What is Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD)?
Long Term Athletic Development, a training term that has become popular in recent years, refers to an approach that aims to help athletes continually develop and improve in the movements they need not only for their sports, but in everyday life. These are movements they use from the time they are toddlers through the age when they have grandkids of their own. Long Term Athletic Development, also known as LTAD, seeks to keep kids engaged through a combination of fun and variety, steering clear of early age sport specialization, which studies show can be risky.
In fact, many trainers and coaches believe early specialization is responsible for an exponential growth in overuse injuries. It is understandable that parents, coaches, and athletes want to try and get ahead in their sport in hopes of earning a college scholarship or even making it to the pros, but early specialization can also cause young athletes to lose focus because their sport is no longer fun. In the end, the young athlete quits. LTAD is meant to help athletes avoid this fate—and to be a tool in the fight against the obesity epidemic.
Enter the USOC’s “American Development Model”
During the past five years, many countries have put forth plans for LTAD. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) recently published its own version, called the “American Development Model” (ADM).
The ADM consists of five stages of skill and life development. The first stage covers ages 0 to 12, and its primary goal is to get children to engage in many different activities. This variation, which mostly involves fun exercise in the form of free play, promotes better motor skill development and social skill development, since the athletes interact with their peers.
Stage 1 Summary
Injury prevention by minimizing early specialization
Athlete retention through exercise variety
Building an athletic foundation consisting of many fundamental movements
The second stage deals with kids from age 10 to 16. Its purpose is to help them get more involved in the organized, structured sports that they view as fun and exciting from their time experimenting with games in Stage 1. Stage 2 also aids in improving the skills they need to play sports and those they will use throughout their lives. This stage is when competition should be introduced.
The reason for the overlap in ages between Stages 1 and 2 is to account for developmental age. Developmental age can best be understood by comparing two seventh graders, one of whom weighs 95 pounds soaking wet while the other already has to shave every day. Although they are in the same grade and the same age, there is a big disparity in their developmental age.
Stage 2 Summary
Introduce competition and gradually emphasize its importance
Account for developmental age differences by allowing overlap of development stages
Developmental age also affects the third stage of development, which is from ages 13 to 19. During this stage, certain athletes may begin to narrow their attention from competing in multiple sports to focusing on one sport. Even those who narrow their focus should still cross-train with other sports or skill-based activities. At this stage, the competition level should begin to get more challenging.
Stage 3 Summary
Athlete focus is narrowed but still not specialized
Emphasis is placed on cross training
Competitiveness becomes a large driving force
The fourth stage of development is broken up into two mini-stages, each involving kids 15 and older. The first is for those who are exceptionally talented (think Michael Phelps or Simone Biles) and will strive for extremely high/elite level performance. These athletes train yearround to compete at levels most athletes cannot reach.
The second mini-stage is for the rest of us, people who are pretty good but who do not harbor any illusions of becoming professionals or Olympians. For these people, Stage 4 is in many ways a continuation of Stage 3, in that they focus on developing both sport and life skills.
Stage 4 Summary
Sport mastery through specialization
High level competition
The final stage of athletic development starts after athletes have finished their competitive careers and continues for the rest of their lives. This is when a person takes the skills they have learned during their playing days and applies them as active adults. It may mean playing recreational league softball or basketball, working out regularly, or just teaching their kids and grandkids how to throw a ball. No one wants to end up like the dad in that Volkswagen commercial who can’t throw a ball.
Stage 5 Summary
Life-long utilization of sport skills
Maintenance of fitness in order to continue to perform
In summary, people should participate in many physical activities for most of their lives. The skills each activity teaches can help them be more well-rounded athletically and socially, and stave off the monotony that early specialization creates. Coaches should allow kids to have fun, enjoy themselves, and learn, keeping in mind that it’s not just about winning and losing. Teach life skills along with sport skills, and allow athletes to mess up. They’ll be far better off in the future. Parents should give kids room to grow and be active, and not try to live vicariously through their sports careers at any level. And kids, just go out there and have fun, do your best, and stay active.
Author Note: co-written by Tyler Verink, Director of Education and Development at the United States Performance Center.