By Rick Howard
One of the biggest issues we have in the strength and conditioning field is that we use words and phrases that we don’t clearly understand as speakers or that our audiences understand—or both. This lack of understanding occurs because we don’t present the concept in the language of the population we are trying to serve. The unintended consequence is the creation of a divide among professionals in the industry when, in fact, we are trying to unify groups around a solution. Long-term athlete/athletic development (LTAD) is one of these concepts.A lack of understanding occurs if we don’t present a concept in the language of the people we serve. Click To Tweet
For example, I recently gave a presentation with LTAD in the title at a national conference for fitness professionals. I should have thought ahead and recognized that the audience might not be that well-versed in my topic. I should have asked key questions, like: Was my audience aware of LTAD? Did they know the key components of LTAD? Were they wondering how LTAD could help them increase their presence and their results? I realized my mistake with the title at the beginning of the presentation, when I asked the audience of around 50 fitness professionals “who is familiar with the term LTAD?” and only three hands went up.
How could I suggest implementation strategies to a group who did not know what the presentation was about in the first place? Luckily, most attendees were fast learners. At the end of the presentation, they responded that they had a practical understanding of LTAD and, by the end of the conference on Monday, they recognized how they could implement LTAD strategies. I had increased their awareness, and I’m very excited that opportunities continue to grow to spread the message of how LTAD is a cradle-to-grave framework to foster physical literacy.
Why Isn’t LTAD a Household Term?
Regarding the acronym itself, why doesn’t the term “LTAD” resonate more broadly? Some might say it’s merely an awareness problem, but many attendees were familiar with concepts within LTAD—such as giving kids time for free play, encouraging kids to play a variety of sports, teaching the importance of strength and conditioning, and recognizing the need to create a successful cradle-to-grave model to promote lifelong movement opportunities. Many professionals within our field recognize the underlying principles of LTAD, but do not know that there is a framework that organized these concepts collectively as LTAD.Many professionals in the field know the concepts within LTAD without knowing the term ‘LTAD.’ Click To Tweet
There is a lack of awareness of LTAD’s magnitude, sometimes brought about by misperceptions. The Dictionary.com definition of awareness is “knowledge or perception of a situation or fact.” The difference between knowledge and perception is critical. The English Language Learners Dictionary’s definition of perception is “the way that you notice or understand something using one of your senses.” The expression that “perception is reality” highlights the uphill struggle when the perception of LTAD does not match the reality. Part of the problem is the term “LTAD,” which conjures perceptions of who LTAD targets, who is responsible for LTAD implementation, and what outcomes LTAD produces. Here are a few examples of perception problems:
- The perception of “long-term” as only being the length of the sports career rather than the ability to provide the skills needed to be physically active throughout the entire course of life. Experts suggest that activities for adults should be “lifetime activities”; that is, mainly sagittal plane movements for which no prior skill development is necessary, such as walking, jogging, hiking, swimming, and then adding tennis and golf. In reality, LTAD helps us all develop the skill set needed so that we can decide which activities to participate in, and to have the confidence and competence to engage in these successfully. Lifetime fitness activities should include sports and any other activity of an individual’s choosing.
- The perception of the term “athlete” for many refers only to an eliteathlete, so they believe: LTAD is only about sports; LTAD does not work for the entire population; or LTAD is not appropriate for specific areas, such as physical education. LTAD subscribes to the definition of athlete as anyone with a body, promoted by The Aspen Institute’s Project Play and Dan Bowerman from Nike. LTAD is a cradle-to-grave framework for every person to enhance the development of not only physical skills, but also psychosocial, technical, and tactical elements of performance and activity.
- The perception of development through play. We often hear “gurus” say, “just let them play; they’ll figure it out!” Would we ever say, “just drop them off at the library, they’ll learn to read!!”? It is important to note that play is not just about organized sports, either. Due to the reduced time kids get in recess, PE, and free play, and the extended time some kids spend in youth sports, we need to highlight that there are three types of play and we need to ensure that kids have an opportunity to play sports, get recess every day, and have time to just be kids.
This lack of understanding—or better yet, lack of willingnessto see things from all angles—is leading us down a slippery slope. If we can’t look at concepts and ideas from a variety of perspectives, how can we expect to provide the best information to our athletes? This means our perception needs to be broadened. Sometimes, we get caught up in our own world and do not consider other perspectives. As an example, sport science research is too often viewed as a nuisance by coaches who think academics sit in their ivory towers with no understanding of what it’s like to be in the trenches.
Researchers, on the other hand, too often view the “data” coaches collect as not meticulously kept or controlled, and therefore believe the results might not be as accurate as needed and not generalizable to the general athletic population. There are plenty of researchers that have “boots on the ground” and many coaches who compile excellent quantitative and qualitative data. To change the cultures of youth sports and strength and conditioning, we all need to open our minds to share the facts about research and coaching to encourage collaboration in the best interest of youth positive development.
