Ten Key Factors Influencing LTRD

Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) is based on sport research, coaching best practices, and scientific principles. LTAD expresses these principles, research, and practices as 10 Key Factors essential to athlete development. 

To optimize the development of our athletes, we need to take advantage of the best sport science and best practices in coaching and training. Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) does this by codifying important elements of sport science and coaching practices into the 10 Key Factors of LTAD: 

  1. 10-Year Rule
  2. FUNdamentals
  3. Specialization
  4. Developmental Age
  5. Trainability
  6. Physical, Mental, Cognitive and Emotional Development
  7. Periodization
  8. Competition Planning
  9. System Alignment and Integration
  10. Continuous Improvement


1. The 10-Year Rule 

Research has shown that it takes 10,000 hours of quality training for athletes to achieve their full potential and perform at an elite level. In most examples of top-ranked athletes and other star performers, their 10,000 hours are usually accumulated over at least 10 years of training and competing.

This translates into an average of 3 hours of daily training, applied practice and competition over 10 years. Again, this is an average over the span of 10 years. It is not desirable to see children formally “training” in one sport for three hours every day when they are 7 years old. Training hours increase during adolescence, and this rounds out the average.

Children should be active in a variety of sports and physical activities throughout the year while they are elementary school age. They should have daily physical activity that includes a blend of free play and formal activity that features quality coaching and instruction.

Increasing Training Hours

By the time an athlete has chosen to specialize in one sport – usually around age 14 – they should begin formal daily training for that sport. Their overall training hours should begin to approach 3 hours per day or more if they want to reach an elite or professional level.

Not all of these “training hours” will involve training directly in their sport. Many of the hours will include generalized components such as flexibility training and fitness training (e.g. running, gym workouts). 

Olympic athletes and the 10-Year Rule

In a comprehensive review of U.S. Olympians who competed between 1984 and 1998, the research revealed the following facts:

  • U.S. Olympians began participating in their sport at the average age of 12.0 years for males and 11.5 years for females.
  • Most U.S. Olympians reported a 12- to 13-year period of training and development from introduction to their sport to making the Olympic team.
  • U.S. Olympians who won medals tended to be 1.3 to 3.6 years younger than their teammates when they were introduced to their sport, suggesting that medalists benefited by receiving motor skill development and training at an earlier age. (Note: This does not say that they specialized in their sports at a young age. Caution must be taken not to fall into the trap of premature specialization, since it can actually have negative effects on the athlete’s long-term development.)

Bestselling books such as The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, Bounce by Matthew Syed, and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell discuss the significance of 10,000 hours of training and deep practice. These books are excellent popular reads that cite examples such as David Beckham, the Beatles, Mozart, and Michelangelo to illustrate how training and practice are far more significant to achieving excellence than “natural talent” or genetics. 

2. The FUNdamentals

To build the foundation for physical literacy, children need to be introduced to the FUNdamentals. These are fundamental movement skills and fundamental sport skills that children learn through FUN activities that maintain their interest end encourage their love of sport and activity.

Children won’t develop into high performance athletes or stay active with recreational activity if they don’t have physical literacy, and they won’t have physical literacy if they don’t get the FUNdamentals.

The FUNdamentals include a wide variety of fundamental movement skills and fundamental sport skills that should be learned at young ages in four different environments: earth, water, air, and snow and ice. With these basic skills, children gain the ability and confidence to practice any sport or physical activity they choose.

Research strongly suggests that the FUNdamentals should be learned before the adolescent growth spurt begins. After the start of the growth spurt, it becomes much more difficult for the body to develop fundamental skills and the ABCs of agility, balance, coordination and speed.  

Athletics, gymnastics and swimming are good sports for developing FUNdamentals.

The key to learning the fundamentals is FUN. Young children learn best when the activities are fun, and having fun helps them to develop a love of physical activity and sport.

Learn more about the FUNdamentals.

3. Specialization

Should your 7-year old be completely focused only on one sport, such as soccer or basketball? Or is it better for her to participate in a number of sports and choose one to focus on in a few years?

There are right times and wrong times to specialize in any one sport or physical activity. It depends if the sport is a late-specialization or early-specialization sport.

Athletes have better success in late-specialization sports such as basketball, soccer and hockey if they have participated in a range of different sports and activities prior to their teen years. Athletes have greater success in early-specialization sports such as gymnastics and figure skating if they begin to specialize in those sports during their elementary school years.

In most sports, athletes should not specialize until they are between the ages of 12 to 15. Prior to that age, they should participate in a wide range of sports to ensure they become good, well-rounded athletes who have acquired physical literacy.

Learn more about specialization.

4. Development Age

We all know that children grow and develop and different rates, but most sport and physical activity programs still group them together according to their birth year (chronological age).

To optimize the development of our athletes, we can’t paint everyone with the same brush. We need to take into account the developmental ages of our athletes as well as their chronological ages.

