Long-Term Athlete Development - The B.C. Approach

"It takes 10 years of extensive training to excel in anything." - Herbert Simon, Nobel Laureate

Scientific research has concluded that it takes eight to twelve years of training for a talented athlete to reach elite levels (Bloom, 1985; Ericsson et al., 1993; Ericsson and Charness, 1994). This is called the ten year or 10,000 hour rule. For athletes, coaches and parents this translates as slightly more than three hours of practice daily for ten years (Salmela, 1998). Unfortunately, parents and coaches in many sports still approach training with an attitude best characterized as the “peaking by Friday” approach (Balyi and Hamilton, 1999). We now know that a long-term commitment to training is required to produce a specific and well planned training, competition and recovery regime will ensure optimum development throughout an athlete’s career. Ultimately, success comes from training and performing well over the long-term rather than winning in the short term. There is no short cut to success in athletic preparation. Rushing competition will always result in shortcomings in physical, technical, tactical and mental abilities.

Models of long-term athlete development and training

In principle, sports can be classified as either early specialization or late specialization sports (Balyi and Hamilton, 1999). Early specialization refers to the fact that some sports, such as gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, figure skating, diving and table tennis require early sport-specific specialization in training. Late specialization sports, such as athletics, combative sports, cycling, racquet sports, rowing and all team sports require a generalized approach to early training. In these sports, the emphasis of training should be on the development of general, fundamental motor and technical- tactical skills. Reviewing the existing literature helped us to conclude that early specialization sports require a four-stage model, while late specialization sports require a five-stage model:

Early Specialization Model

  1. Training to Train
  2. Training To Compete
  3. Training to Win
  4. Retirement/Retaining

Late Specialization Model

  1. FUNdamental
  2. Training to Train
  3. Training to Compete
  4. Training to Win
  5. Retirement/Retaining

Since there are only a few sports that can be categorized as early specialization sports, this document will focus on late specialization sports. Each early specialization sport should develop a sportspecific model: a generic model would lead to serious oversimplifications. The challenge for early specialization sports is either to combine the FUNdamental and Training to Train Stages or to amalgamate them into a single stage, such as the Training to Train Stage. For late specialization sports, specialization prior to age ten is not recommended since it contributes to early burn out, drop out and retirement from training and competition (Harsanyi, 1985).

One of the most important periods of motor development for children is between the ages of nine to twelve (Balyi and Hamilton, 1995; Rushall; 1998; Viru et al., 1998). During this time children are developmentally ready to acquire the fundamental movement skills that are the cornerstones of all athletic development. These fundamental skills include running, throwing, jumping, hopping and bounding, the ABC’s of athletics. The introduction of the ABC’s of athleticism (agility, balance, coordination, speed) during this period will lay the foundation of athletic excellence for later years. Fundamental movement skills should be practised and mastered before sport specific skills are introduced. The development of these skills, using a positive and fun approach, will contribute significantly to future athletic achievements. Participation in a wide range of sports is also encouraged. This emphasis on motor development will produce athletes who have a better trainability for long-term sport specific development. If the fundamental motor skill training is not developed between the ages of nine to twelve, skills cannot be recaptured at a later time although carefully planned and implemented remedial programs can contribute to limited success).

THE FIVE STAGE MODEL OF LATE SPECIALIZATION SPORTS

STAGE 1 - THE FUNDAMENTAL STAGE™

Age:1 Both males & females 6 to 10 years old

The FUNdamental stage  is well structured and fun! The emphasis is on the overall development of the athlete’s physical capacities, and fundamental movement skills, and the ABC’S of athleticism - Agility, Balance, Coordination and Speed. Participation in as many sports as possible is encouraged. Speed, power and endurance are developed using FUN games. Correct running, jumping and throwing techniques are taught, using the ABC’s of athletics.

Strength training during this stage should include exercises using the athlete’s own body weight, medicine ball and Swiss ball exercises. Athletes should be introduced to the simple rules and ethics. No periodization takes place, but all programs are structured and monitored. Activities revolve around the school year, and during summer and winter holidays, multi-sport camps are recommended. If athletes and parents have a preferred sport, participation once or twice per week is recommended, but participation in other sports three or four times per week is essential for future excellence. If the athletes later decide to leave the competitive stream, the skills they have acquired during the FUNdamental stage will still benefit them when they engage recreational activities, which will enhance their quality of life and health.

