Written by Chad Wesley Smith
As we conclude our discussion on the consolidation of stressors concept, we will look at the long term, the planning of an entire athletic career.
In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we examined how to manipulate the relationships of frequency, volume, intensity, and specificity in the short term (one training cycle) and medium term (annual plan). As with these two time frames, the factors of the training that are manipulated do not change; only the degrees that they are manipulated do. Now because of the long-term nature of this discussion, changes in volume, frequency, and intensity aren’t as clear cut as they are in shorter time frames, but we will rather look at these changes from a bit more of a conceptual standpoint.
The early training of an athlete needs to be focused on general training at relatively low intensities (a child isn’t capable of high intensity training anyways) so that they can perfect movement patterns that can be intensified later. Ilya Ilyin, two-time Olympic Gold Medalist in weightlifting, illustrated this idea very well when he said that at the start of his training career at 6 years old, he would “run around the gym and do all the exercises.” Now this certainly didn’t mean that he had free reign of everything he was doing, but what it does mean is that he did a variety of training consisting of gymnastics, swimming, track and field-based drills (skipping, sprinting, jumping, throwing), calisthenics, and weightlifting drills: a broad and general pool of exercises that helped him become a great athlete and then a great weightlifter.
It is that idea that we must focus on for long-term development; it is about developing athletes who will then gravitate toward and excel in the sport they are best suited for, rather than trying to develop the best soccer player or baseball player from a young age and neglecting general athletic development. This early specialization limits the athlete’s ultimate potential.
David Epstein discusses the importance of developing general qualities in his book, The Sports Gene.
“Rarely do elite performers log 10,000 hours of sport specific practice, often competing in a number of other sports and developing a range of athletic skills before focusing on one. The average sport specific practice hours to reach the international levels in basketball, field hockey, and wrestling are 4,000, 4,000, and 6,000 respectively.”
A recent U.S. Olympic Committee study corroborated this idea and showed that Olympic athletes were involved in an average of three sports per year up until the age of 14. Read the full study here:
Long-term youth athletic development illustrates how, over time, training is consolidated toward more specific and higher intensity work.
I think a very simple, yet effective model to follow for the development of young athletes is:
Age 6-9: Recreationally play four different sports (one per season), while practicing the sport skill two times per week and playing a competitive game one time per week. GPP training should be omnipresent throughout the year and done as frequently as possible focusing on swimming, gymnastics-based drills, track and field-based drills (sprinting, jumping, throwing), developing general movement patterns and a love for training and sport. Quality of movement is the highest priority and imposing highly lactic loads of training that impair movement speed/quality should be avoided.
Age 10-13: Recreationally play three different sports (one per season with one season off), while practicing the sport skill 3-4 times per week and playing a competitive game one time per week. GPP training should be omnipresent throughout the year and during the one off-season period should be particularly prioritized. GPP training will focus on the same modalities as before but with slightly increased intensities.
Age 14-18. Competitively play two different sports (one per season with two off-season periods), while practicing the sport skill 4-5 times per week and playing a competitive game 1-2 times per week. GPP training should be omnipresent throughout the year, and give particular priority during the off-season periods, while receiving less priority during competitive seasons. Training is gradually moving toward greater specificity throughout this period. A wide array of training modalities can and still should be implemented at different points in the year. External resistance on exercises can be introduced/increased, and general intensities will increase. Energy system training will become more specific to the athlete’s particular sports.
Age 19+. Competitively play one sport while now falling into a more traditional annual planning model of off-season, pre-season, and in-season. GPP training should be omnipresent and reflect the amount of SPP training being done at that time. Training is growing increasingly specific at this time and intensities will vary throughout the year.
Over the course of these phases, you can see how you continually consolidate your focus toward more specificity. Volume over the course of the time isn’t necessarily moving from higher to lower as it is during the short or medium terms, and it shouldn’t; in fact, for a lot of this time, volume will be increasing because the athlete is continually improving their work capacity with age and hormonal development.
Absolute training intensity will also increase throughout this entire time, simply because an 18 year old is capable of much higher outputs than a 9 year old, but there will still be waving up and down of relative intensities over the course of this long-term plan.
Obviously, this a very brief overview of a much larger topic, and there are plenty of considerations to be made on a case-by-case basis, but hopefully this sheds some light on the idea of long-term athletic development, gets your wheels turning, and helps you better set up young athletes for a lifetime of success.