The truth is not exactly convenient, but I would state with confidence that most long-term athletic development (LTAD) programs for youth struggle to deliver on their promises. While there are some amazing programs out there, led by amazing and talented coaches, youth training is often either a talent grab or a money-making machine that capitalizes on misguided parents.Most long-term athletic development (#LTAD) programs for youth struggle to deliver on their promises, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
In this article, I will share experiences and tough questions that everyone in the sports business should ask. While I have plenty of suggestions and recommendations, the goal of this blog is to get people to raise their standards in athletic development. It’s really about all of us contributing the skills and expertise we have to not only help improve athlete development, but make sure we improve the human element as well.
To ensure you know what you are getting into before you invest your time, this is an honest reflection of sports development from the past until now. In no way is this a research review or investigation into how to make better athletes, but it will cover what doesn’t work, as well as what hidden elements of success are available. Content includes:
- How to define long-term athletic development.
- How to evaluate a program or strategy.
- What is not working and what is effective.
- What changes are necessary to keep athletes on the right track.
While there is a science and an art to helping an athlete progress from scholastic participation to the elite level, it is likely more important to determine if sport is the right avenue in the first place. I do think sports reveal character more than they develop it, but countless athletes have improved in the game of life through sport. Some athletes have had sport take care of them too much, causing problems with entitlement and a lack of fundamentals, but at least we are aware of it. If you want to give back or help the field, this article should make a big difference.
How Do We Evaluate LTAD, Really?
Two good questions to start with are: How do we know if an Academy or similar program can deliver as promised, or if LTAD is even a good idea to begin with? The first step is defining what LTAD is, and that’s hard because, historically, most successful programs have not been efficient with talent—they mainly just funneled athletes through a system. Letting those programs write the definition is a bad idea, so starting from scratch is perhaps wiser. To keep things simple and flexible for the future, let’s define LTAD as:
Long-term athletic development is either a formal or informal strategy to develop the entire person and allow athletic talent to root and blossom patiently over a career.
That’s it—not much more is needed. The issue with any process that takes years is that history tends to miss the details that tell the real story. I have found that it’s not a fair process to look back at the winners and try to reengineer what made it work. Also, if a program simply tries to develop talent, they will likely acquire and attract the right athletes who are motivated to succeed.The issue with a process that takes years is history tends to miss details that tell the real story, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The best example of this is high school and club swimming fighting over talent. The assumption is that the club coach is more qualified because they coach professionally full-time, and that is often the case. On the other hand, comparisons need to be done in a fair manner because coaches attract the best talent in the area and might not get the same results if they were only at one school.
To evaluate an LTAD program fairly, you have to look at its history with all of the “graduating class” each year. Who cares if one kid gets a D1 scholarship if the rest are out of the sport before high school is completed? Conversely, if nearly all the athletes go on to participate in the sport, and exercise for the value of health, that should be factored in. However, that isn’t really performance or development—it’s lifestyle encouragement.
The immediate improvement rate and whether athletes continue to develop while they are at the next level are the best ways to determine if a system is working. What you do with what you have is a great mantra, but to flesh it out be specific and compare local, regional, and national results before trying to see if you have a potential world beater.
Nobody Really Has Skin in the Game Except the Athlete
The popular phrase “having skin in the game” is a good discussion point for LTAD, for several reasons. First, the people who have literal skin in the game are the athletes themselves: those with hopes and dreams connected to the preparation of their sporting goals are the first in line. An individual may have a window of four years total, before college, to get the most out of their athletic experiences. Coaches can likely work for four decades professionally, with the outliers in sport sometimes, at best, half that. Most pros compete for just a few years, as every season there’s a fresh crop of talent available. Working with athletes directly is an example of skin in the game, but how much skin and how to interpret success and failure are difficult challenges.
Skin in the game with performance is simply demonstrating smart choices based on the constraints a coach has with their environment and nothing more. If an NBA strength coach has no say in a player’s training needs, they may have skin in the game, but no power to save their rear ends if things don’t pan out with the wins and losses or injury rates. Coaches are tied to winning and losing, but they are more tied to the quality of talent and the ability to do their job. Attachment to athletes is rarely a double-sided sword, as it seems the number of photos of coaches claiming their success when things are good is high, but when someone is performing poorly those same images are not available.
