November 09, 2010

Shifting Paradigms In Athlete Development - Part 1

Part 1: Athletes and coaches have a responsibility to consider development across time of a full spectrum of skills, tactics, and physiological systems. Istvan Balyi, one of the world’s pre-eminent voices in athlete development, offered his assessment of both long term athlete development and shifting paradigms in coaching at the recent USA Cycling Coaches Symposium.

The concept of athlete development is often minimized, or worse bypassed completely, by junior and adult athletes alike in their rush to win and get to the next level. That talented kid who rises quickly but ends up out of the sport within a few years, the gifted athlete who seemingly sprints through the lower categories only to arrive on the regional scene under-prepared for the skills and tactics of high level racing, or the long suffering category four racer who can’t seem to upgrade. These are all representative of a common trend in racing to look at the short term payoff rather than long term development.

What Is Long Term Athlete Development?
Long term athlete development (LTAD) is simply the process of optimizing training, recovery, and competition programming relative to the biological maturation and development of the athlete1. LTAD is most appropriately applied to athletes from pre- to post-pubescent. In this article, however, we’re going to apply some of the principles to an adult population as well. I want to do this because I think it is a valuable perspective for adult athletes to look beyond their day to day training to create a realistic plan for themselves.

Istvan Balyi explored the overall complexity of LTAD as applied to juvenile athletes and what a tangled web it can be when we consider differences between early, average and late developers, between aerobic and power based sports, and when trying to optimize training focus appropriately!

By the same token it can be viewed as eminently simple wherein the development cycle of the young athlete should follow a simple progression that is well researched to target specific areas based on easily measured biological markers like onset of puberty and peak height velocity (PHV, maximal rate of growth). For example, emphasizing coordination skills during a growth spurt is ill advised due to the general loss of coordination and consequent skill break down that often occurs in this phase. Similarly, aerobic development is an ideal focus for athletes at the early onset of PHV.

Fine, kids need appropriately focused and responsible training, so what does this have to do with adult athletes? Well, here’s where it get’s interesting. The other presentation he gave was on creating paradigm shifts in performance training, especially around the role of periodization and creating a meaningful plan. Bear with me as this next couple of sections may seem to meander…

Steps In Athlete Development
Balyi identifies seven steps in long term athlete development:

1. An Active Start
2. FUNdamentals
3. Learn to train
4. Train to Train
5. Train to Compete
6. Train to Win
7. Active For Life

Let’s cut this down to a slightly more manageable size for our stated target populations – teenagers and adults. To that end we can drop numbers 1 and 7 on the presumption that many of us had an active start and will remain active for life (that’s why they call it a lifestyle, right?). That leaves the crux of development focused on #2-6. Similarly the FUNdamentals stage is focused primarily on basic, rather than sport specific, movement skills and abilities, so let’s presume that each has completed this step. That leaves, essentially, training!

Most athletes think they know how to train, and they certainly know how to train to compete as well. Of course training to win is just a short skip from there, right? Don’t we all train to win, after all? Yes, but there are subtle differences between the types of training listed above when applied to all audiences. In addition, I think that the list below can be viewed from both long term (season over season) and short term (within a season) approaches and modified to suit each individual:

- Learning to Train: The first stage of training, learning to train is seemingly rudimentary, however, to work on the habit of training in a structured way, and to focus on the benefits offered is clearly worthwhile.

- Training to Train: In youth and adults simply training to improve one’s general fitness and base skills is a worthwhile goal, especially within the first few years of an activity. Balyi noted that the ‘training to train’ phase often includes less demanding competition and a continued emphasis on cross training and fun.

- Training to Compete: Consider this as the beginning of specialization. Competition demands increase as the athlete is able to further focus on the quality of training while addressing specific needs for competition.

- Training to Win: Often the end goal of all training is winning, but it is misplaced to put too much pressure on the athlete, no matter their age, to perform well until they have reached a high enough level of preparation.

Perhaps you’ve heard the adage that it takes 10,000 hours of training to achieve expertise? Think about that for a moment - five years of full time work to achieve true mastery of a skill or subject. Is it reasonable then for a beginning, even a regional, racer to argue that they don’t need to work on fundamentals, skills, and basal development?

While you may not have 10,000 hours invested yet, chances are you’re planning to continue riding and competing for the next five years, so let’s use that as our reference point moving forward. Given our new five year window, we should probably consider a plan that addresses each component of training each year to get where we want to go.
This is dramatically outside the comfort zone of most athletes. They would rather focus on next week’s workout than on the structure of training for this year, next year, and the year after. Stretch yourself (!) by shifting your reference point on where you are and what you want to do to match your developmental stage.

Long Term Athlete Development is a constantly evolving field that focuses on how to best prepare young athletes for a lifetime of sports participation. By identifying key points in maturation, and ascribing phase appropriate training and competition demands, the path to individual excellence is much smoother, and ultimately more efficacious, than not.

Similarly adult athletes can benefit from taking a more longitudinal approach to their own training and development. This is true across the spectrum of performance from skill acquisition to physiological development. Given the 10,000 hours rule for mastery of a skill, there is likely some room in your training plan to address the varied components of performance. Next time we’ll look at creating the plan that will get you where you want to be via a paradigm shift in periodization


1. Balyi, Istvan – Long Term Athlete Development. USA Cycling Coaching Symposium Presentation. October 2010
2. Balyi, Istavn – Paradigm Shifts in Coaching. USA Cycling Coaching Symposium Presentation. October 2010

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