This post kicks off a three part series dedicated to the discussion of long-term athletic development for athletes and coaches. Athletes and new lifters are often being pushed too hard, too fast. What actually goes into training, coaching, and developing an athlete or lifter from young/novice trainee to a superstar? We're going to find out over the next few weeks.
People often ask me why I became a strength and conditioning coach. Now, I could answer that question one of two ways. One, I could simply state that I wanted to help people. Two, I could tell them the real answer, being, I was an athlete who specialized early, which then brought on the feelings of constantly being burnt out and always being injured. This led me to ending my basketball playing career in college way sooner than I had ever hoped.
Truth be told, I wanted to help athletes and others from all walks not make the same mistakes that I made when I was a high-level athlete, and hopefully shed some light to the coaches out there about the dangerous of early sport specialization.
The Dangers of Specialization at a Young Age
The story is all too familiar these days. Athletes all over the place are specializing in sports at a younger and younger age, all the while coaches and parents are pushing them to do so.
Gone are the days where each season would bring a new sport to compete in. Now, there are indoor and outdoor leagues, clinics, practices, and training for the athlete to compete year-round. Along with this comes the fear that if the athlete doesn’t compete in said sport year-round like the rest of the kids, then they will ultimately fall behind.
The associated risks with this is the constant repetitiveness and volume of the same exact movements and loading year-round to a body that is still developing. This leads an athlete to developing imbalances from being over-developed in one area and under-developed in another, which then ultimately leads to injury.
Take a youth baseball pitcher for example. The pitcher is standing on the mound throwing for X amount of games, practices, and training sessions each week. Instead of for a season of a few months and then giving the shoulder and elbow time to recover, this is being done for 12 months of the year, often times without any other sport or strength training to accommodate.
This is a big reason why according to Dr. James Andrews, the amount of Tommy John and shoulder surgeries performed on 13-19 year olds has increased seven-fold since 2000. Now, 13-19 year olds are the most common age range these surgeries are being performed on, all of which are injuries brought upon by overuse. Now, this can happen in with any sport and injury, however overall, early specialization can lead to the creation of avoidable imbalances and overloading which then can lead to injury, overuse, or just burn out.
This article is not to fear monger you as an athlete away from competing year-round in a sport you love and want to dedicate time to, as a coach training athletes, as a parent from allowing your kid to do so, or as a new fitness enthusiast looking to get into better shape.
Long Term Athletic Development: What Is It and Why Is It Important?
This series is to serve notice that there is ultimately a healthier, more progressive, better way to get where you ultimately want to be as an athlete or want your athletes to be as a coach or parent. In comes the concept of long-term athletic development (LTAD). LTAD refers to the progressive development of on- and off-field skill, strength, speed, and movement over time in order to enhance performance and growth, and decrease risk of injury.
Movement Patterning and Movement Variability
Before we learn how to walk, we crawl. Before we learn how to jump, we squat. The same goes for any advanced skill. As a society, we are always so focused on the end game and never appreciate the processes that actually get us to the end result.
Athletes, some parents, and some coaches always want to push or jump straight to fancy, intense training. Could we jump straight to little Johnny throwing a bar on his back or performing turbo x3000 (there isn’t actually an exercise with that name, but if there was, I’m sure it would be awesome)? Yes. Will that get us to a good point? Probably not.
One of the primary roles for a strength and conditioning coach is to teach their athlete how to efficiently move, position, and load in order to increase strength, speed, deceleration, and reduce risk of injury. Movement patterning allows us to develop the gross motor skills required to transfer success to the field or court. Part two of this series will discuss how to optimally develop, periodize, and vary movement for long-term success.
Energy Systems Development
If you have reported to the first day of practice for any sport, I am sure you know or remember what it feels like to rapidly perform all out sprints or suicides until you’re on the verge of puking. Not only does this type of approach not help the athlete develop their conditioning the right way, it can also quickly lead to fatigue and injury.
Our energy systems work like a house. At each level of our house we have different energy systems at play in order to match the varying demands of the sports intensity or pace. If we have certain energy systems overpowering others, our house will collapse. In part two we will discuss how to optimally develop and train our aerobic, lactic, and alactic systems to maximize conditioning and performance in the sense of LTAD.
Strength is a big part of the LTAD equation. Strength ultimately allows us to express and absorb force. The stronger one becomes, the faster, more agile, and healthy they can be. Part two of this series will discuss how to train to maximally develop strength.
Mobility and Stability
Maintaining mobility and stability as an athlete grows and adapts is crucial in order limit the risk of injury as age and competition level increases. As an athlete expresses a feature, skill, or movement within their sport, there is always a level of mobility and stability required to carry the said action. Mobility and stability keeps our joints and tissue healthy.
Nutrition is all about fueling the body properly and enough in order to recover and ultimately adapt from the stresses of training, practice, and competition. Wilt Chamberlain used to drink Sprite on the sidelines. Sadly, if we want to have long-term success, we can’t all be like Wilt.
More is not always better. If we want to be able to see adaptations from training, we need to be able to recover. If recovery is bad, then the risk of overtraining, fatigue, and injury increases. In order to maximize recovery, we need things like sleep, nutrition, and stress reduction techniques.
Make sure to check out part two of this series to learn how to maximize the development of movement patterning and variability, energy systems, and strength for long-term success. In part three we will cover the best practices for developing mobility and stability, nutritional health, and recovery for LTAD.