American Rugby Model
Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD)
 

The United States Olympic Committee created the American Development Model (ADM) in 2014 to “help Americans realize their full athletic potential and utilize sport as a path toward an active and healthy lifestyle. Long-term athlete development concepts are utilized to promote sustained physical activity, participation in sport, and Olympic and Paralympic success. These concepts have been tailored to create a framework for developing American youth through sport.”

The American Rugby Model is the application of the ADM in a sport-specific model to address the needs of the growing game of rugby in the United States, and to provide USA Rugby’s athletes, coaches, administrators, and parents a coherent model for healthy development and competition.  


Key Principles - American Rugby Model

Universal Access for All Athletes

Universal access is defined as creating opportunities for everyone to participate in sport. By providing universal access to all youth regardless of gender, race, physical disability, and economic status, more children could become involved in sport and be more physically active. Sport must be inclusive so that all children have the opportunity to discover the benefit of physical activity and realize their full athletic potential. Sport and physical activity are tools for children to express themselves, develop social relationships, and learn valuable life lessons.

Appropriate Developmental Activities

A clear understanding of an individual’s developmental level (as opposed to his or her age) will help coaches, parents and administrators appropriately tailor the training, skills and tactics taught to maximize the athletes’ full potential, while helping avoid burnout.
In order to succeed, athletes must first learn foundational motor skills and technique. Coaches, parents and administrators who jump directly into competition tactics and strategy without emphasizing basic fundamentals, may put their athletes at a disadvantage. To ensure long-term success, athletes must be given adequate time and knowledge to develop these essential building blocks for success.

Multi-Sport Participation

Multi-sport participation is critical to developing a well-rounded foundation for physical activity that can transfer between sports. Encouraging athletes to participate in multiple sport activities at a young age provides them with an experience that allows them to explore, play and discover sport according to their personal interests and skill level.
Multi-sport play also provides several cross-training benefits for athletes – such as strength, endurance, agility, coordination and speed training that enhancing overall athleticism and promote a healthy lifestyle. Athletes also benefit from the social and psychological impact of multi-sport participation.

Engaging & Challenging Environments

A fun, engaging and challenging environment is essential for any youth sport activity. The definition of “fun” may change as children advance to more elite levels of competition, but a standard emphasis on making the process positive and enjoyable is key.

Free and spontaneous play is encouraged to help foster growth and development. By offering the opportunity for unstructured play, athletes are more likely to customize physical activity to meet their needs and keep the “fun” in sport intact. Creating a team mentality through positive reinforcement is also critical.
Consult your sport’s National Governing Body for suggestions on age-appropriate dose and duration of practice and competition to help avoid burnout.

Quality Coaching At All Levels

Quality coaches are critical to athlete development; therefore quality coach education is critical for athlete success at all competitive levels. Quality coaching not only requires a youth sport coach to be qualified and highly knowledgeable in the sport they coach, but should also include a basic level of training of how to communicate, create practice plans, develop athletes and teams, and provide a safe, positive and fun environment. The very best coaches view themselves as continual learners and are always working towards improving themselves. Consult your sport’s National Governing Body for information on the different types of coaching education that are offered and/or required for your sport.


Key Factors - American Rugby Model

Tools, Not Rules

Long-term athlete development is a generic outline for player development. It should be used as a basis on which to connect, and make more consistent, existing systems and structures in place for rugby in the United States.

Long-term athlete development is a series of tools, aligned together. It is not a mandate. It is a framework to expand discussion, expand resources, and help create opportunities for further improvement. 


Recreation v High-Performance

The Long-Term Athlete Development model provides avenues for both the recreational rugby participant as well as for those seeking success on the national and international stage. Both have a place in the game in the US and require each other for long-term sustainable success. 

Typically, recreation is for athletes training less than 75 times per year, playing at the local level, using the sport for the many physical, mental, and social benefits. 

High-performance rugby is considered those athletes who are chasing 200+ rugby training sessions per year, in addition to engaging in a periodized strength and conditioning program, aiming to compete at the highest level possible.

Athletes have the choice and often go between both pathways throughout the athlete’s developmental life.


Repetitions

“Practice makes permanent.” Quality repetitions over an extended period of time are the key component for the development of an athlete or a coach. It is crucial an athlete understands the volume of training, matches, and rest required to chase down international honors. This document aims to provide a guide for appropriate training volume for athletes at different ages. The quality of those repetitions will very much depend on the feedback present in those actual training sessions. Feedback, and clarity on national team technical standards, can aid the coach in this repetition, feedback, repeat learning loop. 

Accelerating skill acquisition can be had utilizing various learning environments (i.e. playing other sports in addition to rugby), as well as modern video and statistical analysis for improved and more rapid feedback. 

