If you’re raising a child athlete, think long-term

Children’s sport has never been as serious in Canada as it is today. With the increased monetary reward of becoming a successful professional athlete, and the celebrity status that goes with it, more parents are dreaming of big achievement for their child.

These dreams give rise to increased costs in some sports as parents seek out private coaching and elite academies, or purchase ever-more-expensive equipment in the hopes of getting an extra edge for their 10 year-old. They also give rise to vastly increased risks of injury and athlete burnout if not handled correctly.

For the health of the child, as well as optimal athlete development, this is where parents need to step back and take the long view on their child’s development, both as an “athlete” and as a person. And this is why the Long-Term Athlete Development model (LTAD) was created.

LTAD involves a somewhat complex array of sport science and best practices in coaching to optimize how we develop athletes in Canada. But it really has one simple purpose: to get our kids doing the right things at the right times under the right conditions during their development.

If we do the right things at the right time in the right way, more of our children will have the skills, attitudes and understandings to be able to choose a path in sport that fits them. If they have lofty goals in sport, they can pursue a training path in high performance (e.g. to become an Olympic or a professional athlete). If they simply want to enjoy playing local amateur sport, or participate in a lifelong recreational activity of their choice, they can choose that path.

Both are valid choices, and they are choices that should be made by the child or youth athlete, not the parent.

How does LTAD address their choice? LTAD has 7 stages that correspond to basic phases of human physical, cognitive, emotional, and social development from early childhood to late adulthood:

  1. Active Start: age 0-6 years
  2. FUNdamentals: age 6-8 years females, 6-9 years males
  3. Learn to Train: age 8-11 years females, 9-12 years males
  4. Train to Train: age 11-15 years females, 12-16 years males
  5. Train to Compete: age 15-21+/- years females, 16-23+/- years males
  6. Train to Win: age 18+ years females, 19+ years males
  7. Active for Life: enter at any age following Learn to Train

The first 3 stages of Active Start, Fundamentals, and Learn to Train develop basic physical literacy and help children to discover their talents and interests. Train to Train, Train to Compete, and Train to Win develop talent in those athletes who have chosen the high performance path so they can reach the Olympics or the professional ranks.

Within the LTAD model, the Active for Life stage is what happens outside the high performance pathway after children have developed physical literacy. It promotes lifelong amateur and recreational participation for enjoyment, fitness, and social connection.

The key point for parents to understand: the LTAD guidelines for each stage of the model specify what kinds of developmentally appropriate practices and games should be taking place. These guidelines are research-based on sport science and best practices in coaching to produce the best athletes possible while promoting lifelong activity for all.

When parents look at a particular program in physical activity and sport for their child, they should ask whether or not the program follows the LTAD guideline for that sport. Remember that when it comes to children’s programming, the basic tenet is that we should not have children training and competing like adults. The physical, mental, and emotional capacities of children and adults are vastly different, and generally their goals and reasons for playing a sport are significantly different as well.

The foundation of LTAD is physical literacy. In an ideal world, every child should develop basic physical literacy (just like literacy and numeracy) by the time they leave the Learn to Train stage around age 11 or 12 years. In present reality, this is not the case in Canada and most of the western world.

This is why LTAD and the Active for Life initiative are so important. By developing physical literacy in Canadian children, we are creating the conditions for greater participation in sport and physical activity in general, and we are also optimizing elite athlete development for those who choose high performance. It is the best of both worlds.

3 responses to “If you’re raising a child athlete, think long-term

  1. Nadine and Neil,

    I too am an advocate of the LTAD model. With an M.Ed. (Coaching), I have been fortunate to coach hockey at all levels from U5 (learn to skate) to National Team to professionals. I have also coached youth soccer up to U18 female, U6 kids basketball, all ages mountain biking and mentored coaches of U 14 lacrosse and National Team rugby. (I specialize in Team Invasion Sports.)

    I am worried that too many associations and coaches either are not aware of the LTAD model, or don’t care.

    In my experience, soccer seems to have incorporated some aspects of the LTAD (it’s still a work in progress here!) but sadly, Basketball Canada’s Learn To Play program in our community (U6) is anything but…

    We use size 5 balls (Size 7 is ‘regulation’ adult-sized – why not use a more kid-friendly size 3?) The hoops in the elementary gym are too high, even when adjusted all the way down. I would think it would be realistic to expect portable, kid-friendly height nets (available at sporting goods stores!) The actual lesson plan content is based on the old ‘drill’ model, whereby kids stand in lines waiting for a turn to try to shoot, etc.

    After the first 1.5 months of helping as an assistant, I believe the head coaches treat the kids like miniature adults, given their management style and expectations demonstrated via the lesson plans! This leads to low activity time and when kids aren’t engaged or inspired, they lose interest or worse, fool around. I am trying to develop a rapport with them so I can suggest changes…!

    In my case, basketball is shooting itself in the foot and I regret signing my 5 YO son up for the season (7 months long!) He finds it boring and doesn’t like to attend.

    Perhaps our coaching certification models for the various sports need to be further refined to reflect additional emphasis on educating all partners about the LTAD. That; and keeping the kids active by emphasizing FUN games at every practice (goodbye ‘drill’ model, hello TGfU model!) and using kid-friendly equipment. Nobody wants to register their kid for a program subject to a coaches’ unrealistic expectations and an environment built for failure!

  2. I really like and believe in the LTAD model. I have been c cross country skiing coaching for eight years. Last year, two of our children requested to be in a future stars soccer program. I had many discussions with the head of the program and his failure to follow the LTAD concept. This year our children have asked to play lacrosse, so hopefully all goes well and coaches are educated on the LTAD model of sport. I could go on and on about the subject. Very good article.

    1. That’s unfortunate if the soccer program head coach was not using the LTPD plan for soccer, especially if your kids were showing interest in pursuing higher training. We always want to reward that kind of enthusiasm in kids! The Canadian Lacrosse Association has also developed an LTAD plan for lacrosse. You can find it posted as the “overview” link at this lacrosse club webpage: http://www.rockyviewlacrosse.com/long-term-athlete-development/

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