When Raising Young Athletes, Think Long Term

Youth sports have never been as serious as they are today. With the increased monetary reward of becoming a successful professional athlete and the celebrity status that goes with it, more parents than ever imagine big achievements for their children.

These dreams give rise to increased costs in some sports as parents seek out private coaching and elite academies, or purchase ever more expensive equipment in the hopes of getting an extra edge for their 10 year olds. They also give rise to vastly increased risks of injury and athlete burnout if not handled correctly.

For the health of young athletes, as well as optimal development, this is where parents need to step back and take the long view on their child’s development, both as an athlete and as a person. This is why the Long-Term Athlete Development model (LTAD) was created.

LTAD involves a somewhat complex array of sport science and best practices in coaching to optimize how we develop athletes, particularly in Canada. But it really has one simple purpose: To get our kids doing the right things at the right times under the right conditions during their development.

If we do the right things at the right time in the right way, more of our young athletes will have the skills, attitudes and understandings to be able to choose a path in youth sports that fits them. If they have lofty goals, they can pursue a training path in high performance (e.g. to become an Olympic or a professional athlete). If they simply want to enjoy playing local youth sports, or participate in a lifelong recreational activity of their choice, they can choose that path.

Both are valid choices. They are choices that should be made by the young athlete, not the parent.

How does LTAD address this choice? LTAD has 7 stages that correspond to basic phases of human physical, cognitive, emotional and social development from early childhood to late adulthood:

  1. Active Start: Age zero to six years
  2. Fundamentals: Age six to eight years females, six to nine years males
  3. Learn to Train: Age  eight to 11 years females,  nine to 12 years males
  4. Train to Train: Age 11 to 15 years females, 12 to 16 years males
  5. Train to Compete: Age 15 to 21 years females, 16 to 23 years males
  6. Train to Win: Age 18 and up females, 19 and up males
  7. Active for Life: Enter at any age following Learn to Train

The first three stages develop basic physical literacy and help young athletes discover their talents and interests. Train to Train, Train to Compete, and Train to Win develop talent in those young athletes who have chosen the high performance path so they can reach the Olympics or the professional ranks.

Within the LTAD model, the Active for Life stage is what happens outside the high-performance pathway after children have developed physical literacy. It promotes lifelong amateur and recreational participation for enjoyment, fitness and social connection.

The key point for parents to understand: The LTAD guidelines for each stage of the model specify what kinds of developmentally-appropriate practices and games should be taking place. These guidelines are based on sports science and best practices in coaching. Ideally, they produce the best athletes possible while promoting lifelong activity for all.

When parents look at a particular program in physical activity for their young athlete, they should ask whether or not the program follows the LTAD guidelines. Remember that when it comes to children’s programming, the basic tenet is that we should not have children training and competing like adults. The physical, mental and emotional capacities of children and adults are vastly different, and generally their goals and reasons for playing a sport are significantly different as well.

The foundation of LTAD is physical literacy. In an ideal world, every young athlete should develop basic physical literacy (just like literacy and numeracy) by the time they leave the Learn to Train stage. In present reality, this is not the case in Canada and most of the western world.

This is why LTAD and the Active for Life initiative are so important. By developing physical literacy in children, we are creating the conditions for greater participation in youth sports and physical activity in general. We are also optimizing elite athletic development for those who choose high performance. It’s truly the best of both worlds.

Istvan Balyi is an internationally-renowned sport scientist and coaching educator, and was one of the founders of the Long-Term Athlete Development Model. Jim Grove is a contributing editor at Active for Life, a nonprofit organization committed to helping parents raise happy, healthy, physically literate kids. For more articles like this one, please visit ActiveforLife.com.

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