The long-term athlete development framework offers youngsters a chance at sport success and an active and healthy life

Over the past few years I have written several articles about how youngsters actually become athletes; how countries can develop sport programs; how talent can be created; and how physical activity is related to long-term healthy living. The key to sport development on a national scale is to combine these ideas into one comprehensive structure that supports the development of athletes at all levels and which provides all youngsters, whether they become athletes or not, with a solid foundation for an active and healthy life. This structure is called Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) and it offers a framework for sport associations to develop athletes from the ground up.

There are three primary components of the LTAD model: Physical literacy, pathways to excellence, and active for life. The structure was developed by Canadian Sport for Life (the graphic is from them) and is continually being updated and refined. If you haven't already visited their website I highly recommend it. The site has wonderful resources and many of them are free.

The first three stages of the LTAD framework form the physical literacy component. Active start (Level 1), FUNdamentals (Level 2), and Learning to train (Level 3) are the basis of the active for life concept. These three stages are the minimum that all youngsters should experience because being physically literate will determine whether or not they remain active throughout their lives.

At the end of the first three stages youngsters can decide to participate in the excellence pathways (stages 4, 5, and 6) or not. Not everyone wants to participate in sports so at the end of the third stage they will have the necessary skills to be active throughout their lives. At this point they enter the "Active for Life" stage. Completion of the first three stages not only prepares youngsters properly for sport training but it also reduces the impact on the national healthcare system in the years ahead.

It's important to note that during the first three stages of LTAD, when youngsters are below 12 years of age there is no difference between sport training and what they should be learning as part of their basic physical education. The content is similar. However, stages 1 and 2 take place before children are of school age so don't make the mistake of thinking that physical education in school will completely take care of helping children become physically literate. It can't. It starts too late. It helps but it doesn't provide the whole thing.

Train to train (Level 4), Train to compete (Level 5), and Train to win (Level 6) are all designed to deliver age appropriate coaching and competition to youngsters participating in sport activities. They are designed to take advantage of specific training periods so that young athletes receive the proper coaching and training at the most important time in their development. These are the stages that we commonly associate with sport training.

Understanding LTAD allows coaches to leverage sensitive training periods; short periods of time when the nervous and energy systems are most receptive to accelerated improvement. Coaches who understand the sensitive training periods occurring in each LTAD stage can make sure that skill, strength, endurance, and speed development in young athletes are being emphasized at times when the greatest increases will take place.

The aerobic system, for example, is most sensitive to large gains during and immediately after a growth phase known as peak height velocity (PHV), the period where the growth rate is the fastest it will ever be outside the first year of life. Individual variations are common but this stage normally occurs between the ages of 12 and 15 and lasts for approximately 18 months. While aerobic training will produce training effects at almost any age unusually large gains can be had if aerobic training is emphasized during PHV. These accelerated gains can then be increased further albeit at smaller rates after PHV. The point however is that athletes who emphasize aerobic conditioning at the right time will have advantages in aerobic capacity and function compared to athletes where the training emphasis was not properly timed or not present at all.

Understanding the timing of the sensitive training periods and having the knowledge to take advantage of them is one reason why coaches education is so important. Unfortunately, most coaches training is delivered to elite coaches who work with national level athletes. By the time an athlete reaches a national or elite level of performance the sensitive training periods have passed and opportunities for accelerated gains have disappeared. If youth coaches know how important the sensitive periods are to athlete development and what they need to do to take advantage of them then the crop of elite level athletes in a country will gradually become larger and perform better because their training foundation will be more complete. Coaches training should be given to all coaches, but especially those who work with younger athletes.

Almost everybody has some knowledge and understanding of part of the 'idea' behind LTAD. The most important thing though is to get the full picture, to understand in a comprehensive way how a child actually becomes a high level performer.