The key, however, remains consistent exposure over an extended period of time. Skills, decision making, game management are improved from multiple repetitions layered in repeatedly over time to help transfer from one’s short term (temporary) memory, say, a one-day clinic, to long term (permanent) memory--repeated opportunities to practice the skill in both closed (single-movement(s), technical, process-based, “chunking”) and open environments (games, outcome, dynamic).

Creating smaller playing groups and station-based trainings are tried and true methods to increase the number of repetitions per session.


Training Volume

Given the need for appropriate repetitions, it is important that athletes who are seeking high-performance success understand the training sessions needed to match national team / international standards. A basic table below estimates the number of training sessions (anywhere from 45 minutes to 90 minutes per session) and competitive opportunities for the various level of athletes in the United States. 

It is important to understand these training volumes in the context of biological and training ages. Please refer to the American Rugby Model Long-Term Athlete Development descriptions in this document for further clarity on appropriate recommend training volumes for each stage of development. 

Volume Goals

  • Development (~16 to 18 years old)
  • 3 Sport Athlete: 15 to 20 weeks at 5 to 6 x per week = 100 Rugby Sessions
  • 2 Sport Athlete: 25 to 30 weeks at 5 to 6 x per week = 150 Rugby Sessions
  • 1 Sport Athlete: 40 weeks at 5 to 6 x per week      = 200 Rugby Sessions
  • Emerging Elite (Age-Grade Nationals, Top Collegiate, Olympic Development Academy)
  • 9 to 10 month season, 2 month off / recovery, at least 1 rest day per week
  • 200+ Rugby Sessions, 200+ Strength, Speed, Conditioning Sessions
  • 30 Matches (15x XV, 45x 7s)

Specialization

Sports are classified as either early or late specialization sports. Rugby, like other contact sports, is deemed a late specialization sport, meaning athletes do not reach their full potential until well into full physical maturity. It is key, therefore, that young rugby athletes are exposed to multiple sports at the youth and high-school level to acquire a broad base of movements, skills, and a balanced athletic profile—both physically and mentally / socially.

“Young athletes who participate in a variety of sports have fewer injuries and play sports longer than those who specialize before puberty. Well-rounded, multi-sport athletes have the highest potential to achieve.” — Journal of American Academy of Pediatrics

“It appears that the current trends in sport programming are characterized by institutionalization, elitism, early selection, and early specialization (Hecimovich, 2004; De Knop, Engström, & Skirstad, 1996; Hill, 1988; Hill & Hansen, 1988).

“Many sport programs are requiring higher levels of investment from earlier ages and are discouraging children from participating in a diversity of activities (Ewing & Seefeldt, 1996; Hecimovich, 2004; Gould & Carson, 2004; Hill, 1988; Hill & Hansen, 1988).”

“However, there seems to be clear evidence suggesting that sport programs such as these may not be providing an optimal environment for youths’ lifelong involvement in sport or even for future success in elite participation (Côté et al., 2007; Guellich, Emrich, & Prohl, 2004).”[ii]

“The data suggest that early specialization is not a requirement for high standards of performance. An increased likelihood of achieving a higher standard of competition when individuals participate in three competitive sports during the specializing years Cote et al., 2007).”[iii]

American Academy of Pediatrics Guidelines

Encourage athletes to strive to have at least one to two days off per week from competitive athletics, sports specific training and competitive practice (scrimmage) to allow them to recover both physically and psychologically.

Encourage the athlete to take at least two to three months away from a specific sport during the year.[iv]

Early-Engagement v Early Specialization

There are many development lessons for rugby in the US to learn from soccer, ice hockey, and other more established sports. According to research conducted for the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Initiative soccer loses 30% of its players by 12 years old.

Research is pointing to a push for early specialization, with that sports year-round commitments at the youth level, higher fees, travel days and travel costs, and an over-organized, competition-focused youth soccer environment, have alienated players and parents a like.

As we grow as a rugby nation it is important we allow youth and high-school athletes who are engaged in rugby to also have a chance to play other sports throughout the year, and we work to build better local competitions to reduce travel costs and travel time commitments on rugby families.

“Early engagement [not early specialization] is a player-centric, free-play oriented introduction to a sport. Be it street soccer, beach soccer or pickup games in the park, it is play in a variety of child-led games on different surfaces, with different restrictions. It combines large doses of free play with smaller doses of organized instruction. It is centered on the enjoyment of the game, rather than deliberate practice in pursuit of a long-term goal. It increases intrinsic motivation and ownership of the experience. It is what we might see more often in American basketball in city parks.”[v]


Local training & improved Local competitions

The goal is to drive improvements in competitions at the local level in order to:

  1. Reduce the hours overall committed to the sport outside of training / matches by reducing time spent traveling
  2. Reduce budgets spent on travel to competitions and replace with increases in dollars spent on player development, coaching, and local facility use.  

