Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD). What is it ? and why is it controversial ?
What is the Long Term Athlete Development or LTAD ?
The basic principles on which LTAD is based are:
- THE SAME BASIC SKILLS ARE THE BASIS FOR ALL SPORTS and without developing these skills it is difficult to play any sport well. These skills are:
|Hop||Shake||Fall / sink||Throw|
|Gallop||Pull / push||Swing||Catch|
|Skate||bat, racquet, stick, foot or limb|
- EARLY SPORT PARTICIPATION SHOULD BE ALL INCLUSIVE AND FUN with the aim of getting all young people to develop confidence in the basic movement skills above. This allows everyone to develop good basic movement skills and developes individual confidence for life-long participation in sport.
- IDENTIFIABLE STAGES OF DEVELOPMENT – The LTAD framework states that there are identifiable stages during a child’s physical and psychological development that offer optimum opportunities to develop movement skills (e.g. agility, balance, co-ordination), sports skills (e.g. running, jumping, throwing, striking), and physical ability (e.g. speed, endurance, strength). The LTAD Framework states that missing these optimum developmental ‘windows’ has been shown to significantly affect a child’s ability to reach their full sporting potential, whether that is to play at school, club or international level.
- SPECIALISATION – In the framework all sports can be classified as either early or late specialisation. Early specialisation sports include artistic and acrobatic sports such as gymnastics, diving and figure skating as well as sports where you need to develop a ‘feel’ like swimming, riding and skiing. The rest are classified as late specialisation sports in which it is thought that providing you have good basic physical literacy before puberty, athletes can select their specialisation in their late teens and still have the potential to do well at international level. The LTAD framework suggests that specialising too early in a late specialisation sport can be harmful.
- PRACTISE – LTAD also takes into account that research has shown it takes 8-12 years of concentrated practise to develop a refined skill, whether it’s learning to play an instrument, juggling or playing sport. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘10,000 hour rule’ based on the example of practising for 3 hours a day for 10 years.
Why is this controversial ?
Opponents of the LTAD system generally focus on four things:-
- The suggestion that young children should not participate in competitive sport.
- The suggestion that there exists critical “windows of opportunity” when children and adolescents are more sensitive to specific training-induced adaptations and that these can be missed.
- The specialisation vs generalisation debate.
- The fact that the framework is purely theoretical. No scientific/empirical studies were conducted to establish whether expert athletes actually develop via the key stages as proposed.
No Competitive Sport
The LTAD Framework does not actually say that young athletes should not compete but suggests that early years physical activity should be fun and based on play. There are two reasons why this is scientifically sound, the first is that children all grow at different rates, both physically and mentally. In the UK, year groups will include both September and August birth dates with these children being a year apart in age. Early competition favours the older, stronger, earlier developing children, giving them greater confidence and sometimes allowing them greater coaching opportunities. This is called the relative age effect and is beautifully covered in a piece by Morris and Nevill published in 2006 (2) and linked here. Extensive research has shown that national and international sporting teams are dominated by children with birthdays in the first quarter of the school year. By limiting early competition the LTAD Framework hopes that younger or late developing children will also love sport and develop the core skills they will need if they want to play competitive sport later. Younger, later developing children should not be written off or put off sport. The framework also recommends that wherever possible children play with and against children who are at a similar stage of development rather than similar chronicle age.
The second reason that LTAD favours training over competition is because it allows coaches to concentrate on fundamental movement skills, to teach correct running, jumping, throwing and striking techniques, to improve agility and balance and work on flexibility – all core skills that are vital later on. Correct movement radically lowers the risk of injury (see below) and is hugely beneficial later on, when more technical skills are taught. Early participation in teams can mean that the development of key skills is rushed or missed completely.
Finally it might be interesting to note that sports satisfaction surveys have revealed that “having fun” is the main reason that most children like to participate in sports; however when their parents are asked why their children like to play sports, they will tell you that it is because their child likes to win (3).
Growth related Injuries
Although not specifically related to early competition – they are equally caused by over training, it is also worth mentioning a few growth related injuries as they are very common in sporty children.
In girls, as the hips widen, the femur begins to have a greater inward angle leading to a greater inward rotation at the knee and foot. This rotation can result in an injury called chrondomalacia patella, which occurs when the knee-cap does not run smoothly over the knee joint and causes pain at the front of the knee. Appropriate training can help to avoid this problem by strengthening the vastus medial (the quad muscle that extends the knee), the lower abdominals, the obliques, hip abductor and hip external rotator muscles. Strengthening these muscles can also prevent long term back problems.
Another type of injury associated with bone growth are traction injuries, caused by repetitive loading while the tendon is sensitive to stress and the bones and tendons are fusing. Traction injuries are common at a number of different sites during peak growth. Severs disease (pain in the heel) is common in boys and girls age 10-13yrs, osgood schlatters (painful bumps below the knee) at around 12-16yrs and lower back or iliac pain is common in late adolescence. Traditionally it is thought that once they have developed, the only cure for traction injuries is rest, though a lot of people have had success ‘curing’ osgood schlatters using the Strickland Protocol and regular stretching and massage or the development of other key muscles during growth have been shown to lower injury risk across the board. Details of the Strickland Protocol can be found here.
