From its origins late last century, popularized by the work of Dr. Istvan Balyi for Canadian Sport for Life, to a recent fact-finding trip to Finland by the technical director for a major American sport’s governing body, the long-term athlete development movement is on the minds of many athletics stakeholders across the world.

“Finland has about same number of hockey players as the state of Michigan,” USA Hockey’s Ken Martel said. “Last Olympics, they beat us 5-1. How come they can do that and we can’t?”

For one, Finnish youth practice more than they play games, Martel found. Practice-to-game ratio is one of the tenets of LTAD.

US Lacrosse launched the Lacrosse Athlete Development Model (LADM) in September 2015. Team USA and Duke men’s coach John Danowski supports the initiative, especially as it emphasizes age-appropriate skill development.

“Practice is king,” Danowski said. “At whatever level you’re playing lacrosse, there should be a 4- or 5-to-1 ratio of practice to games. Sure, games are fun and games are exciting, but at some point, they lose their value.”

That’s just part of the movement.

“Our talent development model far too often is, ‘Throw all the eggs against the wall and hope one doesn’t break,’” said John O’Sullivan of the Changing the Game project, a Tedx Oregon speaker on youth sports. “We throw all these kids in and don’t really create the right environment and then we go, ‘Look at this player,’ because one kid didn’t crack. These countries with smaller population size can’t kick kids out of the pipeline too soon. There is no one to replace them.”

Canadian Sport for Life promotes seven stages of LTAD: Active Start, FUNdamental, Learning to Train, Training to Train, Training to Compete, Training to Win and Active for Life. The pillars are drawn from original work by Balyi, who began publishing on the topic in the late 1990s and updated it in 2001.

Unlike smaller nations like Canada, Australia and the U.K., which have centralized government initiatives in athlete development, the U.S. has no such consistency from the top down, according to many LTAD experts. The USOC and sport governing bodies must develop their own guidelines. They include everything from how much practice a player should have, to ball-to-player ratios, nutrition and sports science and ideal field dimensions for athletes at various ages and development stages.

“We had 6-year-olds playing on the same ice surface as the NHL guys,” said Martel, who along with representatives from governing bodies in soccer, swimming, volleyball, ski and snowboard first started meeting as a group to discuss LTAD efforts in the mid-2000s. Lacrosse joined the discussion a few years later. “We had 6-year-olds trying to defend the same size goal that 6-foot-3 NHL defenders are defending.”

Sound familiar?

“There is a logical progression in the development of an athlete,” said Dr. Matt Robinson, director of the University of Delaware’s sport management program and international coaching program funded by the USOC and International Olympic Committee. “Just like in school, you’re not teaching 11th-grade math to third-graders.”

Lacrosse Athlete Development Model

The Lacrosse Athlete Development Model - Providing every athlete the opportunity to enter, enjoy and excel by learning and playing lacrosse in a way that’s best for each stage of growth and development.

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