By: Brian McCormick

A representative from a nation’s basketball federation inquired about my interest in the position of the federation’s Technical Director. During the conversation, he stressed the importance of understanding Canada’s development model. While unfathomable to people in the United States, sports federations around the world no longer envy the U.S. model. Instead, sports bodies interested in developing Olympic athletes and world champions copy the models of Canada, Australia and Great Britain, the early adopters of Istvan Balyi’s Long Term Athlete Development model.

Most people in the U.S. are unaware of the LTAD model or do not see a reason to change the way that athletes develop. The people who run youth sports strive to maintain the status quo, pointing to traditional success, rather than searching for more innovative ideas or the best possible development program.

In the October 2009 Fast Company, an article titled “Cassandra’s Revenge” profiled economist Noreena Hertz and her ideas on changing the world’s economic system.

“She offers the auto industry as an example: In the late 60’s, she says, when the Clean Air Act was being deliberated in the United States, American carmakers spent millions lobbying against it, while Honda decided to develop more energy-efficient cars. ‘Honda’s cost was on innovation and thinking about how the future might be, and making a product that might fit the future better,’ says Hertz. ‘The other companies were spending their money on stopping the future from happening. In that case, Honda won.’”

Other nations spend their financial resources on innovation, adopting overall systems to develop future athletes rather than waiting for precocious athletes to materialize. In the United States, we spend money on the same programs and competitions, maintaining the status quo. Our sports organizations believe in the traditional approach to athlete development which has worked for generations because we start with a great mass of participants and allow the strongest, biggest athletes to survive.

The NBA, for instance, does not invest in the youth programs developing the next generation of NBA players. Instead, due to the promises of riches and fame, the popularity of the game and the large and diverse population, the NBA knows that enough players will develop through the survival of the fittest development model and replenish NBA rosters. Major League Baseball teams run academies throughout Latin America, but rely on Little Leagues (parents) and high school programs (teachers) to develop the next generation of homegrown baseball players.

Before Dr. Istvan Balyi developed the LTAD, the former Soviet Union led the world in applying sports science to athlete development. Dr. Michael Yessis of California State University, Fullerton in Secrets of Soviet Sport Fitness & Training described the Russian versus American development systems:

“In the U.S., we treat our best athletes like Rolls-Royces, glorying in their quality, but we leave these Rolls-Royces parked in the driveway, to be spattered by rain and snow, and driven mile after mile without receiving even the most basic maintenance such as lubrication and oil changes. Yes, we fill them with gas, but when one breaks down we just discard it and get another. 
By contrast, in the U.S.S.R., coaches have never felt that they have a base of outstanding athletes so large that they could care for them poorly. Thus, much as a prized Rolls-Royce should be treated, athletes there are nurtured with tender loving care. They receive the best coaching available in their area. These youngsters are encouraged in every way possible to reach their full potential.”

In the 21st Century, Great Britain, Australia, Canada and others have replaced the former U.S.S.R. as the new model, as their sports federations have adopted Balyi’s LTAD model in some form. The LTAD now guides sports development as sports scientists learn more every year about the process of developing an elite athlete. In Canada, for instance, the federation for each sport created its own LTAD plan to guide its administrators and coaches who in turn guide the athletes.

In 2008, the United States maintained its athletic dominance at the Beijing Games, but there were signs of change, if you looked closely. Great Britain demonstrated a world class cycling program despite almost no history of cycling success. A BBC article titled “How GB cycling went from tragic to magic” published shortly after the conclusion of the 2008 Games detailed the changes with British Cycling:

“In 1992, Chris Boardman won Britain’s first Olympic cycling gold since 1920. But British Cycling’s performance director Peter Keen knew nothing had really changed.
‘What Chris and I were doing in the early ’90s was classic British alpinism,’ remembers Keen. 
‘He was just another one-off success. Leave no ropes, leave no trail. There was no system so there was no legacy. I saw then the challenge was to convert those highly motivated, highly talented individuals into a system.’”

Australia battled the U.S. head to head in swimming (among other sports like women’s basketball) with many of its top athletes progressing through the famed A.I.S. (Australian Institute of Sport).

While U.S. athletes develop through a hodge-podge of different programs, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and others guide the development of their athletes through the sports’ Federations. Successful U.S. athletes thrive through the British alpinism that Keen describes. We believe that athletes like Carmelo Anthony, Drew Brees and Derek Jeter are genetic freaks with innate talent who were destined for sporting greatness. The LTAD is a philosophy used by Federations to develop athletes consistently as opposed to waiting for fate to birth a new star.

The LTAD presents guidelines for coaches, parents and administrators.  For instance, the emphasis until 11-years-old for girls or 12-years-old for boys (onset of puberty) is physical literacy. In the FUNdamentals stage (boys 6-9 and girls 6-8), the LTAD emphasizes that “skill development should be well-structured and FUN and should concentrate on developing the ABCs – of Agility, Balance, Coordination and Speed, plus rhythmic activities.”

How many u8 coaches are concerned with developing Agility? When I played u8 soccer, we ran laps; we did not focus on changing directions or moving laterally. I walked into a gym this weekend and saw the end of several youth basketball practices. Every one featured young children running through the team’s plays 5v0. Players ran in straight lines, passed to designated spots and shot once every couple minutes. Coaches constantly re-focused players on the task (running the offense), as the players were distracted easily. This practice is not particularly fun, nor does it develop agility, balance, coordination or speed.

I was there to run a clinic for young players. We played three different games of tag (two while dribbling basketballs). We warmed-up with a competitive acceleration drill and a competitive agility drill. We added another acceleration drill while dribbling. Every segment was active and involved competition, though there was no real winner or loser. The short clinic trained agility, speed, balance and coordination in multiple ways, and the players laughed and smiled for the entire time. Not once did I have to re-focus the players’ attention.

Furthermore, the LTAD suggests that “this is a great age for children to take part in a wide range of sports.” Even in the next stage – Learning to Train – with 9-12 year-old boys and 8-11-year-old girls, the LTAD suggests that “it is still too early for specialization in late specialization sports [gymnastics is an example of an early specialization sport; most team sports are late specialization sports, meaning athletes peak in their 20s, not their teens]. Although many children at this age will have developed a preference for one sport or another, for full athletic development they need to engage in a broad range of activities, playing at least 2-3 different sports.” These guidelines shape the way that Federations administer sports. New Zealand’s sports federation sponsored an LTAD program for athletes younger than 14. Each athlete, regardless of sport, participated in a mix of sports each week, and only spent one extra day per week on their chosen sport.

When I train new athletes, I notice deficiencies based on a lack of breadth in their development. For instance, after watching a couple players struggle to track and catch a tennis ball while dribbling a basketball, I guessed that they had never played baseball or softball and was correct. Their athletic experience consisted of a couple years of soccer at a young age and then a move to basketball. While they have no problem physically catching a basketball, they lacked the coordination to manipulate the basketball and catch a tennis ball because tracking and catching a ball is not a mastered skill. These are very good dribblers – the problem centered with a lack of experience tracking and catching a ball, a skill commonplace in baseball and softball.

Unfortunately, in the United States, many people believe that the quicker a player specializes, the better his or her opportunity for success in his or her sport. Experience and research does not support these beliefs. Specializing in one sport at an early age impedes one’s overall athletic development, which leads to an early stagnation when developing sport-specific skills.

To create better sports programs for our youth athletes, we need to look at the LTAD model and educate parents, administrators and coaches about the importance of overall athletic development prior to sport-specialization.

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