Windows of Opportunity
Training will lead to improved performance whenever it is done but the LTAD Plan upholds that trainability during sensitive periods can lead to accelerated adaptation. These graphs are taken from the LTAD framework and show the sensitive periods or windows of trainability for girls and boys. The sensitive periods for skill, stamina and strength are based on a moving scale related to the onset of the growth spurt or peak height velocity (PHV), which will be different for different children. To identify when these ‘windows’ are, it is necessary to routinely collect measures of height and weight to identify peak height velocity (PHV) and peak weight velocity (PWV).
Research on speed and flexibility has been based on chronological age and these ‘windows’ are age related.
The existence of ‘windows of trainability’ is controversial, particularly as according to the LTAD model, if a child does not engage in the appropriate training during the specific window, then their true potential may never be reached.
It is true that developmental research has identified naturally occurring periods of accelerated change, in a range of movement skills during pre- adolescence (Reviewed in 4). It is thought that this is related to the development of neural pathways during adolescence, which lead to increased muscular coordination and motor control, as well adaptations to muscle structure and changes in energy use and hormone levels. The LTAD framework works on the basis that these periods of accelerated adaptation offer windows of opportunity where training responses will be maximised. Although this is possible, it is not yet proven and I feel it is perhaps too simplistic. I believe that appropriate training will benefit athlete development throughout childhood and adolescence and although there is a chance that adaptation occurs more quickly during ‘windows’, the same adaptation may be achieved in other ways.
Specialisation vs Generalisation
One of the most dramatic developments in youth sports over the last ten or fifteen years has been the explosive growth, at seemingly ever-earlier ages, of highly selective, highly competitive sports teams and elite athlete programs. Both sides of the debate are equally passionate and can quote research that backs their view and both sides can use the LTAD Framework as evidence both for and against.
I think that the latest version of LTAD framework has got it about right, particularly as many national associations have now tailored their own sport specific LTAD Framework. It is worth noting that early specialisation doesn’t mean that a child must only do that sport and no other, and neither does late specialisation mean that an individual can not take part in that sport until they are in their late teens.
For the most part the LTAD plan discourages early specialisation and this is backed by research.The majority of studies suggest that early specialisation can have “significant negative consequences on the development of an athlete over time.”(5) and increases the chances that the child will suffer from burnout and quit sports completely (5,6,7,8,). Team Sport athletes who participate in three different sport into their late teens have also been found to have competitive advantage later on and better tactical awareness (9).
Lack of Research
I am a fan of athlete development frameworks, particularly where they have been built around a specific sport. The current LTAD Framework has seven stages, active start (0-6yrs), FUNdamentals (6-8yrs girls, 6-9yrs boys), Learn to Train (8-11yrs girls, 9-12yrs boys), Train to Train (girls 11-15yrs, boys 12-16yrs), Train to Compete (girls 15-21yrs, boys 16-23yrs), Train to Win (girls 18+, boys 19+) and Active for Life. At each stage guidance is given for development aims as well as basic skills; conditioning, stretching, mental development and nutrition are all important for optimal development and there is also some guidance on complementary sports. The problem for schools and parents is that it is very difficult to swim against the flow. It may not be good for your 10year old to play for their club, school and country in the same weekend but if that is what his friends are doing and what defines a strong player its tricky not to let your child do the same. So perhaps the best thing is to read the LTDAs parent guidelines, try and have as much fun as possible and find a good sports physio, conditioning coach and nutritionalist.
(2) Morris and Nevill (2006). A Sporting Chance – Enhancing opportunities for high level sporting performance : Influence of relative age. http://www.lboro.ac.uk/microsites/ssehs/youth-sport/downloads/research-archive-downloads/sporting-chance-relative-age-2.pdf
(3) Merkel (2013). Youth Sport : positive and negative impact on young athletes. Journal Sports Medicine 4, 151-160
(4) Viru A, Loko J, Harro M, Volver A, Laaneaots L, and Viru M. (1999) Critical periods in the development of performance capacity during childhood and adolescence. Eur J Phys Educ 4: 75–119, 1999
(5) Sagas M. (2013) What does the science say about athletic development in children. Research Brief, University of Florida Sport Policy & Research Collaborative for the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program’s Project Play. September 13, 2013 (accessed at http://www.aspeninstitute.org/sites/default/files/content/docs/events/At…).
(6) Jayanthi N, Pinkham C, Dugas L, Patrick B, LaBella C. Sports Specialization in Young Athletes: Evidence-Based Recommendations. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach 2012;20(10). DOI: 10.1177/1941738112464626 (published October 25, 2012 ahead of print).
(7) Mostafavifar AM, Best TM, Myer GD. (2013) Early sport specialisation, does it lead to long term problems? Br J Sports Med. 2013;47:1060-1061.
(8) DiFiori JP, Benjamin HJ, Brenner J, Gregory A, Jayanthi N, Landry GL, Luke A. Overuse Injuries and Burnout in Youth Sports: A Position Statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Clin J Sport Med 2014;24(1):3-20.
(9)Bridge & Toms (2013) The specialising or sampling debate: a retrospective analysis of adolescent sports participation in the UK. Journal Sports Science 31(1), 87-96