“When can my kid start lifting?”

Long Term Athletic Development

                “Why does your Youth Sports Performance Program begin at age 12?”, “When can my kid start lifting, he/she needs to get stronger?”, “Is your Sports Performance Program specific for (insert sport)?” As a Strength and Conditioning Coach working with youth athletes, I receive a number of questions from parents regarding their child’s development and athletic performance. With travel teams, Varsity, and College scholarships on the line, it’s no wonder there is so much concern with youth sports training. But while organized sports begin as early as age 3 in the United States, we have placed too much emphasis on competition and little attention on developing proper movement skill.

For the past several decades, researchers from Canada and the United Kingdom have developed a model based on human maturation. The model is termed Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) and is based on the findings that children will get active, stay active, and reach the their greatest sport achievement if they do the right things at the right times (1). Included in this model, is the understanding that early sport specialization may be detrimental to individuals reaching their greatest athletic potential. The model includes the following 7 stages associated with biological age and general, neural, and reproductive development (adapted from: Sport for Life Society 2016).

Stage 1- (Active Start) 0-6yrs: At this age, children need to simply engage in active play for fun (catch and throw a ball, kick a ball, run, and jump). Such activities help develop gross motor skills and brain development of agility, balance, coordination, and speed.

Stage 2- (Fundamentals) girls 6-8, boys 6-9: Early elementary children need to participate in a variety of more structured but still fun activities that develop basic skills with formal competition minimally introduced. Children should be introduced to a variety of sports throughout the year, while still allowing time for rest to avoid burnout and premature specialization.

Stage 3- (Learn to Train) girls 8-11, boys 9-12: Children in this stage can begin training in a more organized manner with a focus on general sports skills important for many activities. A greater amount of time should be spent on training and practicing skills rather than competing. It’s tempting to specialize in a sport or position at this age but should be avoided in most sports do to injury and burnout.

Stage 4- (Train to Train) girls 11-15, boys 12-16: The ages that define the Train to Train stage are based on the approximate onset and end of the adolescent growth spurt. At this stage, athletes are ready to unify their basic sport-specific skills and tactics. It is also a major stage for aerobic and strength development.

While athletes may exhibit special talent in a specific skill or position, it is important for individuals to continue training to maximize physical capabilities (endurance, strength, power, speed, agility).

Stage 5- (Train to Compete) girls 15-21, boys 16-23: This stage occurs late in high school and into the college years. Athletes specialize in one sport and training / competition becomes serious. Athletes must commit to a high-volume and high-intensity of training throughout the year. Training is organized and periodized for seasons and competitions. Other topics become important at this high level of competition including: nutrition, recovery, injury management, and sport psychology.

Stage 6- (Train to Win) girl 18+, boys 19+: The highest level of competition and training. A continuation of stage 5 in focus and training.

Stage 7- (Active for Life) any age: This is about staying active throughout all stages of life. Enjoying recreational activities and keeping the body moving.

At SPARC, our Sports Performance Program is designed for Middle School and High School athletes in stages 4-5 of the LTAD. Our goal with the Middle School athletes is to help refine and consolidate movement patterns and general sport skills and continue to build strength, speed, and power as they move into High School and a higher level of competition. With all of this, our goal is to maximize athletic potential while preventing injury. So, is our program sport specific? Yes, because movement is more similar between sports than it is different and the goal of training is to maximize on court or field performance by developing the components of athleticism needed in all sports (speed, strength, power, balance, mobility, flexibility, and agility). More than sport specific our program is appropriate for biological age and maturation stage. Our goal is to not only develop high performing athletes, but individuals who understand how to move and how to train with a passion to continue training beyond their athletic career.

By: Lauren Higgins, M.S., CSCS, FMS-level 1