Updated: Aug 29, 2019
By Ryan Muñoz, M.S., C.S.C.S.
In the past few decades we’ve seen the industry of youth sports grow greatly. This growing trend of participation in youth sports will continue as club sports have become increasingly popular. At the heart of this growth is the concept of long-term athletic development. That is helping young athletes of all ages realize their full athletic potential and put the individual on a path to commit to a life-long healthy and active lifestyle. This is a youth centered approach to physical activity and development. LTAD is focused on meeting the needs of children at any developmental level to promote fun, positive sports and fitness experience which in turn help set the foundation for a lifetime commitment to healthy activities.
Rick Howard, a leading expert in the field of LTAD has 9 key concepts that all parents should know regarding LTAD:
1. LTAD is a guideline, not an absolute mandate. Children do not all develop at the same rate and not always in a positive direction, so adjustments must be made based on their individual development to get the best results. 2. LTAD promotes multisport participation, youth health and wellbeing, and positive youth development. LTAD is more than a model of youth sports participation—LTAD promotes development of the whole child with the child at the center and sports participation as the key. 3. LTAD needs to begin in early childhood to give youth the greatest opportunity for success. The concept of physical literacy, which helps youngsters value and take personal responsibility for their participation, may be necessary so that youth reach an appropriate level of proficiency. Think of it like subjects in school - the later students learn the basic concepts, the more difficult it is to master the subject. 4. All fitness attributes are trainable across childhood (ages 6-11 or 12) and adolescence (ages 11 or 12 through 17). Health fitness attributes (aerobic endurance, muscle strength, muscle endurance, flexibility) as well as skills fitness (agility, balance, coordination, power, speed) all are safe to train under proper supervision with a developmentally appropriate progressed program design. 5. Many organizations now stand behind the major underpinnings of LTAD. Organizations such as the National Strength and Conditioning Association, the International Olympic Committee, the United States Olympic Committee and their National Governing Bodies have issued materials espousing the benefits of LTAD. 6. The age of youth (biological age) is not always the best determinant of sport readiness. Sport readiness considers the complex interaction of the biological, social, physical, physiological and psychological domains for performance. Each domain does not necessarily develop at the same rate as the others. 7. Youth sports programs should focus on talent development throughout childhood and adolescence. Not all youth develop at the same rate. Some are “early maturers” who are most often selected at younger ages, but may burn out or suffer overuse injuries. “Late maturers,” on the other hand, if not given continued opportunity to improve, will never develop to their potential. 8. The misconception still exists that youth should not strength train. Strength training is safe and effective for youth and should be properly integrated into a sports participation program.
There are 10 Pillars of LTAD. In the months to come we will discuss of each of these ten.
LTAD pathways should accommodate for the highly individualized and non-linear of the growth and development of youth. Every child has their own individual biology and physiology. While we have a strong grasp on how the body operates and develops throughout life, coaches must understand that everyone progress as different rates. Given the different rates of maturation and development throughout youth we must have a non-linear development plan. That is kids should be progressed to different loads and types of exercise based on their ability to handle said exercises and loads. We cannot progress and increase intensity based on age and training time alone. Programs must be constantly recorded and evaluated for effectiveness, and then changed based on those evaluations.
Youth of all ages, abilities, and aspiratiIons should engage in LTAD activities that promote physical fitness and psychosocial well being. A good strength coach will be able design a proper exercise program and adjust workloads to fit the needs of any child. A young athlete will benefit greatly from being exposed to a variety of different movement patterns. It is imperative to do this in a controlled environment in which the youth can learn proper technique and progression under the supervision of a professional. As the child becomes more competent in weight room, we see a profound increase in psychosocial well-being. Furthermore, movement and exercise across the lifespan has been proven to fight depression and improve psychosocial well-being.
All youth should be encouraged to enhance physical fitness from early childhood, with a primary focus on motor skill and muscular strength development. This process starts in early childhood (age 2-4) when the nervous system is highly plastic. Children should be introduced to movement and play activities that develop fundamental movement skills and primal levels of strength. The predominating theme here is to promote fun social interactions to expose the child to the joy of learning new skills. During middle childhood (age 5-11) the child should sample different sports and physical activities. Fitness training should be focused on enhancing fundamental movement skills (running, jumping, skipping, throwing, catching, shuffling, hopping, static and dynamic balance, stopping, striking, dribbling, etc.) and developing muscular strength. During adolescence (age 12-19) a youth can begin to specialize in a specific sport (however it is still wise to encourage participation in multiple sports throughout adolescence). Youths may continue to play competitive sports or they may opt out and participate in recreational physical activity. Regardless of outcome it is the practitioners job to help foster peer relationships, enhance self-esteem, and empower the youth. The underlying key here is still a focus on muscular strength and skill competency, while training programs become be highly individualized to promote injury reduction and boost performance of the athlete/youth.