Let’s Meet Our Audience Where They Are
We have a perception problem! If we are truly going to make a difference with LTAD, we need to better meet our audience where they are, using language that solidifies our value proposition (in parentheses in the section below) to:
- Change the culture of youth sports (make all sports fun again for all kids).
- Provide developmentally appropriate opportunities to participate (provide curriculum and practice plans for coaches and PE teachers).
- Collaborate with all stakeholders to improve opportunities for kids to be physically active (you’re part of the solution—let’s work together!).
These strategies must include collaboration with physical educators to relate LTAD to physical literacy, obesity rates, and lifetime physical activity (increase the value and perception of PE). Let’s get coaches, physical educators, administrators, and parents working together on redeveloping the community feeder pattern that links the before, during, and after school opportunities for all kids to be physically active, including through sports (let’s get more kids physically active). With increasing attention finally being paid to mental health, share with parents the benefits of positive youth development provided through sports, PE, and play (sports for healthy minds and healthy bodies).
To engage parents, we know that they want what is best for their kids. We know that the current pay-to-play, early sports specialization model excludes many kids. It is also not leading to elite sports performance as much as we think—the U.S. is ranked 39th in per capita Olympic medal count. Make parents part of the solution by dispelling the myths around early sports specialization, pay to play, and “elite” travel teams. Show them what you do and how it develops athleticism for their kid to develop sports skills appropriately and have every chance to continue participation for a lifetime. (We work together to make your child the best he/she can be.)
We also need to show the disparity between what happens in sports and what happens in academics. Would we ever ask kids to specialize in one academic subject in elementary school? Would we ever cut students from science class? Where are the weekend math tournaments that require extensive travel? What school offers only one subject?
Granted, both sports and academics need a complete change of focus, but establishing a youth-centric approach to both can build success in the long run. Healthy minds and healthy bodies has been our slogan since the Roman era, so the value proposition for sport and education is clear: Sports and fitness lead to better citizens, higher graduation rates, longevity, and a host of other benefits. These benefits are somewhat dependent on the quality of the sports and fitness program, so LTAD can play a significant role in showcasing the features of a quality sport and sports coaching framework.LTAD can play a key role in showcasing the features of a quality sport & sports coaching framework. Click To Tweet
Specific to coaching, LTAD encompasses all aspects of coaching, but is not simply coaching (coaching is critical to the success of kids). As a cradle-to-grave model, coaching is essential for those participating in a sports program. If the current adult-driven sports model is not corrected, it will be difficult to get all coaches on board with multi-sport participation, getting all kids to play (and not always sports), and creating a cradle-to-grave system for integration of parents and kids to embrace a physically active lifestyle.
Coaches play an important role in sports, but we know that LTAD extends beyond sports and beyond athletes’ careers in sports. We need to increase coaching education efforts to become more consistent with what we call LTAD and how it is delivered to coaches. There are multiple versions of LTAD in the U.S., with different versions within national governing organizations. To increase awareness and improve perception, we need edification of terms and language to help coaches deliver quality instruction to athletes in their charge.
LTAD as a Unifying Strategy to Increase Sports Participation and Physical Activity
The lack of opportunities for kids to participate has been labeled a social justice issue. Two key areas of focus are the economic disparity and the lack of PE requirements. The economic disparity issue was recently a feature story in The Atlantic. The reduction in the number of youngsters playing sports is directly related to economic inequality—in wealthy areas, youth sports participation is actually rising, whereas in poor neighborhoods the participation rate is declining. The data indicate that 34% of children from families earning less than $25,000 played a team sport at least one day in 2017, versus 69% from homes earning more than $100,000.
The PE issue is underscored by the fact that only six states require PE every year, with cuts hitting the most economically disadvantaged areas most. Related to sports participation, the LA Unified School District found that only 77% of students graduated, and those that graduated had an average 2.1 GPA. Athletes, on the other hand, had a 92% graduation rate, and a 2.8 GPA. The concomitant health risks associated with lack of exposure to physical education cannot be ignored. All students need to learn the value of being physically active, and taking care of oneself.It is time to remove silos and promote long-term athletic development (LTAD) as a unifying strategy. Click To Tweet
It is time to remove silos and promote LTAD as a unifying strategy. The platform of LTAD has opportunities for coaches, teachers, parents, administrators, and all other stakeholders to not only delineate their roles more effectively, but to also see how to collaborate with other stakeholders in the best interests of kids. Somehow, coaching has become like politics—we take a stand on something based on our perceptions and we blast those that don’t share the same view. All that does is dilute our efforts to grow our profession. It is time to stop and hear each other out!