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Implementing a Long-Term Athletic Development program at a UK secondary school

Introduction

Sport has always played a key role in school life at many secondary schools. Commonly, competitive fixtures have been established for a long time and are important dates in the school calendar for all of staff, students and parents. Competitive success is often the main driver for all involved and training generally focuses more on the technical and tactical aspects of the sport involved. Far less attention is given to the athletic development of young people who may wish to excel in sport and also enjoy life-long physical activity. However, more schools, especially in the private sector, are delving deeper into the athletic development area of physical preparation. Arguably, the need to focus on physical development is greater than ever as we try to counter increasing levels of low physical activity in young people. Today, merely playing and practicing a sport is not enough to develop physically capable and injury-free young athletes. For example, if an athlete cannot jump and land in a controlled, closed environment, how can we expect them to jump, catch a netball, and then land in a chaotic and competitive environment? We are lucky enough as teachers and coaches to have a great amount of contact time with our student-athletes.

Therefore, there is great potential to develop a well-rounded program which can over time, reduce injury rates and improve performance with our students.


This review aims to identify common problems seen when creating such a program and then also provide recommendations on how to implement a plan successfully.


Identifying the constraints: Blue-Sky thinking Vs Reality

The initial approach to the problem should consider both the ‘vision’ but also bare in-mind the ‘reality’. What constraints are we currently dealing with? Typically, those constraints are time, space, staff and priority, within a school environment. While we’d love to plan knowing we have a purpose-built facility, 3 qualified coaches, full-backing of staff and parents and immediate buy-in from pupils, this is rarely the reality. However, this could be seen as the 5-year vision, for example. Start with the end in mind but be reasonable with the initial expectation.


Time

In many independent schools, the aim is often to occupy the pupils with as much content as possible from 8am through to as late as 9pm – time is stretched to its capacity. Lessons, sport, music, prep, repeat. Pupils get torn in multiple directions frequently, so it raises the question: what is best for that pupil? Is the extra session best for that pupils well-being? Is the 6am S&C session going to be beneficial when it robs the athlete of an hour of sleep? Time is therefore a challenging constraint to overcome in an environment where sport is important but not the priority and when space is limited because of how time is stretched.


Space

Combined with time is the availability of space. Not only available space but suitable space. In an environment aiming to fill every hour of the day with content, space is limited. While effective sessions can be done with minimal equipment, eventually athletes should outgrow this and require development using more advanced means. A common solution is often the conversion of existing spaces (like squash courts) for the use of strength and conditioning. A suitable space with appropriate equipment requires investment from key stakeholders and often those investors like to know that they will see return of investment – enter the 5-year vision. Here sees the challenge of educating and empowering staff to understand the place of strength and conditioning within a school.


Staff

Staffing presents two challenges, appropriate staff to coach and then educating teaching staff to better understand strength and conditioning. Assigning a PE teacher to role of S&C coach is ill-advised as this is a common risk factor amongst coaching in youths – unqualified coaching. Furthermore, a teacher who coaches may like to use shuttle runs to condition athletes, but if there is a lack of awareness that some pupils have already completed two sessions that day, have a tournament at the weekend and are also experiencing peak-height velocity, that some pupils may respond negatively to a stimulus of that intensity. Therefore, time should be taken to educate staff of these factors but, as we identified, time in this environment is hard to come by when strength and conditioning isn’t a priority.


Priority

A combination of all above constraints leads to strength and conditioning frequently not being a priority in secondary schools. It should be the job of any practitioner to educate and empower staff, pupils and parents to understand the ‘why’ of strength and conditioning towards to the health and well-being of athletes. This understanding should therefore pave the way for more time, space and priority. This initial ‘ground-up’ approach will then be allowed to grow to then realize the ‘5-year vision’. Both Blue-sky thinking and reality should complement each other when approaching this problem, especially if this concept is new to an environment.


Battling Stigma: Perception of S&C in Non-Elite environments


Non-Elite Environment

All involved should appreciate that a school is rarely going to be an elite environment. While this can be chased, a degree of realism should be applied to keep expectations within reach. While we’d like the best medical service, total buy-in from staff and parents and unlimited strength and conditioning provision this will seldom be seen. It is rarely seen even within many elite environments! The first step towards chasing this level of provision however, should be altering the stigma around strength and conditioning and the gym environment.