The same goes for AAU Basketball, as a parent organization will likely take its talent elsewhere if a team isn’t winning. But a losing program could develop athletes better in the long run by playing those who make practices and behave well. In the long run, kids who are talented and disciplined will beat those that are only talented. The issue is that talent is scarce, so losing talent to teams that are willing to compromise their immediate values to win is common now. Very rarely does a youth coach work with an athlete all the way to professional status.
Talent Acquisition and Talent Development
When looking at LTAD, a program has two basic needs: talent identification and development. You can do one or the other, but both are obviously ideal. From a business point of view, identification is better than development, as simply acquiring talent appears to be a better “product” than a less competitive motion with better instruction. Ideally, talent would be attracted to better development or coaching, but that is not always the case. Athletes who believe they are with the best coaching staff because the professionals have sold them a future will always have an advantage because some will make it if the numbers are big enough and the genetic lottery is won here and there.
Talent is a commodity and it can be seen rather easily with the naked eye, as sport is all about comparisons, even with different sports and eras. LTAD is about getting the right athlete in the right place at the right time with the right coach. With inferior talent pools and a poor culture, you fight an uphill battle. Recruiting, drafting, and inviting athletes is simply a rapid grab of talent.#LTAD is about getting the right athlete in the right place at the right time with the right coach, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
In the NFL, poor results improve your success rate in getting talent because parity is key, while other leagues use a literal lottery or chance system. Youth programs must think about the long-term growth of the athlete, but many programs take advantage of immediate gifts and fail to direct the path of the athlete’s future. For example, many high school programs in track and field love the points scored by an athlete who can do it all, but when an athlete needs to advance, they realize they are more skilled than developed physically.
The primary role of developmental programs is not to spot talent, but to inspire all talents to think about the future and enjoy the process of today. A good litmus test set of questions is what are the athletes learning now and what are they compromising for the future. If a program is overly focused on teaching specific sport skills but forgets the systemic needs of athletes, then an athlete falls a step behind.
Global motion development versus specific situational development is better, and the best example of this is creating space in football with tight ends. The number of successful basketball and football players who do both sports is a great way to see the connection of universal movement. It’s not that one sport creates a better athlete than the other sport, it’s just that anyone with a pair of eyes can see the connections. A basketball coach may indirectly make a better tight end coach because they teach the ability to create space and move, but because a kid is able to switch uniforms, most spectators understand this.
The compatibility of sport development and longer athletic development is an important dilemma that should be managed on a case-by-case approach. A program often robs a kid of the joy they experience with one sport to artificially make them well-rounded, when they really need more life balance than sport balance. If a kid isn’t passionate about other sports it may seem strange, but it’s certainly possible and should not be forced. Most of the time, athletes should enjoy playing games that are sport-like, so the process of participation is enjoyed—not the instant gratification of winning a meaningless youth game. Winning and losing is an outcome measure that is seen as a success story, but at early stages of development it’s a crushing blow to creativity and free expression.
Self-Organized Free Play and Agility
I recommend a pyramid of free play under a layer of PE (physical education), which in turn is under the platform of practice in sport. The top of the pyramid is competitive sports, and this may be heresy. I have seen a lot of talents succeed because of other motivators besides playing the sport, but an athlete who loves competition and wants to get better by working hard is a more common storyline. The model is better than the theoretical stuff that some ivory towers churn out, with nobody there that truly has much skin in the game beyond publication needs. In defense of researchers, some do have a lot of skin in the game professionally, as they can help national teams grow or drive academies into the ground.
There is a big argument over pre-planned change of direction versus reactive agility being loudly debated within the coaching community. To me, the best example of nature versus nurture comes from agility, as so much of it derives from simply exposure rather than direct planned practices. Yet, the most controlled and effective way to supplement what an athlete is likely getting or receiving in better conditions is general capacity training.
An athlete who practices and competes is getting most of their specialized developmental needs with movement, and general change of direction work and overall speed instruction can fill the rest in. Reactive agility training is like the new club soccer with high school sport: It’s so overprescribed that we might be falling victim to new problems down the road. Strength and conditioning coaches feeling like they are driving movement competency may have well-meaning intentions, but Mother Nature and some very good sport coaches are probably a better solution.
