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Aug 06

Long-term Athlete Development: The Solution or the Problem? – Part I

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Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) is on the forefront once again for discussion among sport experts. I received an email in May from Jim Kielbaso, IYCA CEO (International Youth Conditioning Association), who shared his thoughts on existing LTD models. Given his permission, I used the posting with modifications and additional information for this Newsletter.

Background to LTD

The concept of Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) has been around for several years but is yet again a heavily debated topic in youth sport and their respective organizations. It seems that everyone is searching for the right answer and that ‘magic’ formula to develop great or better athletes so they achieve elite performance status or potential careers in professional sports. I may propose that this is also due to the tenacious desire by parents to push early specialization and all-year programming.

Numerous scholars have written articles and books on LTD, using previous literature to design newer models. While this is a great attempt to remedy the traditional approach for athlete development, it may also be an oversimplification of LTD, according to Jim Kielbaso, IYCA. He suggests that it could potentially lead coaches and parents in the wrong direction. Current LTAD models, therefore, should be re-examined. When LTD first appeared in the late 1990’s, Canadian academic Istvan Balyi identified an important issue that existed in many countries and their respective sport organizations.

Who is Istvan Balyi? He is acknowledged worldwide as an expert in LTD and the periodization of training plans. Retaining his role [since 19494] as Resident Sport Scientist at the National Coaching Institute in Victoria, Canada, he is a High-performance advisor for the Canadian Sport Centers in Victoria and Vancouver. Obviously, he is an accomplished and published academic but that does not mean other experts should not reflect on his model instead of just jumping on the bandwagon! At first, Balyi developed a 3-stage model emphasizing the importance of LTD versus winning competition. His approach seemed to challenge the existing philosophies of many coaches. His original model included: Training to Train; Training to Compete, and Training to Win. He later added the fourth stage: FUN-damentals to encourage the development of fundamental motor skills early in a childhood.

Sporting organizations accepted his theory but quickly started to debate if this indeed was the solution to create better athletes. Other academics then decided to draw up their own version. This included talent identification, and more in-depth discussion on early childhood because of the so-called hypothetical ‘window of opportunity’ was identified, whereby different training methods supposedly have a greater impact on an athlete’s developmental stage. These models describe to coaches the right timing for strength, speed, and endurance training, and the opportune time to emphasize competition versus training. It was recognized that the LTAD approach provides a greater sporting experience for children with a lifelong enjoyment to stay physically active. This was seen as very important, especially when lack of physical activity, childhood overweight and obesity, and physical illiteracy rose, resulting in various health issues in children and youth.

Balyi, Wade and Higgs (2013) made several additions to the original format. The current LTD includes:

  • Stage 1 – Active Start (0-6 years old)
  • Stage 2 – FUN-damentals (girls 6-8; boys 6-9)
  • Stage 3 – Learn to Train (girls 8-11; boys 9-12)
  • Stage 4 – Train to Train (girls 11-15; boys 12-16) 
  • Stage 5 – Train to Compete (girls 15-21; boys 16-23)
  • Stage 6 – Train to Win (girls 18+ and boys 19+)
  • Stage 7 – Active for Life (any age)

However, something was still missing! Once again organizations hire[d] experts to devise models but there didn’t seem to be much effort for actual implementation. In addition, education and coordination between different experts and existing sport systems were not included. For the most part, these models have remained – what they are – theoretical frameworks without details for implementation. They aren’t necessarily ‘wrong’ as much as they are incomplete and could be potentially misleading. Most give the impression that they have been thoroughly tested and proven, and contain the formula for success. This may not have been the original intent, but that is the way it is interpreted by the sporting world. Some Professionals have tried to implement some models by attempting to use different training methods at certain times to take advantage of the so-called ‘windows of opportunity.’ This may be one of the biggest mistakes as the lack of integration with other groups has stymied the progress with very limited outcomes because LTD is much more individualized than models suggest.

Even more concerning is the fact that LTD has not been thoroughly studied – ironic given its name – and the fact that academics rather than practitioners created the models. It is typically written or presented by people who actually do not coach athletes, have not successfully developed great athletes, and may not even have children of their own to test their theories or had the opportunity to develop them into champions. The latter is a highly individualized process, and many factors have to be considered beyond those that are described in current literature.