Gym stigma

It should be stressed that using a gym will not necessarily see you look like a bodybuilder within 8 weeks. A good starting point is clarifying the differences between bodybuilding and strength training for sports. I’ve found a good start towards changing these perceptions is by altering terms. For example, Strength and Conditioning becomes Athletic Development – a more holistic term (in my opinion) as it considers the athlete as a whole, not just the physical characteristics encompassed by S&C. It starts conversation around the subtleties of this type of training and the long-term approach, not just hitting good numbers on the bench.


Injury reduction = Well-being

A big appeal or selling point of Athletic Development should be the injury reduction (not prevention) of young athletes. This is an attractive quality which can often be used to gain interest and buy-in from a variety of stakeholders, namely parents and senior management. With this, expectation should be managed – it is injury reduction not prevention for a reason. Often, some might think “they’re now doing athletic development, they won’t get injured” – it is not quite that simple. A better way of phrasing this is, “you’ll never know when you’ve prevented an injury because of athletic development”. Therefore, injury reduction should be the starting point of both the ‘why’ and the program design – the performance element comes later.


Staff understanding

A common theme that is starting to emerge is that of staff understanding. If the message is coherent, progress can be made much quicker and more efficiently. Approaching from a wellbeing point-of-view is often seen as the best way to gather buy-in and start to make progress.


Implementation: What’s important and what should be prioritized


Skills Vs Capacities

Weighing up the emphasis between skills and capacities has been a constant thought-process for me throughout implementing a LTAD plan at a secondary school. Generally, the lower the training age of an athlete, the greater the emphasis on skills and the greater the training age of the athlete, a greater emphasis on capacities. The challenge comes with the expectation of injury reduction after promoting that benefit of athletic development, therefore a balanced approach should be adopted. Can a program exist focusing on movement skill and quality and yet still protect against injury, knowing that hammering physical capacities might yield better results? I think so, yes. This consideration should be at the forefront of all planning and implementation regarding the programming. The next question should be ‘what does it take to transition?’ – where does the athlete sit on the pathway and what is the role of the current environment? These questions will be referred back to later.


Injury Prevention Vs Performance

Similar to the Skills vs Capacity argument is the debate between training to reduce injury and then training to improve performance but it could be argued that by training for either, you will affect both. Generally, those who move well and can tolerate force well will be better prepared to deal with overuse of soft tissues and be able to move more powerfully on the pitch, for longer. Before looking at qualities like rate of force development, a sound base of movement quality and the ability to absorb and produce force should be strived for. Targeting specific areas related to the sports played should be considered but on the whole we are looking to create “generalists” before “specialists”.


Pathways

A solid method of developing LTAD is through the use of pathways. Pathways provide a structure from which further programming can be created – one must achieve all aspects of the pre-requisite phase before advancing to the next. See Figure 1 as an example:


Figure 1. A Possible Movement Pathway for LTAD

A pathway like this encompasses common movement skills, uses exercise variation and progression, higher volume at the early phases to allow for skill mastery, includes capacity targets at each phase and starts with the end in mind. This example is by no means exhaustive, but a good starting point when looking to add structure and clarity to a program. There are pathways like this with more detail and content. In my opinion, such designs should be streamlined with the constraints in-mind and with a view of training fundamental movement skills as shown in figure 2.


Figure 2. Fundamental Movement Skills



As this method primarily looks at strength training, it might raise the question of training other desirable physical characteristics such as repeat sprint ability, max aerobic speed, agility and max speed. As we have established, time is limited in a school environment so often, the approach should be what is best bang-for-buck. As pupils will often be exposed to the more field-based skills through typical games sessions, it could be argued that they are already getting these doses through their usual routines. If there is available time and if appropriate, technical sessions on acceleration/deceleration, sprint mechanics and work on aerobic endurance can be implemented. Until then however, strength and movement quality should be viewed as the key, underpinning characteristics and the best use of time.


Conclusion

A school is a dynamic, ever-changing environment so planning for a progressive, long term athletic development program is often challenging. To be effective, one should consider both the vision and the minimal viable program within the constraints currently in-place. Education of all stakeholders should be a priority and the correct prioritization of athletic qualities should be at the forefront when planning and implementing. Recognition that a school is rarely an elite environment, that pupils lead busy and demanding schedules and at the core of all this, should be their wellbeing and continued enjoyment of physical activity.

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