Long term athlete development (LTAD) is a newer theory designed to focus on the proper development of young athletes based on their current level and not their age. Traditional thinking focuses on winning and adapting adult style training dumb-down to younger ages.
The kaizen philosophy started in Japan after WWII and was adapted by business and eventually more recently into the long term athlete development model. Interestingly enough, it can also apply to the development of coaches. The model relies on the systematic improvement of the individual over a long time frame. The short-term success seen in the traditional methods may give temporary success like winning a game but the development of the athlete will suffer. Long term athlete development has been proven to reduce injuries, increase the positive perception of the sport and improve athletic performance.
Think back to when you played sports as a teenager. What was it like? How many times was winning the ultimate goal and when it didn’t happen, the negative comments and perceptions started to happen? Parents and coaches routinely put pressure on even the youngest players to succeed measured only by winning a game, tournament or championship. Being a very good player with loads of “potential” at an early age has become the norm. Hockey has gotten to the point that parents were making so many negative comments to their kids, coaches and officials that many leagues have implemented a zero tolerance policy towards unsportsmanlike behavior.
My son played 5-6 hockey this past year and they did not keep score and when a tournament was played, all players on every team got a trophy of medal. That process follows the long term athlete development model quite well. The pre-season meeting with parents outlined the expectations where they outlined the actual percentage of players that ever make the NHL level. The number is amazingly low and their hope is to stop the negative behavior of those convinced their son will make that level of play when it is highly unlikely.
On the flip-side, my son’s little league team (4-6 yr olds) played only games and played so many in some weeks that practice was impossible. Based on the long term athlete development model, developing skills is far more important for the child than the games themselves. Even in this young age group of nearly entirely first year players, the score mattered and standings were kept to determine who was leading league. Playoffs were held where everyone got a medal, but they kept score and determined a winner every game. To expect the kids to not be concerned with winning in this environment is unrealistic. As expected, unless you were a coach like myself who tried to schedule practices, there was very little development of players on the majority of teams. Baseball is well known to be a very boring game of young players because they will “play” for an hour and be active maybe 10 minutes of that time. How are they supposed to develop their skills?
The long term athlete development model is by far the best thing to happen to organized sports is the past 40 years. It is time to get kids to develop properly and take the stress of having to win out of the equation. The result will be kids who develop a love for the game and keep playing well into their adult years instead of quitting by the age of 15.