Long Term Athletic Development…with a Physical Therapist Twist

Keith J. Cronin, DPT, OCS, CSCS


Don’t kids just seem to heal faster? I mean really, they get hurt one day and are limping, screaming, and crying all over the place and three days later are doing 100-meter sprints just fine. And whether this young athlete had a strained calf muscle or an irritated rotator cuff, compared to 50 or 60-year-olds with the same injury, kids respond much faster.

When it comes to sports or strength and conditioning, young athletes are generally fun to work with. They are eager to learn, want to push, and are striving to achieve certain goals or personal successes. Overall, I like working with the crew. For those who are familiar with the concept of long-term athletic development, you are probably wondering what this has to do with young vs. adult post-rehabilitation strategies. For those who are not familiar with the concept, Istvan Balyi published a book regarding the various developmental stages of young athletes called Long-Term Athletic Development (LTAD)1. The Canadian Sport for Life (CS4L) program was founded on this seven-stage system to foster well-balanced athletes who are highly competitive while protecting the various sensitive stages in young athletes.

PT View of LTAD

As a physical therapist, I like to incorporate these concepts and ideas into working with young athletes, coaches, and their parents. It acts as sort of a “framework” or “compass” to help guide good decision-making. This topic is particularly important when referring to post-rehabilitation return to sports. I could drive this blog post into the most technical physiological talk about the differences between types of soft tissue collagen, appropriate inflammatory responses, or the means by which bones adapt to lines of stress following an injury. Instead, I will simplify this.

Every growing body has a pre-programmed set of instructions to develop the most complete adult. The stresses placed on the body either facilitates or impedes this process. When it comes to an injury —whether benign or serious —there are systems that go into action to fix the problem and return the athlete back to a happy, healthy, and successful state. As a physical therapist, my number one responsibility is the following:

“Don’t screw it up.” 

 Yes, after years of training and education, I am typically most trying to figure out how to let the healing system take care of itself. As youth fitness specialists and coaches, you likely have similar concerns. How do I get an athlete back to what they love without causing more problems in the process? The internal repair system in children is good. In fact it is great! Tiny little cellular bulldozers strip away damaged tissue and construction crews go to work —and since these crews are so busy building newer and stronger tissue every day, they are ready to work.

Long Term Athletic Game Plan: Do It!

Now let’s get back to this idea of long-term athletic development. Perhaps when referring to this concept of strategizing when to incorporate certain exercises and skills with athletes you ask, “What does that have to do with post-rehabilitation healing? What does this have to do with youth fitness specialists and coaches?” Everything.

Youth fitness specialists and coaches have more influence on the lives of young athletes then any physician, therapist, or medical professional ever could. Athletes commonly will not listen to parents but may turn to you for advice on how to maximize their sport endeavors. The reality is that whether it is internal drive, media pressure, or just “keeping up with the Jones’s” athletes are pushing harder and faster to succeed than any time in history.

And as these things are happening, so are a lot of other things. The human body is following a specific blueprint to build and perfect tissue. Social and behavioral actions and reactions are changing in response to environment and experiences. A seemingly endless supply of hormones is raging through the body, with peaks and valleys depending on age and emotion.

My advice for any youth fitness specialist or coach looking to take their team or athletes to the next level is learn more about LTAD. Buy the book or go to a course, but regardless of your method of learning realize that developing a complete understanding of this system is paramount to athletic success. The LTAD system offers a framework to develop best practice. It is by no means a perfectly organized and structured system to make any athlete outstanding but it will help guide best practice when it comes to volume of activity, training methodologies, and the science behind sport. Another great book out there is Changing the Game by John O’Sullivan that examines how to produce top-notch athletic talent that is healthy and happy2. Combine these two concepts and I think you have a great platform for success.

Time Consuming but Worth It

To catch up or stay current on trends in research and best practice in youth sports training and coaching is difficult but it is worth it. I teach courses to physical therapists but you will still find my face in the research, reading a medical journal, or challenging my own practices.  As youth fitness specialists and coaches, you have a profound impact on the success of young athlete both on and off the field. An investment in yourself is an investment in the future of the hundreds or thousands of athletes that look to you for guidance. You are all are awesome…keep it up!


  1. “Long Term Athletic Development.” http://canadiansportforlife.ca/learn-about-canadian-sport-life/ltad-stages. Accessed on February 8th, 2015.
  1. Balyi, I., Higgs, C., and Way, R. Long Term Athlete Development. 2013


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