By Rob Anderson - Guest Blogger

As a strength and conditioning coach working within an educational institution, I coach athletes aged 12-18 (both male and female) from a variety of sports on a daily basis.  The process of helping develop youth athletes into well equipped, athletic, senior level athletes is a primary concern of mine. Within the athletes I coach, I have begun to notice a trend emerge in those athletes who display good levels of general movement and athleticism and those athletes who struggle when placed in movement scenarios outside their usual specific sporting discipline.

Previous participation in certain sports in childhood, particularly gymnastics and athletics, appears to equip the youth athlete with a base of key movement skills and athleticism that allows them to acquire new skills more easily and to attain progress more rapidly. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to examine long-term athlete development with a particular focus on the initial stage of the development model and to examine the benefits that may result from partaking in appropriately planned activities.

Long- term athlete development (LTAD)

The concept of a model of development has been suggested by many previous researchers, however the most popular model was presented by Dr Istvan Balyi (2001). Suggestions and modifications to this model have been presented by a number of researchers and it is suggested that the model is dynamic should be seen as a “work in progress” (Ford et al., 2011). Since the initial model was presented, separate models have been suggested for early specialisation sports (eg. gymnastics, figure skating, diving) and late specialisation sports (eg. athletics, combat sports, team sports). These models are presented below:

Early Specialisation
Late Specialisation
1.     Training to train
2.     Training to compete
3.     Training to win
4.     Retirement/retainment
1.     FUNdamental
2.     Training to train
3.     Training to compete
4.     Training to win
5.     Retirement/retainment
Taken from Balyi (2001)

This article will focus on the initial “FUNdamental” stage of the late specialisation model. Whilst individual and gender differences in rate of growth and maturation exist, these are influential in latter stages of the model and it is widely accepted that the FUNdamental stage is appropriate for both boys and girls aged 6 to 10 years old. The emphasis of this initial stage of athletic development is physical literacy due to the occurrence of neural development during this phase (Ford et al., 2011). This maturation lends itself to the acquiring of new skills and movement patterns. Physical literacy has been described as, “the development and competence in fundamental movement skills and fundamental sport skills that permit a child or adult to move confidently in a wide range of physical activity, rhythmic and sport situations” (Higgs et al., 2008). Essentially, this means the ability to properly complete a general set of movement tasks. It is important to note that these general skills may also not be established in free play (Deli et al., 2006).  It is this general set of movement skills that I see lacking in youth athletes on a daily basis.  Often parents of youth athletes view the best route to athletic success at a senior level as early specialisation at a very early within a single sport. This approach leads to athletes lacking competency across a general set of skills that may be outside their chose sport. This specialised approach is counterproductive, as it has been suggested that a “proficiency barrier” exists, limiting a child’s progression to more complex, advanced and specialised sports skills, dependant on establishment of the fundamental movement patterns (Gallahue and Donnelly, 2003). Therefore, it may be construed that this initial stage of physical development may be underestimated in its influence in athletic progress.

As previously mentioned, it is recommended that the primary aim of FUNdamental stage of athletic development should be general physical literacy, with participation in a variety of sports.

The outcomes of this phase should be the “ABC’s of athleticism”
  •            Agility
  •        Balance
  •       Coordination
  •       Speed

These are to be developed reinforcing sound running, jumping and throwing technique, primarily through the use of fun games/activities/exercises. As the outcomes above are very broad, below is a schematic to illustrate activities which be incorporated into this phase. These are not an exhaustive list, but merely suggestions for categories/conditions of activities to select from. It is worth nothing that these biomotor abilities are not entirely exclusive from each other, thus some activities suggested may be considered to overlap category. For example, hopping may be considered to be a balance, agility and coordination activity.

An example of how a FUNdamental session might be constructed is displayed below:
Warm up
Circle jog
Arm circles forward
Arm circles backwards
Torso rotations
Spiderman lunges
A Walk
A skip
Jump rope
Straight hop and hold
Lateral hop and hold
Lateral shuffle
Lateral hurdle step overs
Hurdle over unders
Throw and catch shuttle run
single leg balance
Eyes closed single leg balance

For the most part, much of the activity in the FUNdamental stage can be completed with minimal equipment and is simple to deliver. However, it is vital to begin reinforcing correct movement patterns (running, lunging, jumping, throwing) with this age group as it the movement patterns established in this stage will be the basis of their movement patterns as they proceed to the next stage of maturation.

In summary, it has been noted anecdotally that many youth athletes lack the movement skills formed in the early stage of LTAD. These skills include competent running, jumping and throwing technique. The skills contribute to proper development of agility, balance, coordination and speed and should be appropriately addressed in the FUNdamental stage of LTAD in order to give a sound foundation of movement for athletic development in the latter stages of maturation. 

Balyi, I. (2001) Sport System Building and Long-Term Athlete Development in British Columbia. British Columbia: Sports Medicine.
Deli, E., Bakle, I.,  and Zachopolou, E. (2006) Implementing  intervention movement programmes for kindergarten children. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 4, pp 5-18.
Ford, P., De Ste Croix, M., Lloyd, R., Meyers, R., Moosavi, M., Oliver, J., Till, K., and  Williams, C. (2011) The Long-Term Athlete Development model: Physiological evidence and application. Journal of Sports Science, 29, pp 389-402.
Gallahue, D., and  Donnelly, F. (2003) Development of physical education for all children, 4th edition, Illinois: Human Kinetics.
Higgs, C., Balyi, I., Way, R., Cardinal, C., Norris, S., and  Bluechardt, M. (2008) Developing physical literacy: A guide for parents of children aged 0 to 12. Vancouver, BC: Canadian Sports Centres.


Rob Anderson is the Lead Strength and Conditioning Coach at the LeAF Elite Athlete Academy, Bournemouth.  The academy covers a range of sports including volleyball, swimming, football, boxing, athletics, karate and golf. Rob a qualified strength and conditioning coach through the UKSCA and is a strength and conditioning contractor for the GB Gymnastics World Class program (Trampoline) satellite program in Bournemouth, as well as a voluntary assistant coach to the British Weightlifting London and South East Talent Squad. Rob has a particular interest in Long-term athlete development and is a recreational weightlifter up to national level.

MSc in Applied Sport and Exercise Physiology
BSc in Strength and Conditioning Science
British Weightlifting Level 1 Assistant Coach
ISAK Level 1 Anthropometrist

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  1. Hi Rob, this is an interesting blog and highlights a key area of weakness we have in the UK. I have worked with 'professional' rugby players at the highest level who can't do a basic forward roll or handstand. We need local sports clubs and schools to be teaching these fundamentals at an early age so that they develop into well rounded individuals, and not just proponents of one sport. I read a similar article recently that stated when it's not need, early specialisation actually is to the detriment for future performance. We need to focus more on development during the younger years rather than competition otherwise we will continue to fall behind other nations at elite level.

  2. Hi Andrew,
    Thanks for the comment. Given it's my first attempt at blogging I'm glad to have an audience. Unfortunately you're spot on... when the critical foundations are left out, they can't really be glossed over later on, rather there is a glaring absence of the ability to do the basics. The assumption is certainly that early specialisation is beneficial, and this isn't really backed up by research. It's been said that the best coaches are actually needed at the most basic levels, however the money to finance such coaches is only at the top tier of performance...

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