The Long-Term Athletic Development (LTAD) Model 

Long-term athletic development (LTAD) can be used as a framework for practitioners, researchers, coaches and parents aiming to support the long-term development of athletes and increase lifelong participation in sport and physical activity.

This article will identify what the LTAD model is, outline the different stages of LTAD and discuss why it is important. It will also discuss the potential pitfalls of this model, ensuring further understanding of this youth development model, which provides a topic of debate and scrutiny from those within the sporting world. 

What is LTAD?

Long Term Athlete Development or LTAD refers to the ‘habitual development of athleticism over time to improve health and fitness, enhance physical performance, reduce the relative risk of injury and develop the confidence and competence of all youth’, according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) position statement.

To guide LTAD, Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) models have been proposed to provide a framework that strategises an athlete’s physical development over time by guiding training, competition and recovery, based on the athlete’s development stage (i.e. age).

The LTAD model was developed by Canadian sport scientist Istvan Balyi, in 1990, who was tasked by the British Amateur Swimming Association (ASA), to develop a programme which coaches could follow to create elite swimmers, formed initially of three phases: Training to Train, Training to Compete and Training to Win.

Initially the model was accepted and implemented across multiple sports. However, following on from early success, researchers and Balyi himself began to scrutinise the model, as understanding surrounding youth development in sport grew. Consequently, the LTAD model developed into a seven-stage framework, to promote long-term progression and success in sport and physical activity, with an appreciation for age appropriate progression throughout early stages of the model. 

Stages of the LTAD

The 7 stages of Balyi’s (1990) Long Term Athletic Development model include:

  1. Active Start
  2. FUNdamentals
  3. Learning to Train
  4. Training to Train
  5. Training to Compete
  6. Training to Win
  7. Active for Life

Stage 1: Active Start

This stage takes place from the beginning of life, through the very early ages, prompting the need to be engaged in daily, active, unstructured play, which incorporates a variety of body movements, more by chance than planning, to help develop functional movement skills. 

Examples of such movement can be anything from crawling, playing with toys, running, jumping, catching and throwing.

This play enhances psychosocial skills such as brain function, physical coordination, gross motor skills, posture, balance, confidence, social skills, emotional control, imagination and can work to reduce stress and improve sleep.

In particular, for children with disabilities, access to age and disability appropriate play can be an important contributor to long term success of physically active disabled individuals. 

Stage 2: FUNdamentals

This is the first sign of difference between boys and girls, this phase can be from aged 6-8 years in girls, whereas within boys it tends to be slightly later from 6-9 years. This difference is seen throughout the LTAD model due to the differing growth and maturation states within boys and girls, which can affect areas of development such as peak height velocity, which will be discussed in more depth throughout the article.

The main objective within this stage is in the name – Fun!! This takes the shape of participation in as many sports and as many activities as possible, such as catching, running, jumping, climbing and many more, to further develop fundamental movement skills which will form the foundation of sports participation in the long term. 

Stage 3: Learning to Train 

The age difference between girls and boys is present within the ‘learning to train’ stage (ages 8-11 years in girls and 9-12 years for boys). The main objective within this is to develop fundamental sports skills and further develop fundamental movement skills.

This sees the introduction of basic flexibility exercises, along with the development of fundamental movement skills (FMS), strength and endurance. At this stage education and knowledge of warm-up, cool down, stretching and recovery is often targeted, in an aim to take advantage of accelerated mental development and provide a foundational understanding of key habits needed on their journey of lifelong activity.

Warm-ups are focussed on skills such as speed, strength, aerobic capacity and flexibility, to aid development of these specific skills. The structure of activity should be focussed on training to ensure time is available to enhance these skills.

At this stage, competition to challenge individuals in a formal setting is introduced; however, this should be infrequent and in a low pressure environment. A  split of 70:30 training to competition is often implemented to ensure the ‘learn to train’ phase continues to promote holistic development, in an attempt to reap rewards in the following stages, and for those who do not follow an elite development pathway, individuals are equipped with the tools necessary to lead a healthy, active lifestyle. 

