Long Term Athletic Development

It’s pretty fun to sit and daydream about what type of activities my daughter will end up participating in later in life. Although I’d be happy if she was in sports, band, academic clubs, drama, or anything I’m leaving out, I obviously have a bias towards sports given the nature of my job.

I’m holding out for a future LPGA professional, to be candid.

The best athletes in any given sport, elite in their respective discipline, may not be athletic, per se. To be an athlete is to participate in sport however to have athleticism is to learn proper techniques for agility, balance, coordination, flexibility, metabolic training, power, reaction time, speed, strength, and strength endurance during athletic movements2.

If I’m being honest, I don’t fully understand the concept of long term athletic development so I’ll use this blog as a chance to organize my thoughts after reviewing current research and ideas between professionals in my field. Grasping this concept is essential for coaches of all sports that work with youth of all ages.

I want to use myself as an example first and foremost. When I was a kid, I participated in just about every sport from tennis to football. As I got into late elementary and middle school, it was soccer and swimming that stuck around and finally just swimming through my high school and college years. After my swimming career ended, I picked up triathlons with moderate success, golfing, and lifting. I would say that I’m well ahead of the curve compared against someone who was not a former athlete but I’d lean more heavily on my experiences as a youth than the 8 years I spent exclusively swimming.

A few times a year, celebrities and athletes of all kinds are asked to throw out the first pitch in the city that they either play in or were born. Usually, these end up being pretty comical. I want to highlight two in particular:

Christano Ronaldo (3x FIFA footballer of the year):

John Wall (Washington Wizards starting point guard):

Granted, this is a single point in time being used to illustrate a sort of sweeping generalization. That generalization is that single sport athletes often look, well, unprepared in other sports. I think good athletes have a higher probability at succeeding in new sports over non athletes but sometimes, this isn’t the case.

Physical literacy is one of the fundamental terms used when describing long term athletic development. It’s the idea that during a youth’s development, they gain a wide range of tools that can be used to form athletic movements much like we use words to form sentences. Although, often times, a larger focus is put on winning rather the correct technique skills.

Often times sports can ‘mold’ the body into what’s perfect for sport. Baseball pitchers’ throwing sides are vastly imbalanced from their non throwing hands. Swimmers’ backs are overdeveloped and their shoulder ligaments are either weak or torn. Golfers develop bad knees or bad hips. At the end of competitive sport, some athletes are left with bodies that are unprepared for either recreational activities or even life in general.

According to various studies, anywhere between 30-60% of injuries sustained in youth sports are overuse injuries3. Early specialization in sport lends itself to this trend. Soccer players play in the summer and are transitioning to indoor soccer and spring travel teams which is increasing the risk of stress fracture or patellofemoral stress syndrome having no real ‘offseason’.

So, what’s the possible solution? Commonly, education is believed to be the center piece; a broader foundation of movement must be laid down early in an adolescent’s athletic career. This often lies within the coaching and volunteer staff to make sure they are incorporating a wide range of athletic movements and not simply sport specific skills. Lastly, although its tempting, parents should not encourage early sport specialization. Some of the best swimmers were great athletes who simply started swimming after an injury or as a change of pace (Rachel Komisarz, Josh Schneider, Ed Moses).

I personally believe this is a reason strength and conditioning is so important. Obviously my job is to improve performance and also address imbalances and weaknesses created by sport however this is also, technically a second discipline for the single sport athlete. It’s a change of pace: training time associated with sport that doesn’t reinforce overuse.

Hopefully throughout my rambling, this blog was able to shed some light on a rather important concept in youth sports.


Alex Burtch


  1. Gambetta, V, and Winkler, G. Sports Specific Speed the 3 S System. Sarasota, FL: Gambetta Sports Training System, Inc.; 2001.
  2. https://www.nsca.com/education/articles/practical-application-for-long-term-athletic-development/
  3. Johnson, J. Overuse Injuries in Young Athletes: Causes and Prevention. Strength and ConditioningJournal 30(2): 27-31, 2008.

Free Screen on Us

We offer complimentary screens at all ProRehab locations. If you’ve been dealing with a nagging injury or persistent pain, don’t wait any longer.

You may also like