What you need to know:
• Long term athlete development is a process that occurs over many years. This is not an "8 week program". Rather, it starts at an early age and continues on into adulthood. It is not simply a linear process, but is one that must be highly individualized to assist the athlete in reaching their full potential.
• The greatest challenge to coaches, parents, and athletes is the understanding of how difficult this process is. Athletes are dealing with massive changes in physical attributes, brain function, and sport skill acquisition. These all must be managed simultaneously while stressing the concepts of hard work in a positive environment.
The Case for Long-Term Development
When it comes to athletics, critical development begins at a very early age. As children mature, they progress through important developmental stages during their growth and maturation process. If long-term athletic development is of any importance to the coach, parent, or athlete, certain aspects of these stages must be addressed at appropriate time periods, otherwise the chances of the athlete reaching elite status is reduced.
Similar to other facilities and organizations that place importance on long term athlete development, the model used at Gallagher Performance began with a review of research and methods utilized in child and athletic development around the world. Through the review of current and past research/methods used with elite athletes and even military special operations, it was concluded that to truly address athlete development, a new way of looking at how to properly structure "strength and conditioning" programs must be considered.
Long-term athlete development models are being utilized around the world by more than 100 national sport organizations. For example, within the sport of hockey, there is no doubt that countries like the Czech Republic, Finland, and Sweden produce numerous NHL players. The numbers becoming even more impressive when considering the population of these countries. Each of those countries has placed the primary focus on long-term athlete development models.
Early Specialization in Sports: It's Not Working
Early specialization in sport is becoming increasingly more common among children in the United States. The rationale behind such a decision typically being if a child plays one sport, year round, they will be more advanced than their peers, more likely to be the 'star', get recruited, and/or possibly go on to make millions. Is this all fact or just wishful thinking?
Recent research from UCLA reveals that early specialization in sport has very poor connection with young athletes achieving elite status. A survey of almost 300 NCAA Division I athletes found that 88% played two or three sports as children and 70% did not specialize in one sport until after the age of 12. These findings were already understood in former East Germany and USSR within their youth development programs.
Studies in East Germany and the USSR found that children who went through an early specialization program did have more immediate improvement in their performances. But these children also had their best performances between the ages of 15-16, had greater inconsistencies, many quit or 'burnt out' by the age 18, and they had greater rate of injuries because of forced adaptation compared to children who played multiple sports and specialized later in life.
Now coaches are beginning to recognize the negative impact early specialization has on athletes. Brent Sutter, former NHL player and head coach/GM for the WHL's Red Deer Rebels had this to say about players who focus on hockey 10-12 months out of the year:
“You just don’t have as many players today that are as good athletes as they used to be. Too much today, especially in young players, is focused on hockey 12 months a year ... You really notice the guys who are true athletes and the ones who are not. The ones you can take and play baseball or soccer with them and they get it. This is noticeable even at the NHL level. The true athletes are a little bit further ahead ... I want our scouts to look at athletes not just strictly hockey players."
This is not just a hockey issue. Arguably, the same can be said for athletes in any sport.
Long-term athlete development serves as a framework for athlete development in sports. It is a system that integrates age-appropriate training and recovery programming with competition while maintaining one consistent goal: the development of athletes.
At GP, we take an educated and unique approach to proper youth development in sports, focusing on a wide variety of motor, coordination, and other developmental skills. Athletic development is a process and certainly not one that should be rushed. Don't just take our word for it. Sports science and coaching experts around the globe are endorsing this model and implementing it to ensure the best outcomes for their young athletes.