A critical look at the current long-term athletic development coaching framework models
As the amount of research increases considerably on youth and junior athletes within a multitude of different and diverse sports, it is a continuing debate whether a highly structured approach to developing youth athletes is required (Pichardo, Oliver, Harrison, Maulder & Lloyd, 2018). There has been a noticeable growth in strength and conditioning within schools, as well as professional clubs, expanding the provision available to academy and junior athletes. The paradigm shift seen emerging within curriculum PE aims to focus more on general athletic development rather than a carousel of different sports (Baker, 2015). The prevalence of strength and conditioning within youth populations has increased but what are the implications of this and are coaches reasonably prepared for the development of these athletes? Most long-term athletic development (LTAD) models follow a linear progression starting with acquisition of basic skills and lead onto mastery of specific competitive sports (Balyi, 2001). Most coaches understand the concept of developing a varied range of skills in childhood that can be used extensively in any physical endeavour. However, it is far too common nowadays for children to specialise early in a quest for elite status (Ball, 2018), which can be caused by pressure from coaches or often parents, or the enticement of huge financial reward (Kliethermes et al., 2021). This opens up an interesting conversation on the direction physical education is moving, not only within the UK but elsewhere around the world.
Although it is believed that everyone deserves the education, understanding and training to make them proficient at movement and exercise, often long-term athletic development models focus too heavily on the creation of elite athletes. Lloyd et al. (2016) in the National Strength and Conditioning Associations position statement on LTAD refers to “the habitual development of athleticism in an attempt to improve health and fitness and enhance physical performance.” As physical educators our first role is to develop all children to be competent movers and provide them with knowledge that will inevitably increase their chances of leading healthy active lives. The results of creating this environment will lead on to creating elite level athletes, however often coaches and educational facilities are focusing more on this second aspect.
Athletic training in children is by no means a new thing, with evidence of systematic training of young athletes dating back to 735-331BC in Sparta and Ancient Greece (Campbell, 2012). Further implementation is seen throughout the Soviet Union post WW1 and outlines the stages of physical and social development from childhood to retirement (Zilberman, 1982). This resulted in research by Bompa (1998) and Drabik (1996) however it wasn’t until later that Balyi (2001) produced the first conceptualised version of the LTAD model which aimed to create a comprehensive and structured guide to developing young athletes. The model follows a structured linear progression based on the age of the children, therefore potentially far too prescriptive and lacks empathy for the athletes, not considering individual maturation and growth rates. We now understand far more about children’s maturation rate (Viru et al. 1999) and it is suggested that certain adaptations, especially strength can be increased if trained at certain points of maturation, especially during rapid growth spurts (Beune & Malina, 2005). As a result, the most resent models like the Youth Physical Development model (Lloyd & Oliver, 2012) offer maturation windows rather than prescriptive age brackets, as well as suggesting different focuses depending on age and gender. This allows children to develop at different rates and still benefit from a structured approach without potentially missing certain maturational markers. Given the link between strength and almost all other physical capacities, it would therefore seem appropriate to make strength development a priority at these specific points in children’s development. If there are certain maturational time periods that increase the developmental potential then they should be aimed to coincide. However, it is certainly not a defining factor and any form of strength training at any age or maturation rate should be encouraged.
One of the major considerations of the LTAD is that children are not small adults and therefore should not be treated as such. They should follow a specific logical developmental pathway which progresses as they get older. One of the ways Balyi (2001) has attempted to do this is by suggesting the removal of competition during the early stages of development. This appears to be unpopular within schools and clubs as the suggestion is that children like competition and enjoy a chance to win. However, just because it is unpopular and unlikely to change does not mean it isn’t more beneficial. We have seen throughout school sport during the recent Covid 19 restrictions a complete halt to competitive sport at schools and the increase in effective practice has been astonishing, especially for less high-performing children. Competitive matches at junior level often give the best children an opportunity to assert their dominance and does not benefit either them or the children who are not at the same level. There is a growing consensus within PE for a more exploratory nature when it comes to skill acquisition and motor skill development (Lloyd & Oliver, 2012). Therefore, maybe a shift away from competitive junior sport would be of benefit to all children, however it seems unlikely to be adopted.
In conclusion, in order to have the ultimate benefit to a child’s long-term physical development, coaches should primarily focus on providing activities which: are within a child’s capability; been shown to be effective at improving certain physical aspects and preferably fall within a particular maturation range suitable to the child. It is also important to emphasise how the exercises are delivered to the athletes, for example communication strategies, in order to benefit young athletes the most.
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