Note from MR: The following is a guest article from Boston Bruins strength coach Kevin Neeld. If you enjoy this article, I’d highly suggest picking up a copy of his new released Speed Training for Hockey book as well.
Anyone that has been around sports for a long time has seen both of these seemingly conflicting scenarios…
- An athlete that seems “elite” at young ages gets passed by the crowd in high school or college
- An athlete that seems behind at young ages outperforms early expectations to reach an elite status at older ages
In an effort to better understand the developmental processes that lead to these types of “failures” and “successes”, researchers and applied practitioners have developed several different Long-Term Athletic Development (LTAD) models.
As an early disclaimer, I put failures and successes in quotes above because there is A LOT more value in sport than just reaching a level where you get paid to play. In fact, I would argue that the overemphasis on being “elite” in youth sports is one of the most profoundly negative trends in all of child development.
LTAD models serve two primary purposes:
- Part of ensuring that coaches, parents, and training professionals are sending the right messages to youth athletes at the right time lies in understanding the development process.
- Understanding the development process may help training professionals and sport coaches emphasize specific qualities at specific times to help maximize an athlete’s development at a given age to help them peak at the right
The below image offers an inclusive look at many notable LTAD principles (image from Ford et al., 2011).
Within it, there are a few important concepts that are worth pointing out:
- Different stages of development are associated with the accelerated improvement in specific physical qualities (e.g. speed, aerobic development, strength, etc.)
- The most appropriate emphasis on structured training changes throughout development based on physical, mental, and emotional growth
- There are significant differences in the age at which these changes/milestones occur from individual to individual, so everything above should be interpreted on an individual basis.
To simplify the first point above, below are the ages at which accelerated development occurs for specific physical qualities:
These periods are based on specific changes that occur naturally throughout development.
At first glance, it seems pretty simple.
Run more sprints in the speed windows, do more aerobic work in the aerobic window, etc.
But there’s some missing information that is really important.
Namely, WHY do these qualities progress faster at these ages?
One of the biggest misuses of LTAD models is doing exactly what I suggested above – taking the windows of accelerated adaptation at face value, and just drilling more work for those qualities.
Here’s the thing – the accelerated development occurs naturally. There isn’t really any evidence to suggest that doing MORE of that type of work will actually lead to larger improvements.
However, understanding the underlying mechanisms causing these rapid improvements will help shed some light on which training qualities the athlete IS primed to adapt to.
Most of these adaptations can be explained by looking at the development of three (really four) systems:
You’ve probably heard at some point that it’s easier for kids to learn new languages at really young ages than it is for an adult. This is because young kids are going through rapid neurological growth that makes it easier for them to learn new information, including movement skills.
This natural neurological growth is the driver behind the first speed window and augmented movement skill development. These things really go hand in hand – as the brain learns better movement strategies, it’s able to coordinate specific patterns faster.
If you look back at the LTAD graph above, you’ll see PHV at the bottom. This stands for “Peak Height Velocity”, which basically means the fastest part of the growth spurt.
This rapid growth changes limb lengths, muscle architecture/insertions, and cardiac development. This ultimately leads to improvements in aerobic fitness and the second speed window.
Regarding speed, these improvements are largely the result of structural changes – that is, longer levers cover more distance. Unfortunately, as you’ve likely seen, rapid growth spurts also come with considerable coordination challenges, at least at first. In other words, the athlete may get from point A to point B faster, but it’s not always pretty.
Lastly, at some point in the development process kids experience a significant change in their hormonal environment. This change makes it easier to develop muscle mass, and as a result, strength.
To be fair, things aren’t this simple. There is a lot of overlap between when these changes occur, and development is much more complex than what I’ve outlined above. However, the primary driving factors for the outlined changes can still be useful for guiding training decisions for athletes at different ages.
While this information is interesting, putting it into practice to enhance the athlete’s training experience and deliver better outcomes is really where the rubber meets the road. Here are 3 ways to integrate this information into your training programs:
#1 – With kids younger than 12, focus on the 3 E’s: Exposure, Engagement, and Enjoyment.
The rapid brain development makes kids this age sponges for new movement information, so integrate new movements, activities, challenges, and coaching cues.
From a psychosocial standpoint, overly structured programs can be extremely harmful to the long-term integration of training for these kids.
Keep things interactive and fun. Fun for them; fun for the coach.
Think gym class games like:
- Obstacle courses,
- Relay races,
- Playing catch,
All of these activities can use varied constraints to help keep it fun, but also challenge different movement strategies.
For example, relay races could be performed using a variety of movement patterns (e.g. split the distance or reps between shuffling, single-leg hopping, bear crawling, and running).
#2 – During periods of rapid growth (typically starting around age 12), slow things down to speed things up.
This is a turbulent time for kids.
I liken it to waking up one morning and having to go through your day wearing shoes with a 6” block underneath.
Everything about the athlete’s movement needs to be reorganized based on a rapidly changing environment and feedback from joints/muscles.
This period coincides with the stage where it’s appropriate to introduce more structured training. Teach basic movement patterns (e.g. squat, lunge, hip hinge, push, pull, etc.) using isometrics or long eccentrics to help the athlete better feel and internalize optimal positioning and controlled movement.
Speed increases naturally because of the structural changes referenced above, but improving strength, end-range control and overall coordination will help facilitate larger improvements.
#3 – When height changes start to stabilize (i.e. slower changes, starting around age 16), start to ramp up training intensity.
It may seem logical to take advantage of hormonal changes to put on muscle mass, and for many athletes, this may be appropriate.
However, remember that these hormonal changes are naturally occurring. Athletes are likely to put on some muscle mass anyway, with or without hypertrophy-focused training, and as many team sports have shifted toward prioritizing elite speed (and skill), maximizing weight gain shouldn’t be the goal.
This is the perfect time, though, to start to ramp up intensity with sprinting, more advanced plyometrics, and heavier resistance training.
Because the overall output in these exercises will be higher, there should also be longer rest periods between sprint repeats, and sets of power and strength exercises.
In general, the focus should be on quality, maximal effort reps, with enough rest to minimize drop-off.
Understanding the development process can help athletes maximize the improvement of specific qualities during periods of time when their bodies are primed to adapt. Speed development isn’t as simple as just running sprints, so having an appreciation for why physical qualities adapt an accelerated rate will help coaches understand which qualities to prioritize during different stages to support maximal training progress.
Ford, P., De Ste Croix, M., Lloyd, R., Meyers, R., Moosavi, M., Oliver, J., Till, K., & Williams, C. (2011). The Long-Term Athlete Development model: Physiological evidence and application. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29(4), 389-402.
About the Author
Kevin Neeld is the Head Performance Coach for the Boston Bruins, where he oversees all aspects of designing and implementing the team’s performance training program, as well as monitoring the players’ performance, workload, and recovery.
Prior to Boston, Kevin spent two years as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach for the San Jose Sharks, after serving as the director of a private sports performance facility in New Jersey for seven years. Kevin also worked as a strength and conditioning coach with the U.S. Women’s Olympic Ice Hockey Team for five years.
Kevin is currently a PhD candidate in Rocky Mountain University’s Human and Sport Performance program. An accomplished author, Kevin recently released his new book Speed Training for Hockey.
Speed Training for Hockey is a 150-page book that dissects all aspects of speed development for ice hockey players, written in language that can be easily understood by hockey coaches, players, and parents. It includes three 12-week training programs for players in the U-14, 14-18, and 18+ age groups, and a video database of all the exercises included in the programs.