STAGE 2 - THE TRAINING to TRAIN STAGE™

Age: Males 10 to 14 years old / Females 10 to 13 years old

During the Training to Train stage young athletes learn how to train and they also learn the basic skills of a specific sport. As well, they are introduced to the basic technical/tactical skills and ancillary capacities including: warm up and cool down, stretching, hydration and nutrition, recovery and regeneration, mental preparation, taper and peak, integrated pre-competition routines and post competition recovery.

During competitions, athletes play to win and to do their best, but the major focus of training is on learning the basics as opposed to competing. Training and competition ratios are optimized because too many competitions waste valuable training time and conversely, not enough competition inhibits the practice of technical skills and learning how to cope with the physical and mental challenges presented during competition. A 75 percent training to 25 percent competition ratio is recommended by experts during the Training to Train stage, however these percentages vary according to sport and individual specific needs. Athletes undertaking this type of preparation will be better prepared for competition in both the short and long-term, than athletes who focus solely on winning. During this phase, athletes train in competitive situations daily in the form of practice matches or competitive games and drills. The Training to Train stage addresses the critical or sensitive periods of physical and skill development. Athletes who miss this stage of training will never reach their full potential, regardless of remedial program they may participate in. The reason why so many athletes plateau during the later stage of their careers is primarily because of an over emphasis on competition instead of on training during this important period in their athletic development.

STAGE 3 - THE TRAINING to COMPETE STAGE™

Age: Males 14 to 18 years old / Females 13 to 17 years old

This phase of development is introduced after the goals and objectives of the Training to Train stage have been achieved. The training to competition and competition specific training ratio now changes to 50:50. Fifty percent of training is devoted to the development of technical and tactical skills, and fitness improvements, and fifty percent is devoted to competition-specific training.

During the Training to Compete stage, high intensity individual and sport-specific training is provided to athletes year round. Athletes, who are now proficient at performing both basic and sport specific skills, learn to perform these skills under a variety of competitive conditions during training. Special emphasis is placed on optimum preparation by modelling training and competition. Fitness programs, recovery programs, psychological preparation and technical development are now individually tailored to a greater degree. This emphasis on individual preparation addresses each athlete’s individual strength and weaknesses.

STAGE 4 - THE TRAINING to WIN STAGE™ STAGE

Age: Males 18 years and older / Females 17 years and older

This is the final stage of athletic preparation. All of the athlete’s physical, technical, tactical, mental, and ancillary capacities are now fully established and the focus of training has shifted to the optimisation of performance. Athletes are trained to peak for major competitions. Training is characterized by high intensity and relatively high volume. Frequent prophylactic breaks help to prevent physical and mental burnouts. Training to competition ratio in this stage is 25:75, with the percent competition ratio including competition specific training activities.

STAGE 5 - THE RETIREMENT / RETAINING STAGE

This stage refers to the activities performed after an athlete has retired from competition permanently. During this final stage, ex athletes move into sport related careers that may include coaching, officiating, sport administration, small business enterprises, master’s competition, media, sport medicine, etc.

SUMMARY

The Long-term athlete development model, consisting of the FUNdamental, Training to Train, Training to Compete, and Training to Win stages, has become the foundation for British Columbia’s sport system. Applied appropriately, it can best maximize an athlete’s potential to have an effective and successful sport career.

It must be noted that the ages described above are general guidelines. The individual tempo to development / maturation will influence how athletes will reach the various stages of long-term development. However, they all will go through the same stages. Some early maturing athletes may have as much as a four-year physiological advantage over their late maturing peers. Ross et al. 1977

This article first appeared in Coaches Review, Summer 2001, Vol. 8, No.1. For the complete list of references refer to www.sportmedbc.com

Dr. Istvan Balyi is a planning and periodization specialist and sport science consultant to the National Coaching Institutes in British Columbia and Manitoba and to PacificSport National Sport Centres in Greater Vancouver and Victoria. He is the author of the National Coaching Certification Program’s Level 4/5 material on planning and periodization and works all over the world as a guest lecturer and consultant.

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