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Considerations for Long Term Athletic Development

Antonio Carlisle, NSCA CPT

Long Term Athletic Development

            Long term athletic development (LTAD) is a term that is frequently misunderstood at face value. Many will turn away after hearing something like LTAD, thinking that it is something used for future professional athletes, or division one prospects who have only done one sport since they were 10. LTAD is not necessarily a strategy for molding kids into super stars, and “athletes” are not limited to people who get paid to compete in sports. Athletic development is something that will occur in all active people, because every person is an athlete and must perform on some level every day. The positive guidance of that development is an essential focal point for parents, coaches, PE teachers & therapists, and serves as the foundation of our training programs here at XIP. Steering athletic development in the "right" direction, especially from a young age, will positively influence a child’s physical literacy throughout their athletic career and ultimately throughout their life.  Below are some of the common topics that surround athletic development and great places to begin conversations about how to provide safe and effective training and competitive environments for athletes at every level.

1.     Sport specialization

Sport specialization is when an athlete plays and trains for one sport year-round or places a heavy emphasis on that sport. More and more athletes and parents have been utilizing early sport specialization with hopes to gain an edge over their competition. But is that the healthiest approach? In theory it makes sense, playing more hockey will make someone better at hockey, why bother with anything else? While sport specialization does have benefits for some skill development, the ideal age for it is generally around 16 years old for competitive athletes. Early sport specialization has negative implications and playing multiple sports has several benefits for young athletes.  An athlete that plays and trains for only one sport will physically develop to meet the demands of that sport only rather than building a bigger toolbox of athletic skills that can help them solve any movement "problem" they encounter.  Focusing only on a certain sport or even a certain position within that sport can lead to imbalances in the body and overuse of particular connective tissues, muscles & joints leading to repetitive stress injuries. Younger athletes being more susceptible during their development to these repeat stresses and the potential negative outcomes later in their athletic careers. An athlete who participates in multiple sports will gain a more diversified skill set, build a bigger movement tool box, and be exposed to more movements, shapes, speeds and positions, train different energy systems, feel less pressure to perform, and be less likely to experience burnout.  Children’s bodies can change drastically from youth through High School and even into college years.  What they excelled at as a 9 year old might not be their strength as a 16 year old and that might mean another sport becomes their new focus later in their teens.  Make sure they have exposure to as many as possible so they have those choices later in life. 

2.     Health

A big component of effective LTAD is looking at the health benefits of physical activity and exercise in the short and long term. Several health benefits are obvious - Cardiovascular health, body composition (body fat vs lean muscle), joint health, and mental health, improved self confidence, and physical literacy. The emphasis is not always on generating those benefits immediately. One of the main goals of exercise and physical activity should be to keep it fun. Having fun with activity will help it become a habit and something that is thought of as a positive outlet instead of a chore. When kids look positively on good habits and enjoy doing them, they will be able to carry them into adulthood and maintain increased physical activity levels for life. Adhering to long term physical activity is much more important than drilling perfect form and hard work into kids. Having fun is a vital component for the adult athlete as well.


3.     What to do and what we do

A great way for kids to kick off their LTAD is to get involved in sports. Multiple sports can be very beneficial even if they are not all competitive. For example, if a child only wants to play on the soccer team and no other teams that are offered at their school that's not a problem at all. When that athlete is not in season or has a day off from soccer practice, they can participate in activities like biking, swimming, climbing, skiing, hiking, pick up basketball and many more without needing to compete.

Another great way to get a child involved in a plethora of activities is for them to join a camp or group like those we have at XIP. Our kids camp (ages six to nine) puts kids into situations where they must perform every athletic movement with fast reactions with appropriate intensity through fun games and competitions. Every session is different with the only true requirement being that it is fun!

At this age our programs meet just 1x/week and we do our best to focus on fitness components that are essential at that age: Agility, speed, power, and strength, hand eye, foot eye, teamwork, and of course physical literacy (how much they enjoy physical activity).  Agility will be seen in games where athletes have to react to one another, like tag, with lots of quick changes of direction based on what they see happening around them. Speed will also be seen in tag but will be better developed when they have a chance to push their top speed like in a relay race. Power is utilized by an athlete trying to be explosive with movements like a jump, a throw or quick accelerations. Strength s trained through fun but challenging movements like sled pushes or pulls, rope climbs, hangs, and medicine ball carries. All combined make for a complete and engaging session with friendly competition and teaching moments mixed in.  P.S. You can do all of this at home in the backyard with a game of keep away, tag, soccer, kick the can, play on the jungle gym, etc. Parents need to be involved too. When children see you engaged and having fun they are much more likely to engage in physical activity into adulthood.

For more information on the LTAD programs we offer at XIP don’t hesitate to check out our training camp opportunities throughout the year!

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