I am more than pleased that we see more coaches trying to teach movement on the field, as it’s far better than being stuck away in a weight room. Still, with most of the resources being placed into the games or events on the field, track, or court, we do need an honest effort to get “back to the rack,” as William Wayland is fond of saying. The amount of practice or extra movement that is going to make a difference will still be debated, but it’s better to focus on tasks than talk all the time. I am a big fan of verbal instruction, but a powerful silence is sometimes more effective than a poetic phrase.
Death to Physical Education?
It seems that repurposed PE sessions, either appropriately administered or placed in as a marketing ploy, is today’s topic of controversy in sports performance. Nearly everyone involved in the later stages of development wants a well-rounded athlete who has a rich background in playing outside and attending leading PE classes, and is coached well in multiple sports. The truth is that PE is now health and wellness, more appropriate for senior populations than youth athletes. Of course, that’s only if PE is not cut out altogether, as some schools view gym time as time lost for standardized test preparation.Schools should give kids high-quality PE or the chance to access recess or similar activities, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The solution is straightforward: Schools must either allow for high-quality PE or provide an opportunity for kids to access recess or similar activities. A longer school day without physical activity isn’t the solution, and adding PE-style tutoring sessions after school only robs kids of the freedom to do what they want in their free time. The horror now is that those that promote initiatives such as SPARK or similar are often the first in line when administration is making cuts or reducing services. Unless towns and cities vote to align public education with the research results on true pedagogical development, then we will see greater rates of childhood obesity and drops in academic and behavioral performance in all grade levels.
The good news is that PE is a commodity and the free market creates a natural competition for both public and private options. Imagine if PE was as revered as sports—would we see as many issues now? I do fear the dilution of coaching programs by franchise-like models of teaching and training. A middle school or elementary school athlete should not do a watered-down version of a high school level program.
Repackaged high school programs are easy to sell, but they are missing the teaching of fundamentals. Jeremy Frisch, who I met 15 years ago, is a great reference. I am not saying he is single-handedly saving youth sports with his youth programs, but if one person was assigned to be the hero, he would play that role.
General Preparation and Sport Specialization
If physical education is the roots, the stem is the general preparation phase, or GPP for short. GPP is nestled somewhere between PE and competition training. I say this with profound confidence: the challenge is not that athletes don’t do enough sports; it’s that they don’t perform enough preparation to compete in those sports. Playing three sports year-round is just a change in the rules and equipment, not a paradigm shift for being ready to handle the physical rigors. General preparation training and time away from insane tournaments and competition is everything.More athletes are injured from a lack of general preparation than a lack of sports, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
General preparation was the canary in the coal mine for sports years ago, as some leagues increased the number of competitions and season length. Even worse, some sports added more seasons! To me, LTAD is very connected to general preparation, as seasons that are so focused on competing early without preparation tend to fall victim to injury and/or stagnation. Building a base is an easy throwaway concept, but it’s a good starting block (no pun intended). Having a reservoir of training components gives more options later when they’re needed, and builds a bank account of physical ability that can be tapped into.
More athletes are injured from a lack of GPP than a lack of sports. Athletes may get bored and burn out doing one sport, but if they are prepared to play, I would rather they be slightly bored than get injured in three different seasons.
Sport specialization is not necessary for athletes, as athletes like Steve Nash and Bo Jackson are immortalized, but that is rare in the elite levels. Talent that is fast, agile, and coordinated is likely to succeed in anything, not because the other sports are teaching them better athletic skills.
As mentioned earlier in the youth sport blog, talented athletes are great because they are gifted, not because the three sports make a great athlete recipe. Similar to medicine balls being great for expressing power, development does not likely come from simple participation in three sports. I would personally take a rich background in PE and great coaches in sports later over an athlete put into multiple sports with the expectation that a champion would emerge from some sort of primordial goo.
Taking the Plunge and Making a Difference
Don’t worry about the confusion and grey areas on what to do with sports at the developmental level. This article covered five of the key challenges, and the details are going to be individual to each athlete and each generation. No matter who reads this, everyone can make a difference by adhering to logical and reasonable principles of talent development.It’s clear that we may just need to step back and let athletes #play instead of chasing competition, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
You don’t need to force growth; you just need to ensure external and internal sabotage don’t occur. Parents are a major factor in the athlete development equation today, but if we all take a step back, it’s clear that we may just need to let athletes play instead of chasing competition.
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