Stage 4: Training to Train

Training to train focuses on the development of the athletes physical and mental capacities, which occurs at ages 11-16 years for girls and 12-16 years for males. 

Training will focus on aerobic conditioning, functional movement skills (FMS) and the correct weightlifting techniques. Training the physical qualities and capacities, as outlined above, during this stage is an attempt to create an optimal training environment, in which training different body systems has optimal effects at specific stages throughout an individual’s development. 

Development of knowledge surrounding training, inclusive of stretching, optimal nutrition and mental preparation will continue.

A Training:Competition ratio of 60:40 is used within the ‘Train to Train’ LTAD phase and is a key factor to the potential success of the model, enabling a focus on process goals (skill development) rather than outcome goals (winning), which in theory enables the athlete to positively develop, given the appropriate time. The lack of competition also reduces the risk of early burn-out, which may be caused with too much focus on competition, such poor experience in childhood can impact upon exercise and physical activity habits for life. 

Stage 5: Training to Compete

The training to compete stage occurs in girls aged between 15-17 years and aged 16-18 years in boys. In this stage, the focus shifts more so to competition.

Within a training environment the goals are to optimise fitness preparation with sport specific skills and performance. Therefore, it is likely that 50% of time is dedicated for technical and tactical skills, and fitness improvements, with the other 50% time devoted to competition and competition-specific training, performing sport-specific skills under a variety of competitive competitions within training.

An example of what this might look like in a football session includes: 

Within this stage recovery programmes, psychological preparation and technical development is also included which could be team-based within a meeting or be specific to individual workshops with sports scientists, sport psychologists or coaching staff.

Teams may also complete strength & conditioning sessions for 45 mins – 1 hour in a gym-based setting.

Stage 6: Training to Win

At this stage individuals tend to train in preparation for competing at major competitions, in a high quality environment, supported by specialised teams for the specific event.

Due to this, it will often occur in girls aged 17+ years old and boys aged 18+. This category is characterised by high intensity and relatively high volume, with appropriate time for rest and recovery to prevent overtraining, avoid injury and burnout.

It is likely periodisation of a year-round and in some cases four-year cycle (Olympic athletes) will be introduced at this stage in order to peak for competition, and so a training to competition ratio of 25:75 is accurate for this stage with the competition stage inclusive of competition-specific training activities. 

Stage 7: Active for Life 

The active for life is the final stage and also final desired outcome of the LTAD model. Should an individual progress through the LTAD to this stage on a non-elite pathway, the previous stages should have allowed individuals to partake in a variety of sport and exercise, whether that be competitive or recreational in a competent and confident manner.

Meanwhile, those who may have followed an elite pathway, should have the tools both physically and mentally to continue either within their sport at a more recreational level and have experience of a variety of sport and physical activity which they can further take part in. 

Why is the LTAD important?

The LTAD model is important for multiple reasons, at the heart of the model is longitudinal and holistic development of boys and girls which helps to promote a lifetime of healthy physical activity.

With increased obesity prevalence, declining levels of motor skill competence, physical fitness and physical activity globally, now more than ever the LTAD seems crucially important for the long-term health of boys and girls. The LTAD model has the potential to act as a catalyst for promoting long term health throughout an individual’s life. Alongside, providing the opportunity for athletes on the elite pathway to develop holistically, to master basic human movement, fundamental skills and foundational sport skills in a range of sports, not solely the individuals primary sport.

This supports long term participation and performance to the best of an individual’s ability, to provide the individual with the confidence, physical competence, knowledge, understanding and motivation to value engagement in sport, taking ownership for engagement in physical activity for a lifetime. This is referred to as Physical Literacy and is a cornerstone of the LTAD model due to its importance in both participation and excellence in sport and physical activity, 

The key to physical literacy is ensuring the child not only develops physically, but is supported through intellectual, emotional and moral development, all of which can be fostered in an environment in which LTAD is a primary consideration. 

A prime example of where a childhood flooded with multi-sports can lead to world leading successful athletic career is Sonny Bill Williams, a key member of the All Blacks squad, who excelled in high jump, cross country running and football all throughout childhood before deciding on Rugby League and Rugby Union as his profession, not without a brief stint in Professional Boxing (of course, how could I forget)!