We have to take into consideration the following:

  • Genetic factors & talent identification
  • Child’s interest and passion for sport
  • Parental support and parents’ role in the process
  • Environmental and societal influences
  • Access to good coaching and adequate training facilities
  • Having the ‘right coach at the right time’ – or at least the right approach at the right time
  • Access to training at the right time
  • Psychological profile of each athlete
  • Psychological approach used with each athlete
  • Coordination between all parties (parents, coaches, trainers, etc.)

Coaches and parents cannot easily control some of these factors although they can determine the long-term outcome to a much greater extent than any theoretical model. Children are not robots or objects to be developed in a scientific undertaking in laboratories. Developing them into athletes is much more complex because of the previous factors mentioned.

Desire and Passion – Criteria for Success

It has been established that enjoyment of sport is one of the most important aspects for long-term athletic success. If young athletes lack any feeling or joy in a given sport, the likelihood of long-term efforts to excel is very small. They may ‘go through the motion’ and have some success but it is very difficult to stay motivated if desire and passion are declining or altogether missing. We can propose that this fact makes the LTAD model actually unproductive and hypothetically unsuccessful. The child athlete has to be motivated to pursue their dream not simply because they are talented or because coaches or parents desire their success. Basketball famous Michael Jordan calls it ‘the fire from within.’ He deems it necessary for a high level of success. Even more importantly, passion needs to be fuelled to sustain it long enough to achieve such success – no matter how long it takes. The wrong coach, poor teammates, year-round involvement, and lack of parental support are some of the reasons athletes burn out. If sport is no longer FUN, it is almost impossible to expect continued progress. Researchers at the Michigan State’s Institute for the Study of Youth Sports examined 20,000 young athletes. According to the results, the number one reason to get engaged in sports is having FUN!” “I lost interest and it was no longer Fun” is the top reason, equally cited by boys and girls to leave the sport! No wonder! The rate for current sport drop out is presently estimated at about 73% by ages 12-13 years.

Jim Kielbaso cites Daniel Coyle  “The Talent Code.” This author believes that ‘ignition’ is essential because a deep passion for sport is the key to success. It might be triggered by exposure to a particular person, watching sport live or on TV, participating in a sporting event, family involvement, or something else. It is different for every child, which is one reason LTD is not necessarily a formula for everyone. However, such ignition needs to exist if long-term success is the goal.

Parents, family, and friends typically have a tremendous influence on a child to establish passion and love for sport, often starting in early childhood. It can launch emotional feelings before children ever participate in any given sport. However, there is no right way for parents to approach sport participation with their children only positive exposure to a variety of sports seems to be optimal (Schloder and ‘Early Specialization versus Multi-sport Experience (January, February, May, June, Newsletters). Children are not machines; so, we have no single formula for producing passion in a child. Intense parental feelings about sport can influence children in both positive and negative ways as some parents actually push kids away from sport because they are too passionate about it while others create a healthy feeling of excitement.

Social and Environmental Factors

It is impossible to ignore the fact that the child’s surroundings influence sporting experiences. Yet, every existing LTAD model seems to ignore this aspect. Spending time with friends is very important to most children. Sometimes, they may be better off playing a sport with their friends than being part of a travel team comprised of athletes who don’t know each other. Geographic location is also an important factor because the ‘passionate’ child may live in an area with limited access to quality coaches, positive experiences, and talent identification, whereby an experienced coach can suggest to parents that the child is better suited for a different sport in order to be more successful.

Positive Parental Support

Parents actually have a greater influence than anyone else involved in the LTD process. Although some can ‘push too hard’ by trying to ‘live vicariously’ through the success of their children while others expect too little, namely participation and ‘just having FUN.’ It becomes a delicate balance that has to be considered as part of the long-term plan. Simply providing transportation may be the difference to keep the child motivated because he/she feels that their parent[s]  ‘really care.’ On the other hand, critical conversation after competition or a game may be devastating and create negative emotions. The child is disappointed and ‘emotionally devastated’ because parental disapproval is interpreted as ‘lack of love’ and the outcome is seen as the failure.

References

Kielbaso, J. (2018). What’s missing from LTD models? Rethinking long term athlete development. Plymouth, MI.

 

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