LTAD: The Learn-to-Train stage

This is the first of several articles that examines the various stages of the LTAD model. We're starting with the 'Learn to Train' (LTT) stage because there are already several articles on this site that address physical literacy. Click these links to read: Physical literacy: The Holy Grail of health, wellness, and sport development and Teaching physical literacy skills in youth sport practices.

The Learn to Train stage of the LTAD model continues development of fundamental movement skills and begins focusing on basic sport skills. Athletes are in the 9 to 12 year age range and are learning the physical, psychological, and social skills they will need in their journey to become an athlete.

LTAD is designed to take advantage of periods of accelerated development and the 9 to 12 year old range is where all kinds of physical movement skills can be learned easily. Children in this stage are cementing the foundational skills of their sports, and building on the fundamental movement patterns they learned during the physical literacy stage.

Learn to Train occurs at the very end of the physical literacy stage so children should still be involved in a variety of sport activities. Specialization is still several years away and by focusing on a number of sports general athleticism can be developed, which enables these youngsters to display a robust repertoire of movement as they get older. This can only help them when they finally do begin focusing on one sport.

Characteristics of Learn to Train

Youngsters are in the 9 to 12 year age range during the Learn to Train stage. Development of physical literacy is still a very high priority in this age range so focus on fundamental movement skills is very much a part of this LTAD stage.

Sport skills get focus. Up to this point youngsters participated in the fundamental stage where they developed basic movement skills and began learning what it meant to be an 'athlete'. In the Learn to Train stage basic sport skills are added to the curriculum although, and as with every LTAD stage, the fundamentals are still important.

Develop strength, aerobic capacity, and speed with general body weight exercises and games that challenge these attributes. Strength, aerobic conditioning, and speed training builds upon routines initiated during the fundamentals stage. For strength this is done holistically with body weight resistance and natural games. Likewise for aerobic and speed development. Activities that challenge these metabolic systems are included in every practice session.

The accelerated periods of development for strength and aerobic capacity are still in the future but all metabolic systems can be improved during all stages so this should not be ignored. For speed the athlete has already gone through the first accelerated period during the fundamentals stage, which takes advantage of maturation occurring in the central nervous system. The next accelerated period for speed development occurs during the growth spurt or, in LTAD lingo, peak height velocity (PHV).

Athletic knowledge is introduced. Youngsters learn how and why to warm up, how to stay hydrated, etc. Basic psychological skills are introduced such as focusing, visualization, and preparation for competition. These skills need to be practiced just like athletic skills so youngsters should at least be introduced to them early.

Formal competition is introduced. Competitions begin in this stage but are low key and infrequent. It is important in LTT that practices and training get more attention than competition.

Skipping LTAD stages

According to Canadian Sport for Life, the Learn to Train stage and the one that follows it, the Train to Train stage, are probably the two most critical stages needed to prepare youngsters for athletic competition or to set them on the right path for an active lifestyle. Unfortunately sometimes in the case with precocious young athletes or simply because of parent desires to move things along more quickly the Learn to Train stage is skipped or shortened because it is believed that the athlete doesn't need it.

Precocity does not signal talent or even true ability, and if it is used as an excuse to skip or shorten development stages then gaps occur where important knowledge and preparation are missing in the young athlete's background training. These gaps may not be evident immediately but they will eventually show up and at times when remedial work may not be possible.

If parents, coaches, and administrators embrace the comprehensive nature of the LTAD model then young athletes will receive full background training prior to reaching the point where they are truly recognized as athletes. With this background, specific sport skills can be used with a robust athleticism that can only boost performance. Additionally, youngsters who don't follow the elite performance pathway will have the skills and background they need to lead a healthy and active lifestyle.