This highlights youth sport participation and focuses on the bigger picture, with the provision of multi-sport access, it can offer several benefits including: peer socialisation, improved self-esteem and the opportunity to develop leadership skills.

The development of fundamental and sport-specific movement skills enhances physical literacy and enables children to move confidently and rhythmically in a range of physical activities and sporting situations. The LTAD model enables this whilst also aiming to take advantage of critical stages of development which occur in adolescence including Peak Height Velocity, Peak Weight Velocity and Peak Speed. 

Limitation of LTAD

The LTAD model can often be misinterpreted as coaches and parents strive for excellence from an early age, following the philosophy of Ericsson, who suggested it takes 10,000 hours or 10 years of deliberate practice to achieve mastery and reach the elite level. Therefore, many interpret the 10,000 hour rule to mean early sport specialisation is required for individuals to perform at the highest level and succeed in professional sport. However, early sport specialisation may actually negate a child’s chance to become competitive at the elite level.

Research conducted by Moesch et al. revealed, those who reached an elite status trained less in earlier childhood than those who failed to reach an elite-level but increased their training more than their non-elite counterparts in late adolescence.

The research by Moesch et al. highlights the important role for the organisation of training, and to focus on exposure to a range of sports develops the physical literacy aforementioned enabling the child to perform a range of movements and at the young age gain enjoyment out of the array of physical experience, to develop a healthy long-lasting relationship with exercise. 

LTAD model states there are so called ‘windows of opportunity’ for trainability when      accelerated adaptation (gains from most efficient use of training to adaptation, periods of development which represent the time when children are ready and able to develop skills, according to chronological age and maturation status) will take place if the appropriate volume, intensity and frequency of training are implemented (E.g – Peak Strength phase, immediately following peak height velocity for girls and 18months after for boys).

Although this method improves upon chronological age group classifications at present there is a distinct lack of empirical evidence to support the LTAD model of an ‘optimal window’ of trainability (Ford et al., 2011).

The lack of evidence in relation to trainability of aerobic components makes it difficult to support the windows of opportunity. As such, the LTAD model has subsequently been challenged by the Youth Development Phase (YDP) model to optimise long term athletic performance and offers practitioners a coaching framework.

This new model enables a more holistic development of the youth athlete, with the inclusion of important aspects of human performance including mobility, agility and power. With the YDP model accounting for the most up to date research, suggesting all fitness components are trainable throughout childhood.     

Summary

LTAD is a theoretical based model to help guide coaches, practitioners or parents about sports and exercise participation for children, adolescents and youth athletes, providing a template for the most effective way to train for athletes to succeed.

The key aspect promoted by the LTAD is with key movement habits being introduced from a young age, to ensure a subsequent healthy relationship with exercise into adulthood.

LTAD is a model which can be used by anyone to help promote engagement and enjoyment from physical activity, in which due to rising obesity levels, inactivity and ever increasing access to technology from a young age, the importance of such models which promote prolonged activity to be active for life is essential for all to stay healthy.      

Take-home points

  • Coaches, practitioners, parents should appreciate the need for long term development to support healthy exercise habits, that can last a lifetime (~hare and tortoise~).
  • Early sport specialisation is not crucial for sporting success and may actually hamper an individual’s long term development.
  • The LTAD is a solid long term development model, however, some of the nuances (optimal training windows) are not evidence-based so care should be taken when implementing such ideas into your child(s)/team(s) sport programme. 

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Written by Ben Tooley (MSc)

Ben is a strength & conditioning coach and sports scientist with a passion for developing youth athletes. He holds a Masters degree in Strength & Conditioning from Leeds Beckett University and a Bachelor of Science degree in Sport and Exercise Science from the University of Leeds.

Currently, Ben works with Partick Thistle U18’s and scholarship athletes at the University of Strathclyde, where he designs and implements training programs to enhance their physical capabilities and improve performance. Ben has previously delivered S&C to the University of Leeds netball team and UFCA football academy, where he successfully implemented a youth development model.

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