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Long-term athlete development follows seven stages

This is an excerpt from Long-Term Athlete Development by Istvan Balyi, Richard Way, and Colin Higgs.


Enhance participation in sport programs and athletic performance with
Long-Term Athlete Development.

To implement the LTAD model, people must fully understand the seven stages. Administrators, coaches, and parents should also remember that moving from one stage to another is based on the athlete’s development and not just chronological age; however, chronological age can be used as a guide. Some stages also identify a developmental age. For example, the beginning of the growth spurt identifies a specific developmental age, which occurs at widely varying chronological ages. Males and females develop at different rates, and their ages differ through the stages. LTAD, therefore, requires the identification of early, average, and late maturers to design training and competition programs that match athletes’ trainability and readiness.

The number of stages changes slightly between early specialization and late specialization sports, and early specialization sports have unique requirements that affect the definition of their LTAD stages. The basic seven-stage LTAD pathway is covered in this part of the book.

  1. Active Start. Until age 6, it is all about play and mastering basic movement skills! Children should be able to have fun with physical activity through both structured and unstructured free play that incorporates a variety of body movements. An early active start enhances the development of brain function, coordination, social skills, gross motor skills, emotions, and imagination. It also helps children build confidence, develop posture and balance, build strong bones and muscles, achieve a healthy weight, reduce stress, sleep well, move skillfully, and enjoy being
    active.
  2. FUNdamentals. From ages 6 to 9 in boys and 6 to 8 in girls, children should participate in a variety of well-structured activities that develop fundamental movement skills and overall motor skills including agility, balance, and coordination. However, activities and programs must maintain a focus on fun, and formal competition should be only minimally introduced.
  3. Learn to Train. From ages 8 to 11 in girls and 9 to 12 in boys, or until the onset of the growth spurt, children are ready to begin developing foundational sport skills. The emphasis should be on acquiring a wide range of skills necessary for a number of sporting activities. Although it is often tempting to overdevelop “talent” at this age through excessive single-sport training and competition (as well as early positioning in team sports), this can have a negative effect on later stages of development if the child pursues a late specialization sport. This early specialization promotes one-sided physical, technical, and tactical development and increases the likelihood of injury and burnout.
  4. Train to Train. The ages that define this stage for boys and girls are based on the onset and duration of the growth spurt, which is generally from ages 11 to 15 for girls and 12 to 16 for boys. This is the stage at which people are physiologically responsive to stimuli and training; in other words, the time to start “building the engine” and exploiting the sensitive periods of accelerated adaptation to training (see chapter 6). Children should establish an aerobic base, develop speed and strength toward the end of the stage, and further consolidate their basic sport-specific skills and tactics. These youths may play and do their best to win, but they still need to spend more time on skill training and physical development and less on trying to win (process vs. outcome). Concentrating on the process as opposed to the result of a competition leads to better development. This approach is critical to developing top performers and maintaining activity in the long term, so parents should check with their national organizations to ensure that their children’s programs have the correct training-to-competition ratio.
  5. Train to Compete. This stage is about optimizing the engine and teaching participants how to compete. They can either choose to specialize in one sport and pursue a competitive stream, or continue participating at a recreational level and thereby enter the Active for Life stage. In the competitive stream, high-volume and high-intensity training begins to occur year-round.
  6. Train to Win. Elite athletes with identified talent enter this stage to pursue the most intense training suitable for international winning performances. Athletes with disabilities and able-bodied athletes alike require world-class training methods, equipment, and facilities that meet their personal demands and the demands of the sport.
  7. Active for Life. Young athletes can enter this stage at essentially any age following the acquisition of physical literacy. If children have been correctly introduced to activity and sport throughout the Active Start, FUNdamentals, and Learn to Train stages, they will have the necessary motor skills and confidence to remain active for life in virtually any sport they choose. For high-performance athletes, this stage represents the transition from a competitive career to lifelong physical activity. They may decide to continue playing sport, thus being competitive for life, or they may become involved in the sport as game officials or coaches. They might also try new sports and activities (e.g., a hockey player taking up golf or a tennis player starting to cycle), thus being fit for life.

Read more from Long-Term Athlete Development by Istvan Balyi, Richard Way, and Colin Higgs.



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