Growth and Maturation

The terms “growth” and “maturation” are often used together, but they mean different things. Growth refers to measurable changes in body size such as height and weight. Maturation refers to qualitative changes in the body’s progress toward maturity, such as the change of cartilage to bone in the skeleton.

Developmental Age

The term "development” brings together growth and maturation. Development refers to how growth and maturation occur together over time. It includes physical, social, emotional and intellectual realms of the child.

Learn more about Developmental Age.

 5. Trainability

All sport skills and physical abilities are trainable at any age. However, as children and athletes grow and develop, there are times when practice and training will have the greatest positive effect.  These times are called “sensitive periods of accelerated adaptation to training.”

Science shows that we can maximize each child’s skills and physical abilities if our coaching and instruction takes advantage of the sensitive periods of trainability. The sensitive periods affect five different areas of physical development that we call “the Five Ss”:

  • Stamina (endurance)
  • Strength
  • Speed
  • Skill
  • Suppleness (flexibility)

If our sport programs and coaching don’t take advantage of the sensitive periods, our children may never develop the strength, speed, skills, flexibility or stamina they could have had.

If we take advantage of the sensitive periods, our children are much more likely to reach their peak performance abilities. They have a better chance of staying active for life and even becoming professional athletes.

Learn more about Trainability and the Five S’s

6. Physical, Mental, Cognitive and Emotional Development

LTAD addresses the complete physical, mental, cognitive and emotional development of athletes – not just physical characteristics and performance qualities. Training, competition and recovery programs need to consider the mental, cognitive, and emotional development of each athlete.  

A major objective of LTAD is a holistic approach to athlete development. This includes emphasis on ethics, fair play, and character building throughout the various stages. Programming should be designed to consider athletes’ cognitive ability to address these concepts.

 7. Periodization

Simply put, periodization is time management. It outlines all annual and seasonal training within a logical schedule to bring about optimal improvements in athlete performance at the right times, while minimizing injury and burnout. Periodization plans connect the LTAD stage of the athlete with the training and development requirements of that stage.

Periodization breaks training into months, weeks, days and individual sessions. It helps coaches to organize all aspects of volume, intensity, frequency and type of training, competition and recovery programs through long-term and short-term timelines.

Periodization is a highly flexible tool. When it is used in combination with proper training techniques, athlete monitoring and athlete evaluation, it becomes an essential component to deliver optimal sport performance and athlete development at all stages of LTAD.

Learn more about Periodization 

8. Competition Planning

Science shows us that talent and ability are developed through thousands of hours of practice and training – whether it’s sport, music, art or mathematics. In Canadian sports, we often get the formula backwards, if we have any formula at all.  

Many sports reduce their training hours in favour of more games and competitive events, especially in youth sport where practice and skills learning is most important. They have inverted the “training to competition ratio.”

At most stages of development, athletes should spend more hours training than competing. Precisely how much they should train and compete varies at each stage of development and differs according to different sports.

Training to competition ratios always aim to achieve optimal performance while avoiding athlete injury and burnout. At the same time, proper competition scheduling allows for tapering and peaking in the athlete’s cycle of training and competition. 

9. System Alignment and Integration

LTAD calls for system alignment and integration by bringing together athletes, coaches, clubs, school sports, recreation, provincial and national organizations to build a better sport system in Canada.

Athlete development is the core business of national, provincial/territorial and local sport organizations. Without quality athletes in sport programs, these organizations would not be viable. Consequently, it is in the best interests of these groups to collaborate, align and integrate in delivering optimal athlete development programs.

LTAD must also be supported and promoted by all levels of government, including:

Provincial/Territorial ministries responsible for sport and recreation.
Provincial/Territorial health ministries and Health Canada.
Provincial/Territorial education ministries.
Other relevant federal and provincial/territorial departments and ministries.
Municipal governments.

LTAD initiatives and support programs must be designed and implemented with a focus on the needs of athletes, and a commitment to cross-sectoral collaboration and cooperation.

Coaches, teachers, and recreational professionals may lead athlete training and physical activity programming at the ground level, but they need to be supported by administrators, sport scientists, health, and government across multiple sectors.

 10. Continuous Improvement

We never assume that LTAD in its current form is ever complete or final. We operate from the position that it represents the best practices in coaching and athlete development as they are understood today.

The concept of continuous improvement, which permeates LTAD, is drawn from the respected Japanese industrial philosophy known as Kaizen. By applying a willingness to always seek improvements in our understanding and practice, LTAD will continuously evolve to accommodate new breakthroughs in sport science research, new innovations in technology, and evolving best practices in coaching.

By focusing on continuous improvement, we will also ensure that LTAD reflects all emerging facets of physical activity, sport, recreation and education to ensure that it is inclusive of all types of activity.

LTAD promotes ongoing education and sensitization of federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal governments, the mass media, sport and recreation administrators, coaches, sport scientists, parents, and educators about the interlocking relationship between physical education, school sport, community recreation, lifelong physical activity, and high performance sport. 


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