Was Usain Bolt always fast? Did someone spot that when he was ten and mould his success? Rumour has it he had more fun playing cricket and wasn’t that sold on sprinting. What if Tiger Woods hadn’t really enjoyed golf all that much, or Serena Williams didn’t have the fun of the company of her sister when they did all that practise as kids?

Commonly people talk about natural talent, however if you’ve read ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed, or subscribe to Anders Ericsson’s theory of ten thousand hours you’ll understand how much that timing, people, and resources have to do with it. Also, it shouldn’t be underestimated how much childhood play provides unintentional accumulated practice, the development of skills, neural pathways and movement competency and it’s weighting against natural talent.

There is also that kid who at age eight, is a foot taller and wider than everyone else in his rugby team and looks like a natural talent simply because the skinny short kid doesn’t stand a chance of fending him off.

All these ideas are encompassed in Long Term Athletic Development; the idea there are stages of motor skill learning, strength and endurance development, and enjoyment, that all have to come ahead of training to win when it comes to youth sport.  If you’re a parent of a sporty kid, you should know there is a massive amount of research that continually challenges and drives the development of the safest, smartest and most successful practices for athletic development from toddler to teenager.  To ignore this research, is to risk a child’s enjoyment and success of sport, and perhaps their future health which would be an absolute tragedy in this age of rising inactivity.

The fact is, you can’t guess talent.  Sporting prowess is not linear, it is a continual rate of progression that depends on co-ordination, movement competency, skill learning and opportunity.  Any parent will tell you that the growth rates vary immensely between kids of the same chronological age; limbs grow before torsos and growth spurts can be anywhere up to 12 centimetres in a year.

Some kids pick up a skill at the drop of a hat, some take a little longer, some just actually need more encouragement and instruction or different cues until they get it.  Some learn best by doing, others learn by mimicking, and still more may have what is termed ‘adolescent awkwardness’ which means their brain hasn’t quite caught up with their limb growth yet.

Some improvements in pre-adolescence are purely due to familiarisation – if the athlete does something often enough, they get better at it, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are any more talented long term, their neural adaptation for that certain movement has just been greater than the other guy at that point.

Conversely, the western world is in danger of breeding less active kids which means even the most basic of fundamental movement patterns and eye-hand skills are missing when they first show up to school sports day.  This lack of neuromuscular facilitation alone leads to a poor foundation of strength and coordination and heightens the risk of injury.

All of these factors combine to mean that adult training programmes cannot logically be superimposed onto youth – technical competency-based and progressive training is key to long-term athletic development.  The day of training the team just like dad did in the seventies is limited; sports science improvements, qualified professionals skilled in strength and conditioning programming, sport pedagogy and knowledge about energy systems and endurance and strength capacity at various biological growth stages is available in spades. Hence several schools in Waikato have employed full time S&C coaches in their sports department to ensure the safe athletic development of their students.

Although worth considering is the penchant for constant higher-level sports participation between summer and winter.  With no real break and rest from sport it may just limit adaptations and again, heighten the risk of injury, and to have an athletic career ended prematurely when it might have been avoided would be just heartbreaking.

The overriding message seems to be that Fundamental Movement Skills are paramount and getting kids strong and resilient and in doing so lowering their risk of injury, is the foundation of ongoing development and enjoyment. Simple things like impromptu running races, jumping ropes, throwing things, building forts out of trees, and dare it be said, climbing trees, are the building blocks of sporting capacity.

Because of course, at the very top of the checklist is enjoyment.  It is a well-known truth that kids that have fun playing a variety of sports, without specialising too early, develop a range of competencies and technical skills that make them better specialist athletes later in life if they choose to do so. And considering only about one percent of kids that play basketball at high school in the US will end up in the NBA, having fun may well be the most important part of youth sport.

Even Usain Bolt was rumoured to say; “When I’m at the gym, I think about chicks, going to the beach, and looking good. I do it for the girls.”

Athletic Development 1

10 pillars of successful long-term athletic development

Lloyd et al. J Strength Cond Res. 2016

1.  Long-term athletic development pathways should accommodate for the highly individualised and non-linear nature of the growth and development of youth.

2.  Youth of all ages, abilities, and aspirations should engage in long-term athletic development programmes that promote both physical fitness and psychosocial wellbeing.

3.  All youth should be encouraged to enhance physical fitness from early childhood, with a primary focus on motor skill and muscular strength development.

4.  Long-term athletic development pathways should encourage an early sampling approach for youth that promotes and enhances a broad range of motor skills.

5.  Health and wellbeing of the child should always be the central tenet of long-term athletic development programmes.

6.  Youth should participate in physical conditioning that helps reduce the risk of injury to ensure their ongoing participation in long-term athletic development programmes.

7.  Long-term athletic development programs should provide all youth with a range of training modes to enhance both health- and skill-related components of fitness.

8.  Practitioners should use relevant monitoring and assessment tools as part of a long-term physical development strategy.

9.  Practitioners working with youth should systematically progress and individualise training programs for successful long-term athletic development.

10.  Qualified professionals and sound pedagogical approaches are fundamental to the success of long-term athletic development programmes.