The optimal physical development of young athletes can be somewhat of a lottery.  Here I want to introduce some ‘food for thought’ for parents to consider when developing active youngsters.  Parents, teachers, social networks, money and where a child lives will all have an influence on their athletic development.  Genetics will also significantly affect children’s physical development.     Playing unstructured games and challenges with friends will improve youth athletes their sporting prowess.   For other children, enrolling onto sport specific programmes is responsible for their sporting achievements and physical confidence.


Models to develop young athletes

One criticism of western sports programmes is that they focus a child towards a particular sport early on in life.  This is called early specialisation.  Critics suggest that too much intensity and emphasis upon competition from an early age result in an increased drop out rate and compromised development of functional movement skills.  Developing basic movement skills provides the foundation for mastering sports specific skills at a later age.  Sports scientists and sports coaches have developed models to show when young athletes seem to be more responsive to different forms of physical conditioning.  This is called Long Term Athlete Development and can provide coaches with a framework to develop their youth physical training programmes.

LTAD originated from the observations of Eastern Bloc sports coaches and sports scientists and is now used by most National Governing Bodies of Sport and qualified strength and conditioning coaches in London.  Models of LTAD do not treat young performer like mini adults.    These models account for the varying growth rates of children and ensure that they develop fundamental movement skills before specialising on sports specific development.


LTAD models in a nutshell

A detailed discussion of LTAD models is beyond the scope of this blog.  Supporters of long term athlete development propose that young athletes experience periods of heightened responsiveness to different types of fitness.  In other words, there are times when they get a bigger improvements for the same amount of fitness work!  These so called ‘windows of opportunity’ often occur around puberty.  Young athletes will see a significant increase in growth rate of both height and body mass at puberty.  This is referred to as the growth spurt.  Knowing when a young athlete is having their growth spurt allows the youth fitness coach to structure training programmes and maximise training adaptations.

Models of LTAD also acknowledge that developing elite sports performance does take a long time.  The research that has been conducted on elite performers suggests that it takes approximately 10 years and 10,000 hours of training to develop elite athletes.  The training hours do not have to be sports specific practice but they do need to be relevant to athletic and sporting performance.

The basic models of LTAD divide the development of high performance into four distinct phases:

The FUNdamentals Stage (Young Athletes aged 6-9 yrs)

Young athletes are encouraged to take part in a wide range of physical activities.  This enables them to develop basic movement skills and patterns, such as running, jumping, throwing and catching.  Children mist also play different multidirectional games and use a variety of sports equipment and implements to develop spatial awareness and hand to eye coordination.  The emphasis of all activities must be FUN at all times.  It is during this stage that young athletes foster a love for physical activity.

Training to Train Stage (Young Performers aged 10-14)

Youth athletes must be encouraged to take part in several different sports.  This can easily fit with the seasonal calendar of many traditional sports.  The coaching and learning environment remains positive as athletes introduce more sports specific training.  This does not mean that they do not practice the fundamental movement skills because these are still important.  During the Training to Train stage athletic development is enhanced with strategies for warm up, cool down, nutrition and fitness training.

Expert training for young athletes in London and Ascot
Young athletes are introduced to the principles of healthy nutrition
Training to Compete Stage (Athletes aged 14-18)

As athletes enter their latter teenage years they should increase the ratio of training versus competition.  Mastering sports specific skills and developing tactical strategies to compete will become more important.  Athletes must dedicate more time to training and competition which means that they will probably concentrate on 1-2 sports at this stage.

Training to Win (Adult Athletes aged 18+)

By now athletes should focus all of their training efforts to maximise their chances of success in competition.  Within high performance sport they have the sole emphasis of winning.  As a result training is highly specific and individualised to each athlete.