One of the hot terms being tossed around by coaches these days is Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD). If you are coaching and you’re not talking or thinking about it just yet, don’t panic – I’ll fill you in so you can talk like you personally came up with the idea!
So what is LTAD? And why do we care?
I mean, my students come for lessons every week because of my super amazingness. They’ll keep taking lessons with me for as long as I stay fabulous. Right? weeeeelllll… Of COURSE that’s right, but… SHOULD they keep taking lessons with me forever? Can I teach them the same thing every Thursday night at 7:00? How do we know as coaches what challenges our students should face? Or when they are ready to try new things – like competing, or riding more often?
One of the best places to look for information about developing athletes for careers and lifelong enjoyment of sport is Canada Sport 4 Life (http://canadiansportforlife.ca/coaches). This is how they define LTAD:
“Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) is the CS4L pathway for developing top-rank athletes and increasing overall participation in sport and physical activity. It includes guidelines for training, competition and recovery based on principles of human development and maturation.
LTAD considers the best interests of the athlete, not the goals of coaches or parents who might simply want to win at all costs. LTAD is built on sport science and best practices in coaching from around the world, and it follows 10 Key Factors that influence how athletes train and compete effectively.”
So basically, a whole bunch of super-sporty people have done a ton of research and used decades of experience to come up with a kick-ass plan for athlete development that considers what level of athlete and coach should work together, how to best train our athletes for successful performance and how to create athletes that can enjoy long term success in their chosen sport. These super smart sport folks have figured out that if we train athletes at the appropriate levels at the right time in their career and growth, they will not only excel in their chosen sport, they are much more likely to enjoy the sport for life. According to Canada Sport 4 Life, there are 7 stages to the basic LTAD model:
Stage 1: Active Start
Stage 2: Fundamental
Stage 3: Learn to Train
Stage 4: Train to Train
Stage 5: Train to Compete
Stage 6: Train to Win
Stage 7: Active for Life
Stages 1, 2 and 3 develop physical literacy so children have the basic skills to be active for life. Physical literacy also provides the foundation for those who choose to pursue elite training in one sport or activity.
Stages 4, 5 and 6 provide elite training for those who want to specialize in one sport and compete at the highest level, maximizing the physical, mental and emotional development of each athlete.
Stage 7 is about staying Active for Life through lifelong participation in competitive or recreational sport or physical activity.
But what does it mean? What is it saying and why do I care? Well, as coaches (and parents and athletes) we need to care. We need to understand how our students learn best at every age. Many sports enthusiasts will tell you it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a sport. If your students are only riding for an hour or two a week, that can take a long time to get to the podium! Equestrian sports are considered early start, late specialization sports – you don’t see athletes in their mid 30’s on Olympic Gymnastic teams, yet you rarely see a teenager on an Equestrian Olympic Team. Don’t get me wrong, it CAN happen, Reed Kessler (USA) was 18 when she competed in the 2012 London Olympics. It is just not the norm for our sports. As coaches, we should be aware of what level and stage athletes we are training are in and how to help the most and capitalize on windows of trainability and growth.
Our new NCCP coaching model is closely tied to the Long Term Athlete Development program for Equestrian Athletes. The LTAD is constantly evolving as more information and sport research is realized, so I won’t get into specifics yet, but basically, our coaching program is designed to cater to the students who will learn most and progress the best at their level. For example, an Instructor of Beginners generally works with the Fundamentals and Learn to Train students. These students are generally riding once a week and are pursuing several sports – not yet dedicated to any one sport. The Instructors focus, skill set and experience is best suited to introducing new skills while creating a fun atmosphere that keeps young students interested and learning. The Instructor is not asking the students to perform fine motor skills activities, but introducing general concepts while allowing the students to grow physically and mentally. In comparison, a Competition Coach works with those students who have progressed beyond the FUNdamentals of the sport and are starting to dedicate more attention and time to one sport specifically. This coach is introducing Learn to Compete students to the world of competition and starting to work on consolidating and refining specific riding skills, while understanding that their students are starting to move from multi-sport athletes to eventually becoming dedicated equestrians. And so on through the coaching levels and athlete development levels.
The tricky bit for us as coaches, is knowing where we are best suited to teach – which LTAD stage students excel under our guidance, and which we enjoy working with. I am very lucky to be in a facility with several different levels of coach from Instructor to Competition Coach Specialist. This allows me to focus my attentions to the Learn to Compete students in our program. My passion is taking those walk, trot, canter, starting to jump students and working with them through to the Pre-Training/Training level of Eventing. I’m not fabulous at FUNdamental lessons. I know it. I try to get things moving too fast, and I expect to see more physical literacy than those students can manage. I also know that when my students start to travel to compete at higher levels, I’m generally at home teaching the next round of Pre-Entry competitors. I get to move those students on to my sister Ruth Allum to coach as a Competition Coach Specialist. She can then work with them through to the FEI levels of competition.
At Oakhurst, we have developed a real pathway for students to move through training and continue to progress and evolve as athletes, catering to their needs physically, mentally and emotionally by understanding the Long Term Athlete Development plan and how it fits in to our skills and training. We are working on educating our parents and athletes about the LTAD as well. This is a very high level look at the idea, and I will definitely delve deeper into it over the coming year, however hopefully it got you thinking. I’d suggest looking at the Canada Sport 4 Life website http://canadiansportforlife.ca/ – they are the folks who developed the concept, and they have some great information for coaches, athletes and parents. Start thinking about where you fit as a coach, what’s your niche and how best can you support those students. By understanding what your students are and are not capable of at each age, stage and development level, we can start building a generation of equestrians with a lifelong love for the sport(s) and give them the tools to reach their peak potential and earn those podium finishes in the future if they desire to follow the gold medal path.