Long-Term Development of Athletes

Let’s suppose you are putting together a team composed of 18-22 year old athletes – any sport will do, pick your favorite – you have already filled out the roster with the exception of one remaining spot. Thus far you have a balanced player profile: everyone has better than average levels of physical and psychological attributes.

For that last open spot you’ve got the decision down between two players – Athlete A is clearly a physical specimen (i.e., they look dominant and are extremely fast/powerful), but has very little formal training in the sport or organized physical preparation. Athlete A can best be described as a good project, a blank canvas, or a risky bet with potentially a huge upside. This player will need much formalized physical training and sport specific technical instruction/drilling to become a team asset.

Athlete B will fit in well physically with the team and this athlete has excellent decision making abilities. You know this athlete has been involved in a long-term development program that has covered both sport specific and physical preparation. This player will provide consistent practice and game efforts and be solid foundation for the rest of the team by being an example of superior work ethic, positive attitude, and maturity from which the rest of the team can learn. However, Athlete B does not have the “star power” of A.

Which one do you choose to round out your team?

Before I come out with MY answer, I’ll give you more detailed background information on the long-term development model and answer the following questions:

 

How does the long-term model look? When does it begin and why?

To achieve what is TRULY high performance, six to eight years of preparation is required (here I am referring to both general physical and sport specific preparation). So, this process will actually start as early as age 10. And, believe it or not (well, you should believe it), the DETAILS of the planning day-by-day, week-by-week, and year-by-year make THE difference in seeing an individual achieve their true potential or falling a little short by the time they are 18 years of age.

Training can be divided into four main sections during the six to eight years of preparation:

Training Classification Age Range Goals
Basic Training (3 yrs)

 

 

Ages 10-12 A general, non-specific approach with all-round balance. Variety is the key as children are developing multiple motor coordinative abilities along with strength, speed, and mobility. Technique MUST be precisely learned and part of the program must include developing sprint mechanics.
Build-Up Training (3 yrs) Ages 13-15 Aims to develop a large catalogue of techniques and general motor-coordination skills. Other goals include development of endurance, speed, reactive ability, all-round strength, mobility/flexibility, and a high standard of performance in a mult-event test (Heptathlon).
Connecting Training (3 yrs) Ages 16-18 At this point the athlete has decided about his/her specialty (the sport). The main goal at this point is to extract sport specific performance abilities utilizing NON-SPECIFIC training means and increasing the proportion of maximum strength training methods.
High Performance Training (2-3 Olympic Cycles) Age 19 and older Having developed to this point, the athlete is now prepared for high level performance training that can involve numerous means, methods, and theories to extract the needed performance.

Hopefully, you can see from this table how involved the athlete development process should be. Europe has had an amazing talent development process in place for decades, unfortunately the same cannot be said for the United States. I regularly encounter parents, athletes, and coaches with little respect for the power, importance, and impact that an appropriately developed strength training and conditioning program can have on a developing athlete (and, more importantly, a quality person). Why is there a difference? Well, it is simply a by-product of how physical education programs are run in schools and how the club sports model has developed.

But, back to my question: between Athlete A and Athlete B, which one would you choose to fill out your roster?

In this scenario, I would choose Athlete B every single time. Athlete B has a solid skill set with a great deal of experience in formal training to complement that experience. Additionally, by understanding their long-term physical preparation approach, I would also feel comfortable in knowing that there is little chance this athlete would incur overuse or non-contact injuries at a higher level of competition.

In my opinion Athlete A is too far behind in the development process to see a big upside with only a few short years of development. A’s motor patterns are already completely set and it is unlikely A could make the changes in faulty motor patterns that are essential for technical execution in sport. In addition, there is a high likelihood that their mental toughness and attitude will not be up to the rigors of all the challenges to be encountered in a fast-tracked development program. It could be like trying to stuff 10 pounds of sand into a 5 pound bag… it just ain’t gonna happen.

Before I wrap up, I do want to note that if your child does not start this process at age 10 or even by age 12, all is not lost! You can fast track the process just a bit. The real key is to try to get children into this type of formalized training before all of their motor patterns are established and “set in stone” – this happens around age 15 or 16. In this case, the “ideal” model above will be adjusted to the following:

Training Classification Age Range Goals
Basic Training & Build-Up Training Combined (2 yrs)

 

 

Ages 16 and 17 Although the athlete may already be specialized in their sport, time must still be spent on very general physical preparedness and learning exact technique.
Connecting Training (2 yrs) Ages 18 and 19 The main goal at this point is to extract sport specific performance abilities utilizing NON-SPECIFIC training means and increasing the proportion of maximum strength training methods.
High Performance Training (2-3 Olympic Cycles) Age 20 and older Having developed to this point, the athlete is now prepared for high level performance training that can involve numerous means, methods, and theories to extract the needed performance.

We regularly begin formal general physical preparation for our athletes around age 14-16 and see phenomenal performance results over time. But, if you have the means or your own knowledge base, you should strive to get your kids started between ages 10-12.

In the end, the physical performance is rewarding, but short-term. The personal development and increased confidence a young person gains from this process is the real benefit that will last a lifetime.