Kids are naturals at free-form play: They can run, jump, toss balls, and ride bikes without giving it much thought. At the same time, and without being aware of it, they learn, practice, and develop fundamental athletic skills.
Yet for many kids today, this traditional notion of play is replaced by more sedentary, screen-centered activities. As a result, we have a growing population of kids who not only miss out on the joy of play, but who are also at risk for developing health issues such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
An approach called Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) aims to strike a middle ground: It’s a structured process and proven methodology to help kids acquire those essential athletic skills, as well as reinforce healthy, active habits. The term “athlete” in this case, could range from a recreational player to a professional athlete.
LTAD has been getting an increasing amount of buzz in the world of collegiate and professional athletics, but is new to many parents. If you’d like to encourage your child’s athletic abilities or desire to excel in a sport, understanding this concept may be helpful.
What is Long-Term Athlete Development?
While LTAD is ultimately geared toward helping develop elite and professional athletes, its principles can be applied for all children in order to set the foundation for a healthy, active lifestyle.
The process is designed to help kids develop athletic traits and sport-specific skills over time. This typically spans a 10-year period but fluctuates based on the physical and mental maturity of each child. By going through this method of development, all kids have the ability to reach their full athletic potential — whatever that means for each individual.
LTAD has been embraced in Europe for years, but is still relatively new to the United States, and only a few organizations have integrated it into their programming. Ajay Pant, senior director of racquet sports at Life Time, is a firm believer in the LTAD process and developed Life Time’s SMART® junior tennis program based on the model.
“The LTAD methodology allows children to learn skills appropriate to their age and skill level, which is so important,” says Pant. “Too much sport-specific training too soon can cause burnout and increase chances of overuse injuries. We want to develop strong, healthy players who love the sport, so they’ll continue playing — and being active — their entire lives.”
While the LTAD methodology can be applied to other sports such as soccer, football, or hockey, tennis is a prime example of the positive, long-term benefit it can have, as it’s one of the few sports people often play for a lifetime.
What are the stages of Long-Term Athlete Development?
The LTAD model is divided into seven stages. You’ll notice age ranges for each, as the movement between stages is based more on developmental age than chronological age, since children grow and develop physically, mentally, and emotionally at such individual rates. An important note: Fun-based development is stressed in the early years, while sport-specific specialization comes later.
- Stage 1: Active Start (ages 0–6)
- Stage 2: FUNdamentals (ages 6–8 for girls, 6–9 for boys)
- Stage 3: Learning to Train (ages 8–11 for girls, 9-12 for boys)
- Stage 4: Training to Train (ages 11–15 for girls, 12–16 for boys)
- Stage 5: Training to Compete (ages 15–21 for girls, 16–23 for boys)
- Stage 6: Training to Win (ages 18-plus for girls, 19-plus for boys)
- Stage 7: Active for Life (any age)
Stages 1, 2, and 3 focus on learning basic, fundamental movement skills and all-around physical development. Stages 4, 5, and 6 are where specialization in one particular sport begins, with added emphasis on the mental and emotional development of the athlete. Stage 7 is about staying active and participating in sports, either competitively or recreationally for the long-term.
“Some children may show an aptitude for a particular sport at a young age, and if their desire is to compete at the highest levels, that requires a long-term development program,” says Pant. “Research has shown that it takes between eight to 12 years of training for a talented athlete to reach elite levels.”
The thoughtfulness and structure of the LTAD process also helps to prevent burnout and reduce the amount of pressure on a child.
“When a parent asks me if their 5-year-old should specialize and only be playing tennis, my answer is almost always ‘absolutely not,’” says Pant. “As long as they are advancing athletically — which means participating in other sports or simply playing outside with friends — they may be at the same stage as a kid who has played only one sport over the same time period by the time they are 9 or 10.
The two big differences are that there is a better chance the child won’t burn out of tennis at a young age, and that he or she will likely have had positive experiences trying other activities,” Pant continues.
“In my experience, the best athletes typically have a broader background. It’s beneficial for kids to participate in multiple sports at early ages so they can develop basic, well-rounded athletic skills.”
Is it ever too late for kids to start in a sport?
If your child has hopes for competing in college or playing professionally, following a LTAD pathway can help set them up for success. But that doesn’t mean a late starter can’t start playing in high school or recreationally for their entire life; they certainly can.
The possible pathway can also depend on the sport they’re pursuing. Tennis, in particular, is a sport you can pick up at any age. Pant says, “It’s never too late for any age child, or any adult for that matter, to start playing tennis.”