Here’s the second 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. This article highlights some of the pitfalls of the LTAD model and shows how we may improve our working practices with young athletes.
Since I wrote this piece the NSCA’s Strength & Conditioning Journal has finally published the article outlining a new approach to youth training – the Youth Physical Development (YPD) Model – based on the work of Rhodri Lloyd and Jon Oliver at the University of Gloucestershire. The YPD model became the basis for this article and expands on many of the points I’ve raised, be sure to check it out.
Last time out we looked in the current incarnation of the long term athlete development (LTAD) model that is implemented in sports such as tennis. Here’s a quick recap of the important messages.
Key messages to reinforce
- Athletes, parents and coaches must take a long-term view of an athlete’s development
- Physical literacy should be developed before sport specific training is implemented
- Overemphasising competition will harm the athlete in the long run, irrespective of age
- Athletes of all age groups should be encouraged to participate in other sports and activities – particularly those that emphasise different components of fitness in comparison to tennis
The LTAD model has been a huge step in the right direction, but it’s not the finished product. Some specific areas of the model require some further consideration which we’ll now have a look at.
Key pitfalls of the LTAD model
- Underplays the potential for training gains in pre-adolescents
- Endurance training is over-emphasised
- Strength training is under-emphasised
Let’s tackle each of these in turn:
Training works for everyone
All age groups can benefit from all forms of training; strength training, endurance training, everything. There are two general types of adaptation that occur as a consequence of training, structural and neural. Structural changes encompass things like increased muscle size whilst neural changes include aspects such as the ability to use what muscle you do have more effectively. The trainability of young athletes does increase with age because of a greater potential for structural gains, however, younger athletes will still experience comparable neural adaptations which should not be overlooked.
Caution with the cardio
In the younger age groups (up until adolescence is a good marker), general sport training provides enough of a stimulus for sufficient aerobic development. When working with these age groups it’s paramount that we make sessions fun and enjoyable, words rarely synonymous with aerobic training. When focused aerobic conditioning does become warranted, in more mature athletes, it needs to be implemented correctly. Tennis is an explosive and dynamic sport but this is rarely reflected in players’ aerobic training. The majority of points last for less than 10 seconds with only a handful exceeding 30 seconds. Moreover, for every 10 seconds of tennis, athletes will have about 40 seconds to recover. Aerobic training should be based around shorter bursts (ranging between 10-240 seconds) of higher intensity activity. This approach not only yields far superior results, but is also more enjoyable for the athlete.
Strength is the cornerstone
Strength underpins every physical quality, endurance included. You’ll remember that last time we talked about teaching and developing the ABC’s (agility, balance, coordination, speed) as soon as we introduce young athletes to sport. Well, strength underpins each of these. For this reason, resistance training should be introduced at stage 1 (FUNdamentals stage) of the LTAD model, not at stage 2, and developing strength should be emphasised. Let’s start teaching the basic movement patterns when young athletes are most receptive to learning them – surely that’s a no-brainer?
To build strength we need to train with resistance and herein lays the problem. So many misconceptions exist regarding resistance training that it has been ostracised in youth training circles. It’s time we busted a few of those myths that stand in the way of us conditioning our youth athletes in the safest and most effective way possible.
Resistance training is safer than tennis training
It is imperative to state that the injury risk is of resistance training negligible when training appropriately and with qualified individuals. Furthermore, there is no evidence that resistance training has the potential to stunt growth in later life. Compare this to the risk of injury associated with the sport of tennis itself (ankle sprains, muscle pulls, etc.). The court is far more dangerous place to be than the weight room.
Resistance training reduces injuries
Appropriate resistance training can play an important role in reducing occurrences of both acute and chronic injury – it has been demonstrated that over half of all injuries in juniors can be attributed to a lack of appropriate physical conditioning. I’ve seen coaching charters from several sporting organisations that would classify ‘failing to adequately condition children for the physical demands of the sporting environment’ as a form of neglect. Working on establishing correct movement patterns is a great start point, but we need to go on to strengthen them too if we are to make our athletes resilient.
Resistance training ≠ bodybuilding
When performed appropriately, resistance training does not make you big or inflexible. Part of the problem in perpetuating misconceptions about resistance training is the manner in which young athletes are eventually introduced to the gym. The tendency is for youngsters to stumble into the gym at 16 and for their guidance to come from fitness magazines or well-meaning individuals. 9 times out of 10 this will result in them performing ineffective bodybuilding-type routines that are more likely to harm their tennis performance than to improve it. The key is to familiarise young athletes with the resistance training as soon as possible and whilst under the supervision of a strength and conditioning professional. Start to educate them before they’ve had the chance to absorb such misconceptions and bad training habits.
Specialist training is paramount
Strength and conditioning, in the same way as chiropractic and physiotherapy, is a specialist profession for a reason, well-meaning individuals carry great potential to do harm to any age group. Would you take a tennis lesson from a strength and conditioning coach? Strength and conditioning coaches in the UK should be accredited by the UKSCA, the governing body for strength and conditioning, and carry liability insurance which specifically covers strength and conditioning activities.
Take home points
- Athletes of all age groups can benefit from all types of training, however, the potential for adaptation increases as they hit puberty
- Resistance training should be included with all age groups as soon as correct motor patterns have been established
- Aerobic training should not be excessive, particularly with younger age groups, and should be conducive to the demands of the sport itself
- Off-court training should be designed and coached by an appropriately qualified strength and conditioning professional, not a tennis coach
Hopefully this mini-series has given you some food for thought regarding the development of youth athletes. Coaching and training will always be evolving, we cannot afford to become stuck in our ways and close ourselves off to new ideas. We must constantly seek to learn, improve and reflect, regardless of our role. We owe it to our young athletes.