Here’s the first part of an article I wrote a few months ago for Tennis Works, a Milton Keynes tennis-based education resource for players, coaches and parents. Definitely a project I’d recommend checking out if you’re at all involved with tennis. These principles apply to the majority of ‘late-specialisation’ sports; this covers all but the artistic and acrobatic sports (i.e. gymnastics, diving, etc.). I’ll post the follow up article, with a few cheeky additions just for you, in a week or so.
Children are not mini adults; imposing adult training and competition schedules on youth athletes is one sure-fire way to jeopardise their overall development as well as their enjoyment of the sport itself. The long term athlete development (LTAD) model has been developed in order to structure the development of youth athletes and tailor training appropriately. This article will aim to provide an overview of the LTAD model and the currently accepted guidelines for training youth athletes.
Why is LTAD important
The primary goal of LTAD is provide a framework to ensure that training, competition and recovery schedules are appropriate for an athlete at each specific stage of their growth and development. LTAD seeks to emphasise the key components of physical literacy that are the foundation for both a healthy and active lifestyle, and a career in competitive sport.
The LTAD model
The LTAD model is commonly broken down into 5 different phases based on the chronological age of the athlete. Each of these phases is summarised below.
- FUNdamentals – (male 6-9, female 6-8 years)
The objective of this phase is to teach the athlete the fundamental movement skills (run, jump, squat, crawl, throw, catch, strike) and the ABC’s (agility, balance, co-ordination, speed) of athleticism in a fun and enjoyable manner. Strength training is introduced during this phase, focusing on the mastery of bodyweight movements and the inclusion of medicine ball exercises when this has been achieved. If athletes have a preferred sport, participation once or twice per week is recommended, however, participation in other sports three to four times per week is considered essential for future excellence. No competition takes place during this stage but athletes are be introduced to the simple rules and ethics of sports.
- Learning to Train – (male 9-12, female 8-11 years)
The fundamental movement skills should be further developed in this phase and specialised movement skills (i.e. sports skills) should be introduced. Athletes in this age group are believed to be the most receptive to learning motor skills, indeed, if fundamental motor skills are not appropriately developed in this age group, the ability of the athlete to reach their full potential may be compromised. Strength exercises should be developed with medicine ball and bodyweight exercises whilst endurance should be established through games and relays. Basic flexibility exercises are introduced during this phase, while speed can be developed further with specific activities during the warm-up, such as agility, quickness and change of direction. A 70:30 training to competition ratio is recommended and training should start to adopt a ‘periodised’ approach.
- Training to Train Phase – (male 12-16, female 11-15 years)
This aim of this phase is for young athletes to consolidate and further develop the basic sport specific skills and tactics. Athletes should experience a growth spurt during this phase and this is associated with optimal aerobic trainability. Aerobic training should be prioritised after the growth spurt, whilst strength, speed and skill should be maintained or developed further. Special emphasis on flexibility training is also warranted following the growth spurt. The training to competition ratio increases 60:40 and athletes should now be engaging in competitive practice on a daily basis. A ‘play to win’ begins to be encouraged, but the major focus of training is still on learning the basics.
- Training to Compete – (male 16-18, female 15-17 years)
This phase should seek to optimise overall fitness preparation and skill development, with individual and discipline/position specific skills now further emphasised. Training becomes much more individualised to focus on an athlete’s specific strength and weaknesses. Strength training with free weights tends to be introduced at this point. The training to competition ratio is now increased to 50:50.
- Training to Win – (male 18+, female 17+ years)
This is the final stage of athlete preparation and the emphasis now shifts to specialisation and performance enhancement. The training to competition ratio phase is 25:75, with the competition percentage including competition-specific training activities, and athletes are trained to ‘peak’ for specific competitions.
A note on specialisation
Specialisation refers to a young athlete training and competing in a single sport. Early specialisation, accepted as specialising before the age of 10, is encouraged by many coaches and parents due to the belief that ‘practice makes perfect’ and the recent popularity of ‘training-over-talent’ arguments such as the 10,000 hours theory. It is important to state that 10,000 hours is not a prerequisite or guarantee of sporting success, the quality of practice is the most important factor. Early specialisation is associated with an increased risk of injury, overtraining and early retirement from the sport, and should therefore be discouraged in youth athletes.
What the current LTAD model does well
- Highlight the importance of physical literacy and fundamental movement skills
- Discourage early specialisation
- Emphasise training over competition for young athletes
- Identify windows of accelerated adaptation
We haven’t hit the nail on the head
There is no question that the LTAD model has been a huge step in right direction. This framework has now been implemented in almost all of the mainstream sports and our athletes of tomorrow will be all the better for it. It’s far from perfect though. In the next part of this article we’ll be looking at some of the pitfalls and mistakes of the currently implemented LTAD model and demonstrate how it may be improved.