It takes an equal amount of foresight, conviction and experience to lay down the foundations of any long term project. Such a balance is very difficult to achieve which is why many often prefer to look at what others have been successfully doing in order to base their own work. It is a sensible decision but it is also a risky one because what seems to be the accepted wisdom today might be proven to be the wrong view in a few years’ time.
Fifteen years ago, everyone was looking at developing big, strong midfielders to act as a shield in front of their defence. Nearly every team felt that such a player was essential and consequently everyone worked to identify those who had the raw abilities to become such a player. It was a desire fuelled by the tactical opinions of the era rather than a vision of where the game was going.
Today, people argue over the importance of allowing younger children the time to develop their skills above anything else. It is a view that is in line with what Barcelona have done in developing a generation of players with fantastic technical ability; one that has won all that there is to win in world football.
The problem with this way of operating is that it is reactionary and, whilst it might result in some upside, those who adopt it will never be the exceptional ones. Again, that might be acceptable for some but certainly not for those who want their youth system to be the fuel that keeps the fire of their success burning.
Those who want to be in this latter group will actively look for new ideas that challenge the way things are done by most other clubs, searching ways to improve. It is such clubs who have been in touch with Dr Jon Oliver, a lecturer in Sport and Exercise Physiology at Cardiff Metropolitan University in order to develop a practical model of the Youth Physical Development Model which he has developed along with Dr. Rhodri S. Lloyd - Senior Lecturer in Physiology and Health at the Cardiff Metropolitan University – and which is outlined in a paper issued in 2012 called “The Youth Physical Development Model: A New Approach to Long-Term Athletic Development”.
Trying to map a way to maximise potential is one of the areas that sports scientists handle and the model on which most plans are based is one known as the Long Term Athlete Development. There are a number of variations to this but the most underlying concept is that there are certain key stages in a young person’s life during which the effect of training can be maximised.
Given that different people mature at different rates, these key stages aren’t measured by age but rather on one’s development. Significantly, the identification of these stages has proven to be vital as it allows training to be modelled in a way that fits in with that individual’s state of development.
Yet, despite its widespread acceptance, there was still too much that is theoretical about it which was something that bothered Dr. Oliver. As a result he embarked on a project to identify whether the theory could be backed up with research and statistical results.
What he and his colleagues came to realise, however, was that there were gaps in the reasoning behind the LTAD so they set up working on their own model for athlete development.
The result was the Youth Physical Development model.
“When working on my doctorate, I did a lot of reading regarding athlete development and started to realise that there was no research to support what was being suggested in the LTAD,” he explains, talking about the origin of this model. “It got me interested in taking a more informed approach to athlete development. I was lucky enough to get more research and that helped in putting a solid foundation to the whole process.”
The result of that work is bound to get people talking.
Indeed, that which most probably is the most significant departure from what is seen as the currently prevalent view in football is the emphasis that the Youth Physical Development Model makes on the importance of strength training even at a young age.
“That is one of the things we were most keen to emphasise,” Dr Oliver admits before going on to explain that the reason for this is that “by improving strength we can assist movement skills.”
“In a nutshell the movement skills are seen as the basis of all athletic activity. There is what is termed as a proficiency barrier and if they don't develop certain movement they won't be able to execute that sport. If they don't develop an over arm throw they won't be able to throw a ball properly, for instance. It prohibits their development so movement skills are essential.”
“In children the neural systems [note: the nervous system that co-ordinates the voluntary and involuntary actions in a body] are developing very rapidly and by the time they are seven it will be almost fully developed.”
“(Yet), in the LTAD, the work on strength would appear at a very late stage, around the time the person is 15 years old because this is the age where strength seems to develop more. However we think that this might be based on hypertrophy [note: this is the increase in muscle size] which happens for physiological reasons.”
“Strength training isn't about increasing muscle size and with the younger age groups you can work on the neural aspect of strength.”
