WHAT IS LONG-TERM ATHLETIC DEVELOPMENT?
There are three things that are important by the time young sports people become adults: Strong
and healthy bodies, high quality movement, and a high level of engagement. Long-term athlete
development is any pathway or process that promotes these outcomes.
SPORT AND ATHLETIC DEVELOPMENT ARE NOT THE SAME THING
We use the term ‘ATHLETE’ because an athlete and a sports person are not necessarily the same
thing. What does this mean? Its common nowadays to find individuals performing at very high
levels in multiple sports with unique demands.
This is possible because there are common resources that the individual may apply in each different
environment (call them general athletic skills). The general athletic skills are not sporting abilities but
the resources that sporting skills are made from.
Let’s use tennis as an example. Tennis movement is quick and multidirectional. The use of the legs
and arms to control the racquet is also complex and highly specialised. Now imagine two different
individuals learning to play. One has a high level of body control and moves well, in a general sense,
while the other is all arms and legs; general movement is weak and their body is poorly coordinated.
One child has a superior tool box of general skills and would be expected to advance the development
of their tennis skills more quickly than the other. Athleticism is the ability to build sporting abilities and
What are the general athletic skills?
- hopping, jumping, and running skills
- squatting (2leg) and lunging (1leg) patterns
- pushing and pulling skills
- basic manipulation of objects, such as throwing/ passing and catching
There are also athletic micro-skills that are needed to stabilise the bodies joints and segments during
movement. Work capacity (specifically aerobic/ cardiovascular fitness) is also a general athletic property.
Athletic development is not something that happens in a special place or at unique times; it happens
anytime we do enough quality work. All sporting environments involve a mix of general athletic and
sports skill conditioning, but sports tend to promote their own needs (i.e. they specialise) which means
a lot of specific conditioning and less general athletic extension than is ideal.
This is especially true of endurance and high volume sports.
There are important considerations when deciding whether a child is receiving the right mix of
sporting vs general athletic training opportunities:
Does the child possess significant faults in basic movements, such as jogging and sprinting, starting
and stopping? Do they have difficulty stabilising their body or parts of their body? Solutions for
improving movement (and sport) are found at a level below the target outcome:
- Highly efficient simple movement is the foundation for quick, powerful complex or sports-specific movement
- Correct posture underpins all movement (posture and the structural foundation is another important topic)
Simply repeating a faulty or weak pattern over and over will not change the outcome
- Children are not small adults:
- A child’s mind and body is immature and not fully developed. A wide range of training opportunities and experiences are essential to help build a strong body with a broad range of general skills. Early specialisation can impair athletic development
- Children’s bodies store much less energy and are subject to a much higher relative demand for energy. Variation or scope (of stimulus and environment) is an important mechanism of avoiding overreaching and overtraining
- Movement or structural faults, characteristic of a developing mind and body, result in injury when the body is overstressed
- Structural faults (e.g. profoundly weak muscles) can have significant negative effects on the development of general (and specific) movement skills, especially faults impairing joint motion and stability
- Sporting workloads need to be matched to the individual, and not the other way around. They also need to expand and contract across the year in accordance with additional demand, for example in high growth periods during puberty. The failure to respond appropriately at such times impairs performance and raises the risk of injury.
SKILL AND EFFICIENT MOVEMENT ARE KING
Thanks to Jeremy Browne for creating this blog entry for LifeTime on the long term athletic development of an athelete.
About Jeremy Browne
Jeremy Browne is a strength and conditioning coach based in Auckland, NZ. He is a specialist in longterm physical and athletic development, and in rehabilitating injuries or conditions that impair movement.