Long-term athletic development: What coaches and parents need to know

Long-term athletic development: What coaches and parents need to know


By Rick Howard, M.Ed., CSCS, *D

Due to the unfortunate negative attention being paid to youth sports, we can no longer watch kids getting turned off by the sports they used to enjoy. We can’t sit by idly while certain sports programs tell our kids that if they don’t stay with them, the aspiring athlete will no longer get the opportunity to play and their dreams (whose dream is it?) will go unfulfilled. Nor can we feel the pain of our kids when overuse and other preventable injuries rob them of their chances to play.

The time is right to fix the issues in youth sport and return the focus to all the pluses we know exist for kids. It is time for a change.


Fortunately, there are many sports-minded organizations that share the National Alliance for Youth Sports’ sentiment to give youth sports back to the kids. Groups like Changing the Game Project, 2-4-1 Sports, and even the United States Olympic Committee are stepping in to help change the paradigm.

If you think about it, our youth sports model was created as an adult-driven model from the start, which is part of why we are in this conundrum. Think about your favorite youth sport. How was it created? Was it set up with kids making the rules? Did kids get to participate at their level and showcase their ability to throw, to catch, to run, until their developmental capacity was reached? No. The adult model did what we always have said should not be done – we created a miniature version of the adult game. Smaller field (sometimes), smaller implements (bats, balls, etc.), and shorter schedules (not with club teams, travel teams, elite teams, you get the idea). We need to work with agencies like those mentioned above and give youth sports back to the kids.


One way we can work together is to embrace long-term athletic development (LTAD). LTAD was created in its most modern form by Istvan Balyi in Canada as a means to increase the Canadian Olympic medal count, with a “playground to the podium” positioning. Balyi’s model included chronological stages (defined by the age of the youth) that established stages of sporting development. It was one of the first models that suggested that “peaking by Friday” or “creating U-10 champs” was not the primary goal. The goal was to provide the young athletes with the physical, technical, tactical, and strategic goals necessary to maximize their potential to play at a high level.

Balyi’s LTAD also included a pathway for recreational pursuit and being active for life. The USOC has adopted their version of Balyi’s framework, and called it the American Development Model (ADM). One of the substantive changes includes an overlap in the chronological age ranges as kids do not develop linearly or at the same rate as other kids so this change provides the knowledge to coaches that it is important to focus on the developmental process for every child.

The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) convened a group of experts to create a position statement (belief of the organization based on the supporting evidence) on LTAD. The foundation of the position statement was 10 Pillars of LTAD:

  1. Long-term athletic development pathways should accommodate for the highly individualized and non-linear nature of the growth and development of youth.
  2. Youth of all ages, abilities, and aspirations should engage in long-term athletic development programs that promote both physical fitness and psychosocial wellbeing.
  3. All youth should be encouraged to enhance physical fitness from early childhood, with a primary focus on motor skill and muscular strength development.
  4. Long-term athletic development pathways should encourage an early sampling approach for youth that promotes and enhances a broad range of motor skills.
  5. Health and wellbeing of the child should always be the central tenet of long-term athletic development programs.
  6. Youth should participate in physical conditioning that helps reduce the risk of injury to ensure their on-going participation in long-term athletic development programs.
  7. Long-term athletic development programs should provide all youth with a range of training modes to enhance both health- and skill-related components of fitness.
  8. Practitioners should use relevant monitoring and assessment tools as part of a long-term physical development strategy.
  9. Practitioners working with youth should systematically progress and individualize training programs for successful long-term athletic development.
  10. Qualified professionals and sound pedagogical approaches are fundamental to the success of long-term athletic development programs.

The central tenet of this model is that the health and wellbeing of the child is the holistic focus. In other words, all youth participation in sports, fitness, and physical activity should be deliberately planned to provide a positive physical and psychosocial experience leading to increased skills and abilities, love for the game, and reduced risk of injury.

To do this, the experts proposed integrating all fitness attributes across childhood and adolescence, meaning to truly promote physical literacy from cradle-to-grave, all kids should be encouraged to participate in games, activities, and movements that develop motor skills and muscle strength. Also include activities to develop speed, coordination, balance and power, all while having fun. This will help develop physical literacy, which is referred to “as the ability to move with competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activities in multiple environments that benefit the healthy development of the whole person.”

The position statement advocates for sports sampling so that kids get to try different sports and activities in multiple environments. Many sports programs are now partnering with other sports organizations to open new sports opportunities to new participants, which also helps cross train coaches and officials.


The 10 Pillars of LTAD gives us an idea how, by more fully integrating the physical development of children, their sports skills and enjoyment of sports will improve. The key is a qualified coach with knowledge and skill providing developmentally appropriate games and activities. Kids want to be kids and in our often over-structured environment, kids need that fun break where they get to have a say in what they do in practice.

By integrating the sports performance objectives of the day along with the strength and conditioning emphasis, overtraining can be avoided and all attributes adequately trained. This leads to general athleticism, which is the goal of LTAD, not the ability to repeat specific athletic skills, but note that athleticism includes those general qualities that enable the repetition of specific athletic skills with precision, poise, and confidence. These athletic qualities include: running, dodging, evading, stopping, changing direction, turning, and falling (many injuries could be prevented or greatly reduced if our athletes learned these skills of athleticism). By developing athleticism, we develop athletes.

The age-old saying that we should get in shape to play, not play to get in shape holds true, as well. The better physical condition we come to the field/court/etc. in, the better we play and recover. The more confident we are in our abilities to move, the more likely we are to keep moving. The more likely we are to keep moving, the more likely we are to be physically active throughout the lifespan.

With such a large movement vocabulary, it becomes the mover’s choice in which sports and activities to participate. LTAD gives us a template to develop all fitness attributes across childhood and adolescence.

Our job as coaches is to give all kids the movement tools to become the most competent movers they can be, within their given level of endowment, and enjoy the sports and activities of their choosing for as long as they like. LTAD helps us work together to promote the pluses of youth sports, fitness, and physical activity.

Rick Howard is a doctoral candidate at Rocky Mountain University in Health Promotion and Wellness. He is an Assistant Professor in Applied Sports Science at West Chester University (Pa.). Howard is the Director of Fitness at Wilmington (Del.) Country Club, where he trains youth in fitness and sports performance. He organizes and co-leads LTAD Summits and Playgrounds nationwide, which bring local, grassroots individuals together to learn, share, and develop action and accountability plans for cradle-to-grave implementation of LTAD.

He contributes articles regularly on long-term athletic development (LTAD) and the application of concepts of pediatric exercise science for coaches, personal trainers, physical education teachers, and those who wish to improve the lives of our young people. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram @rihoward41

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