This, then, isn’t about looking for the strongest kids as used to happen in the past but rather providing them with the basic requirements to prevent them from suffering injuries as they grow up. To quote directly from the paper “in 2011, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association suggested that approximately 50% of overuse injuries within youth sports could be preventable in part with appropriate preparatory conditioning.”
“There has actually research carried out by others that backs this up,” Dr. Oliver continues. “One author, Dr. Michael Behringer, undertook two systematic reviews in strength training in children. In their first review it showed that the gains in strength were related to maturation, meaning that more mature children experienced more pronounced training gains.”
“In the second review, which was carried out 2011, it showed that less mature children could transfer the benefits of strength training to running, jumping and throwing better than more mature children.”
Indeed, in an interview with Reuters Health, Dr Behringer said that “since resistance training in children and adolescents is known to be safe and to be associated with several health benefits, children and adolescents should be generally encouraged to participate in a resistance-training program.”
What Dr. Oliver and Dr. Lloyd are suggesting is that training for pre-pubescent children should focus on resistance training in order to build strength with hypertrophy training – to increase muscle size – taking place after adolescence.
Such training will also help in the development of a core ability for any top sportsperson: power. Explosive power, the ability to generate high levels of power is essential for sporting success yet had been omitted in the current LTAD models.
Power is typically seen as an innate ability, the god given gift that distinguishes athletes like Sir Chris Hoy from other mere mortals. Yet the YPD model is based on research that shows that muscular power can be improved through training. And whilst the most significant improvement happens after the onset of adolescence, some training that focuses on power can be carried out beforehand.
“One of the reasons we included that is that power is seen as being one of the distinguishing characteristics,” Oliver explains. “The better footballers would be seen to be better in certain power exercises. In terms of children developing power, we're of the view that it is something that it is something that can be developed. If you specifically focus on power you can get players to jump higher.”
In spite of all the recommendations, the main difficulty for anyone involved in football is that of personalising preparation – something that the paper insists on – when you’re involved with a group of individuals.
“That is a difficult one. When we were writing the model we were thinking of team sports as they have the higher participation rates. However, there are always some logistical issues.”
“I would personally recommend that there should be some grouping. You may find that there is a sub-set of players who have lower movement skills then another group. I'd probably be breaking these up into groups so that each gets the appropriate training for them.”
“In football there is the tendency to train in age groups but it might more be the case that coaches should be less worried about children in a year group and group them according to their development stage. Some aspects of training should be across all levels and strength in movement skills linking to injury prevention. We want to prepare them for a career in physical activity and sports. Injury is a real risk so we have to provide them with the right movement skills and fatigue resistance.”
Within that comment there is the over-riding principle that anyone involved in youth sports should live by: that the aim has to be that of preparing them so that they can keep participating in sport rather than for the specific (and relatively short) period when they are in your care.
“The difficulty is what the targets of those in youth sports are. The challenge in trying to make a team is that it will create a selection bias. You pick the most mature players into the team and that would provide them an advantage because they are physically stronger.”
“If you watch how children develop over time, those who mature later on will catch up and often outperform the others. If you focus on the competitive outcome you end up with a system that favours early mature-rs. Others don't get selected and they don't get the training which makes it difficult to get back. Clubs need to develop distance and targets should be that players should be progressing; targets that are placed on individual development.”
This helps brings it all together. It dispels any suspicion that the argument for the early introduction of some form of strength training is aimed at favouring a more physical approach. Pushing for more individualised targets – rather than looking at team results which can be artificially inflated - is what the best academies already do, something that should be augmented by the individualisation of the training schedule.
It is a holistic approach, one that covers all bases that any long term plan to develop football players should be looking into. The theory, and the reasons supporting it, are all there and it would be a huge opportunity missed not to build on it.
This is not a critical evaluation of the paper and there is no analysis of the findings held within. The aim of this piece is to look at the Youth Development Model and raise awareness to the possibilities held within. The paper and the model can be found here.