The Three Phases of Long Term Athletic Development
We often get caught up in the here and now. It's easy to focus on what is right in front of us, and hard to look down the road and try to be prepared for the things which are coming. It's very "modern" of us to do so, and we're bombarded constantly with reminders of "live in the moment," "be present," and so on. This is not to say this is a bad thing, but often we get so focused on what is happening now we end up taking actions which forfeit our achievement of long-term goals (if we haven't disregarded this at all in the first place).
For athletes and coaches especially, this is especially important to consider when preparing both physically and mentally for the rigors of sport. We often get caught up in the current season, game, and match, while completely disregarding how things fit into the overall outcomes we want. But if we can switch the mindset of how we do things to see how they work together, we can start to plan athletic development in a way which provides a pathway to success for the athlete as a performer, and as an overall human.
I want to highlight a way of looking at the lifespan of an athlete by breaking down their development and pathway through sport into three main phases or periods of life: Pre-Sport career, Sport Career, and Post-Sport Career. Now, I use the term "career" loosely, but what we're ultimately considering is an athlete's time in a single or main sport regardless of the duration they focus on it. All three of these phases need to be considered when truly preparing an athlete for the rigors of sport, and beyond. Here's what this should look like when considering physical preparation and performance training.
When we look at the Pre-Sport phase of athlete development, my mind is drawn to a concept highlighted in David Epstein's book "Range: Why Generalists Triumph In A Specialized World." Epstein highlights a phase in our lives, both in sport and outside of it, called a sampling period. Sampling periods are spans of time where we try to expand the skillset and try our hand at an array of activities and jobs before honing in on a specific one. For athletes, this looks like participating in multi-sports year round in a less competitive environment. Ideally, this is a pre-pubescent time frame where kids are exposed to multiple sporting activities and develop a baseline level of physical literacy. Physical literacy being the baseline set of physical skills such as running, hopping, jumping, skipping, throwing, passing, receiving, etc.
The big key fundamental in physical preparation during the Pre-Sport phase of an athlete's life is to broaden the scope of physical problems they are exposed to, in order to build a wide skillset. This is especially essential during pre-puberty. As they mature and age, it is likely they will gravitate towards a certain sport or sports which they will narrow their focus of preparation. This sampling period and physical preparation period is key in helping individuals identify their natural physical and psychological skillsets toward a specific sport or sports and narrow their focus. Unfortunately, with the current state of both physical education and youth sport, many young individuals are having this period of time frame shortened and starting sport-specific preparation far before they are ready.
This is the time frame in the life of an athlete where they go all in. They've sampled different sports, they've developed over the long term, and now they have a baseline level of physical ability to hone in on a sport. Ideally, this transition and specialization will happen post-puberty and during the long maturation phase after adolescence and will continue into adulthood. This time span may last four years, or in the case of professionals may last multiple decades (I mean, look at Tom Brady?).
During this period, athletes need more specific physical preparation towards a specific task or sport. This includes enhancing physical skills and qualities needed to succeed in sport while maintaining a baseline level of physical capacity to keep them safe. This also means doing more specific injury prevention work, and having a higher focus on recovery. Most of the time, this is the phase many coaches and athletes are good at and have an aptitude for.
This is a phase which many fail to consider or plan for, both from a physical or psychological standpoint. First, we have to understand and keep in mind how the end of a career is inevitable and can be a very good thing. The body can only push the envelope for so long before it truly fails. Second, we need to be prepared mentally for the end of a sport and how we can transition back into regular life without the focus of being an athlete.
From the physical side, as we transition athletes out of sport, it's important to acknowledge how much their bodies are capable of and how they don't have to stop training like athletes. If they have trained with any true sense of high performance, they should have the baseline skills of knowing how to recover and move well. The transition out of sport should then be a gradual return to baseline physical preparation with a broadening array of abilities being targeted. In essence, we seek to take the body from a hyper-specific focus on a singular task into a broadening sense of physical capacity. It doesn't mean we cease to push the body, but rather we expand the scope of training over time to be less specific.
From a psychological perspective, it's important to consider the personality of the athlete and utilize it to transition them out of sport. Some can call it quits and walk away cold turkey, while others need time to mentally transition out of the sport. For those who are more extrinsically motivated, transitioning them out of sport may require they have a more abrupt shift in focus to a new goal or competitive outlet, while some may need a gradual shift out of the sport as they learn to physically and emotionally let go.
Now, training across these three main phases is tricky, because we often get hyper-focused on the Sport Career phase and less on the Pre-Sport and Post-Sport phases of the development of an athlete. But I contend if we can take a step back and look at the long-term athletic development of an athlete, we can create a truly lasting situation for health and wellness among the athletic population. And if we can do this well, we can set athletes up for a stronger and brighter future beyond the field of play.