Long Term Athlete Development – Does it work?

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One of the big challenges involved in being a coach of young athletes is knowing when to introduce a specific training regime and at what time to concentrate on particular skills. It is all too common to see well-meaning coaches attempt to introduce methods of coaching that children simply aren’t ready for. Their eagerness to succeed can often result in a failure to address the essential basic athletic skills due to the desire to jump to more advanced issues. An approach that may help coaches at various levels address this concern is ‘Long Term Athlete Development’ or LTAD which is one that is gaining in popularity.

Long-term approach

Ltad.jpgTaylor Sharpe representing Canada in the 400m at the 2015 PAN AM Games.
(Photo by Ron Pietroniro, courtesy of Durham Region Media Group)

As the title suggests, this approach focuses on the long-term development of the athlete in order to ultimately develop their full potential. It takes the athlete from the fun stage of learning the basic athletic skills, through various stages of training, to competition and, for some, competing at elite status.

Richard Gordon, ASA Coaching and Talent Development Co-ordinator, in ‘A Shorter Guide to Long Term Athlete Development’, points to scientific research that has said that to reach elite athlete levels, a total of 10,000 hours is required or at least ten years. This is achieved through training, in tandem with growth and development. He defines LTAD as being “about achieving optimal training, competition and recovery throughout an athlete’s career, particularly in relation to the important growth and development years of young people. If a long-term approach to training is not adopted there is likely to be a plateau in performance, when growth and development slows significantly.

Balyi, Way, and Higgs in ‘Long Term Athlete Development’ have concluded the importance of this approach by stating that

“Long-Term Athlete Development describes how to systematically develop sporting excellence and increase active participation in local, regional, and national sport organizations. This resource describes the long-term athlete development (LTAD) model, an approach to athlete-centered sport that combines skill instruction with long-term planning and an understanding of human development. By learning about LTAD, sport administrators and coaches will gain the knowledge and tools to enhance participation and improve performance and growth of athletes.”

Canadian Sport for Life

It is an approach that has been embraced by the Canadian Sport For Life Programme(CS4L), and they describe themselves as “a movement to improve the quality of sport and physical activity in Canada. S4L links sport, education, recreation and health, and aligns community, provincial, and national programming”.

Their mission statement adds:

“Long-Term Athlete Development is a seven-stage training, competition and recovery pathway guiding an individual’s experience in sport and physical activity from infancy through all phases of adulthood. Physical literacy is the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to value and take responsibility for engagement in physical activities for life. S4L, with LTAD and physical literacy, represents a paradigm shift in the way Canadians lead and deliver sport and physical activity”.

This approach outlines seven distinct stages that bring an athlete from the introduction to sport, right though to maximizing the potential of an athlete, and also lifelong participation in sport.

The stages are as follows as and expanded upon in www.brianmac.co.uk/ltad.htm

Stages 1, 2 and 3 develop physical literacy before puberty so children have the basic skills to be active for life. Physical literacy also provides the foundation for those who choose to pursue elite training in one sport or activity after age 12.

Stages 4, 5 and 6 provide elite training for those who want to specialize in one sport and compete at the highest level, maximizing the physical, mental and emotional development of each athlete.

Stage 7 is about staying Active for Life through lifelong participation in competitive or recreational sport or physical activity.

What is interesting about this approach is that it has recently come to the end of its first ten years and the results have pointed to the success of the programme.

Give young athletes time

Tyler Laing has assessed the merits of the approach which has incorporated all 56 national sporting organizations, and among the well-known coaches to embrace the approach was Tony Sharpe, the winner of a bronze medal in the 4 x 100m relay at the 1984 Olympics.

Sharpe got involved in coaching as his son, Mitchell, was playing hockey and soccer, at the time LTAD was launched and those ideas resonated with his approach to sport. Sharpe’s twin daughters, Sommer and Taylor, also took part in ballet and gymnastics, and in 2006 he founded the Speed Academy which was based on the principles of LTAD.

Sharpe and his wife Colene had understood the importance of exposing children to a variety of activities when they were young and this tied in with the value placed in physical literacy in the LTAD’s FUNdamentals programme, and he stated:

“By doing a bunch of sports like that when they were growing up, sure they were developing the range of skills and physical literacy, but they were also staying fresh – no burnout, no overuse injuries, no early specialization”.

When Sharpe began coaching he had three goals in mind, namely to help them develop the ABCs – agility, balance, co-ordination and speed – of athleticism, give them a break from their primary sport(s) of choice, and introduce them to the disciplines of track and field. He was keen to introduce the young players to different sports and avoid the problems of early specialization in sport.

Sharpe believes that giving young athletes the time to develop along with multi-sport involvement is the key to success as he stated:

“I try to advocate for kids to continue playing other sports through high school and I really subscribe to the 10 S’s of Trainability. Without the ABCs and those solid fundamentals, kids won’t become elite. Spend less time competing and more time developing fundamental skills.”


Success of the approach

There can be little doubt that over the past ten years the programme has certainly paid dividends with a number of factors indicating the value of this approach. For example, since 2012 a total of 22 athletes from the Speed Academy have earned scholarships to some of the top NCAA track and field schools in the USA, with another nine expected to follow this year. Meanwhile, he points out that up to eight athletes have made national teams each year, while some who remained with baseball have been drafted into Major League Baseball.

Sharpe is able to point to an example closer to home as his daughters, Taylor and Sommer, progressed through the LTAD pathway maintaining a multi-sport approach before specializing in track in Grade 10. By Grade 12 they had committed to George Mason University in Virginia, while Taylor has recently represented Canada at the Toronto 2015 Pan Am Games.


Long-Term Athlete Development By Istvan Balyi, Richard Way, Colin Higgs
Long Term Athlete Development – Brian Mackenzie
LTAD Stages – Canadian Sport for Life
LTAD Implementation Planning Guide for Provincial and Territorial Sport Organizations
When LTAD Babies Grow Up By: Tyler Laing

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