Long-Term Athletic Development

The Key to Fighting Childhood Obesity
Long-Term Athletic Development

If you watched the 2022 Olympic Games, you might have noticed just how young the athletes were. It seemed more teenagers were competing in the Olympics than in years past. Maybe most notable was the Russian figure skating phenom, Kamila Valiev. So you may be surprised to know that Anezka Indrackova, a 15-year-old Czech ski jumper, was actually the youngest athlete competing at the Beijing Games. Indeed, the 2022 Winter Olympics hosted many athletes under 18.

With so many youngsters competing at an elite level, it begs the question, how did they get there? Indeed, they spent hours, days, weeks, and years and years of training to compete on the world stage. Often, they came from athletic families and were genetically primed to compete at a high level. But achieving Olympic, professional, or even college athletic glory is reserved for a select few.

When so many athletes do not obtain elite status, it is worth asking, should youngsters specialize in a sport at a young age in hopes of competing at a professional level? You may ask yourself: should my child be doing more to become the best athlete they can be? The answer is a resounding no.

Experts agree early sports specialization may actually do more harm than good. The National Strength and Conditional Association (NSCA) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) have both issued position statements advocating for long-term athletic development (LTAD) to encourage positive sports participation and lifelong physical activity.

The ACSM says, “LTAD is not solely a pathway for competitive young athletes to reach the Olympics or college or professional sports.” Instead, LTAD is a cradle-to-grave concept that can be easily applied to physical education, general fitness, and general physical activity programs. And LTAD is a key component in the fight against childhood obesity.

The central pillar of LTAD is the health and wellbeing of the child, which means developing motor skills and fostering enjoyment are critical components of LTAD. Foundational movement skills are also crucial to LTAD. These movement skills help build confidence and competence that translates to physical literacy in many different physical activities, including but not limited to sports.

When youngsters master foundational movement skills, they are more likely to engage in all forms of physical activity. Just as importantly, by encouraging LTAD, kids can reap physical, cognitive, social, and emotional benefits.

Sports and physical activity participation provide physical health benefits such as increasing strength and muscle mass, building strong bones, and developing coordination. Kids who participate in sports are higher achievers in school, and they report being happier than those who do not play sports. Moderate to vigorous physical activity reduces depression in youngsters. What’s more, sports participation offers an avenue to develop critical social skills like collaboration, teamwork, leadership and working toward a common goal. Unfortunately, the door to sports participation is often closed to youngsters who aren’t competitive or haven’t specialized.  

Meaningful opportunities are missed when competition and early sports specialization are emphasized over having fun. My family experienced this firsthand when my 8-year-old signed up for a rec league soccer team. We were shocked to find that he wasn’t skilled or competitive enough to make the experience enjoyable. At age 8, he just hadn’t been interested in soccer until he was. But it was too late. After one tough season, he hasn’t been interested in soccer since. We don’t blame anyone, but the hyper-focus on competition encourages early sports specialization.

In the U.S., the prevalence of childhood obesity is 18.9%. Still, by shifting the focus to LTAD, more children can explore sports and physical activity, which will help combat the obesity epidemic. Coaches, P.E. teachers, and parents alike should prioritize LTAD to give youngsters a buffet of physical activity options to choose from throughout their lifetime. Considering the tiny percent of kids that achieve Olympic or professional status, it is time to make physical activity fun again. By encouraging LTAD, kids will have the opportunity to learn foundational movements and reap the physical, mental, and social benefits of physical activity.


Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

Posted 5 months ago by Aspen Streetman


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