The Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model is a physiological framework proposed to manage the focus, volume and type of training applied to athletes as they develop through adolescence into adulthood. There remain a number of question marks against the foundations of LTAD, though it provides a sound framework for sporting development. It does however introduce a number of practical challenges, and its success requires that coaches recognize the potential barriers and conflicts. These are described below:
LTAD divides the path from a child to a professional into a number of stages. For each stage, the focus, the role of the coach and the responsibilities of the player vary. In fact, it is this balance between competition (society demands) and the LTAD proposed delay in competition that is likely to be the source of most “tension”, and thus failure, within the model.
While LTAD is conceptually sound, we must recognized and consider that LTAD has not been conclusively proven. Two of the foundations are based upon “Windows of opportunity” and the 10,000 hour concepts respectively.
Windows of opportunity, the issue is not so much that they do not exist (though there is some academic debate on this point), but rather the literal or wrongful interpretation of them to lead to neglecting other attributes.
The 10,000 hour concept for success, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in “Outliers” and Syed in “Bounce” has very little merit if applied literally to sporting success. What it does do is provide a compelling argument that practice helps performance. The 10,000 hour concept owes its existence to a study on violinists, by Ericsson, in which he found that the best players have accumulated 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. What he failed to do was any statistical analysis at all, and the result is that he didn’t show that some people become best experts with less, and others fail despite doing more than 10,000 hours.
It’s simply not reasonable to suggest that one sport have an LTAD programme from 5 up to adulthood. As mentioned, it’s unnecessary because you don’t need 10,000 hours to begin with. Therefore, you recognize that other stakeholders, such as parents and government, also play a crucial role, particularly early on when you actually don’t want players to specialize, but rather engage in a number of different sports, learning a range of skills and abilities. This is perhaps the key concept for LTAD.
How do we change mindsets? In all of this, it’s important to recognize that sporting systems, countries, federations, have a certain inertia. Therefore, to successfully implement LTAD, you must address the mindsets and begin to ‘nudge’ them in a different direction. Failing this, LTAD, or any other similar plan, is nothing more than a fantasy of “best-case”, and potentially won’t work/
Remember that science loves averages and “typical” patterns, but not many individuals are average or typical. As a result, if a coach tries to apply LTAD principles based on the average, there is a danger of “writing off” any young athlete who doesn’t adapt, or obey the ‘science’. The second is that it’s too literal. And the third is that LTAD can become a real burden because of its extended period of responsibility for the coach or sport.
Coaching is often referred to a mix of art and science, and LTAD is similar. There is no single path, and this is a debate likely to extend well into the future.
The Sporting Influencer
P. Ford, M. De Ste Croix, R. Lloyd, R. Meyers, M. Moosavi, J. Oliver, K. Till, and C. Williams, “The Long-Term Athlete Development model: Physiological evidence and application”, Journal of Sports Sciences, vol. 29, pp. 389-402, 2011