in the U.S., the Olympic success of Eastern Bloc countries was not ignored. In addition, the Space Race and Cold War added motivation for President John F. Kennedy to begin the national promotion of physical fitness and physical education in the U.S. during the early 1960s (check out this video). Unfortunately, over the past several decades we’ve seen an obvious decline in physical education (and physical literacy) in U.S. schools. If we were to go back to the curricular activities of the P.E. programs in the 1960s we would find that old-school P.E. could fix many of the contemporary LTAD issues. So really, LTAD is #oldschoolPE.
Balyi and the Contemporary Model of LTAD
Most recently, the concept of LTAD has been popularized and “packaged” by Istvan Balyi, a native Hungarian who has served as the resident sport scientist at the National Coaching Institute in Victoria, British Columbia. In 1995, Balyi first proposed a four-stage model of training which included: FUNdamentals, Training to Train, Training to Compete, and Training to Win. This model was then further developed into the current seven-stage model in 2005. The modification and widespread interest in the LTAD model was prompted by a poor finish in the 2004 Olympics by the Canadians attributed to a decaying national sports system. At the same time, Balyi began consulting with national sporting organizations in England, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere.
Another important aspect of the Balyi LTAD model is that it is both a performance pathway and a participation pathway. Most previous models have focused odn the performance aspects of identifying and developing athletes for national success. But given the current physical inactivity and obesity epidemic—in addition to the fact that some individuals may be excluded from participating in sport for whatever reason—it is equally important, if not more so, to consider sport as a vehicle for an active, healthy lifestyle in which all individuals remain active throughout their lifespan.
Essentially, the aim of this model is to “square the pyramid,” so that individuals place an importance on physical activity throughout their lifespan, and not just during youth through adolescence. This model can also encourage positive participation in sports as an informed parent, coach, official, or administrator. To learn more about the Balyi LTAD model, see Canadian Sport for Life or for a full account, please refer to the book (Long-Term Athlete Development by Balyi, Way and Higgs).
LTAD: Coming to America
Well, the U.S. was a bit late to the game in terms of adopting the LTAD model. In 2013, disturbing statistics on falling sport participation rates, childhood obesity, and physical inactivity, and a projected shorter lifespan of the current generation reported by the Aspen Institute’s Project Play inspired the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and its National Governing Bodies (NGBs) to create the American Development Model (ADM) in 2014. The ADM is comprised of four key elements: 1) a statement, 2) a visual model, 3) NGB programming, and 4) resources.
Currently, several NGBs report to have adopted or are “using” the ADM. (More on this in a later blog focusing on implementation and accountability.) One NGB in particular should be highlighted for its efforts—USA Hockey.
USA Hockey, under the leadership of Ken Martel, has been at the forefront of LTAD, beginning with efforts prior to the USOC adoption of the model. In 2009, USA Hockey developed and implemented the ADM, in part to help with retention and developing better players through age-appropriate training and quality coach education. In fact, the vast majority of the information on the ADM comes from USA Hockey itself (see admkids.com).
More recent attention on LTAD (or ADM) among U.S. NGBs has come from soccer. This past year the U.S. Men’s National Team missed qualifying for the World Cup and the ensuing headlines such as “Until youth soccer is fixed, US men’s national team is destined to fail” and “Is youth soccer training to blame for American team's failure to qualify for the World Cup?” began to appear. Similar to USA Hockey, many soccer organizations have subscribed to a player development model. However, as we will discuss in an upcoming article, having a LTAD model and successfully implementing and holding stakeholders accountable to the model are two separate things.
Volt Partner, NSCA, Weighs in on LTAD
At about the time the Balyi model was gaining attention worldwide and particularly in the UK, scholars in youth athletic development and strength & conditioning began to critically evaluate the Balyi LTAD model. In 2011, a paper published in the Journal of Sports Sciences raised attention to a number of issues with the model and are summarized below:
• The model is only one-dimensional, that being physiological there is a lack of empirical evidence upon which the model is based, particularly related to “windows of opportunity” which are ages in which certain training can accelerate and enhance physical development
• Interpretations of the model are restricted because the data on which it is based rely on questionable assumptions and erroneous methodologies
• It is a generic model rather than an individualized plan for athletes
This 2011 paper was followed by two additional papers in 2015, which were key to the writing of the NSCA position stand on LTAD. The key tenets to the NSCA position stand are the 10 pillars—shown here in this infographic (or visit Yann Le Meur's website to view the graphic):
The good news is that there is a lot of talk, discussion, and attention on the issues of youth sports that can be resolved by LTAD. Now, it is time to take action in your club, school and community. This article provided a definition and history of LTAD and begins a series that will focus on various aspects of LTAD and hopefully educate and inspire you to implement strategies to help young people realize their full athletic potential—and utilize sport as a path toward an active and healthy lifestyle, from cradle to grave.
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