One of the challenges in implementing the ARM-LTAD will be the “winning” attitude prevalent with coaches and parents of children in elementary, middle, and high schools. The goal of LTAD from a high-performance perspective is to identify, monitor, and develop future international athletes. This priority often is in conflict with a local or rep’s team’s desire to win at all costs, particularly at the lower levels of the LTAD. A community’s competition-driven system where success is measured on wins and not on future internationals produced is a conflict of the LTAD that will require shifts in mindset at the local and national levels.

Actions:

  • Partner with SROs and local rugby community organizations to ensure emphasis is on building locally. 
  • Coach education improvements and dissemination of the ARM-LTAD to ensure one system of development. 
  • USA Rugby to encourage local competitions at the lower stages of LTAD and reduce travel “elite” competitions in early high-school and below. 
  • USA Rugby to celebrate communities that produce high-performing athletes in the long-term, not so much emphasis on winning teams on the pre-Rugby To Win stages of the ARM.

Biological Age vs. Chronological Age

How old? 

Is a 14 year old...

It is important that athletes are matched up with athletes of similar biological age (pre-puberty, growth spurt, post-puberty, as an example) in training and competition. Chronological age (the years since birth) should not be the driving decision for pairing athletes together in training or competition.

Many current youth sport systems “force players into a compete-to-win, ‘peak by the weekend’ system that rewards early maturing players who may not have the ability to be elite performers. Late developing players are excluded and cut, consequently leaving the sport or being segregated to a recreation program that limits their training opportunities. These late developers may have huge long-term potential but are eliminated” from the system.[vi]

Athletes of the same chronological age may be markedly different physically depending on the stage of maturation. It is imperative, especially in a contact sport such as ours, that athletes are not segmented strictly by chronological age, but are matched up where possible with athletes of similar biological age (pre-puberty, growth spurt, post-puberty, full-maturation). 

Actions:

  • Educate coaches on signs of maturation in athletes.
  • Encourage the creation of teams / competitions based not on chronological age but maturity.
    • Particularly at the ages of the LTAD where contact is involved ensure that coaches pair athletes together of same biological age and weight ranges and not on chronological age.

Windows of Optimal Trainability

Windows of Optimal Trainability is a concept influenced by the work of Dr. Istvan Balyi, who is known worldwide as an industry leader in long-term athlete development principles, including the LTAD methods to introduce players to the appropriate sport specific skill sets and conditioning development programs based on the individual’s physical maturity (biological age) and not on chronological age. 

It is a concept, one that has and continues to provide controversy as there remains mixed research on the realities of Windows of Optimal Training. 

The theory is that there exist varies times in an athlete’s developmental life where certain physical and psychological components are best trained and progressed.

Basic movement skills (the ABCs of Agility, Balance, Coordination, and Speed) are best introduced from 0 to 6 years of age. Basic sports skills (throwing, running, kicking, skipping, cycling, skating, etc) are best refined from 6 to 8 years old. The combination of these fundamental movement skills and fundamental sports skills equates to physical literacy. Broad-based skill development in various environments at the youth levels is critical for the long-term health, happiness, and success of an athlete. This is a key driver of the American Rugby Model.

As a child develops there are opportune times to enhance the 5 trainable physical capacities[vii], taking into consideration various maturation stages, including the puberty growth-spurt (also know as Peak Height Velocity, or PHV):

  1. Stamina (Endurance):
    1. always trainable.
    2.  the onset of the adolescent growth-spurt (Peak Height Velocity – PHV) is the optimal window of trainability for stamina. Roughly Age 10 – 11 for females and Age 12 - 13 for males.
    3. Aerobic capacity training is recommended before athletes reach PHV.
    4. Aerobic power should be introduced progressively after growth rate decelerates.
  2. Strength:
    1. Always trainable.
    2. Critical window of accelerated adaptation to strength training for females is immediately after PHV and 12 to 18 months after PHV for males.
  3. Speed:
    1. Always trainable but declines with age.
    2. There are two critical windows of accelerated adaptation to speed training: 6 to 8 years old and again 11 to 13 years old for females, and 7 to 9 years and again 13 to 16 years old for males.
    3. Window I is agility, quickness window: change of direction, linear, lateral, and multi directional speed; duration of intervals less then 5 seconds.
    4. Window II is anaerobic lactic power and capacity window: linear, lateral, multi-directional and “chaotic” speed for durations of 5 to 20 seconds.
  4. Skill:
    1. Always trainable.
    2. Pre-puberty is a crucial time for skill development, laying the groundwork for future skill acquisition post-puberty.
    3. The window for optimal skill training for femaies takes place between the ages of 8 and 11, andthe ages of 9 and 12 for males.
  5. Suppleness (flexibility)
    1. Always trainable.
    2. Special attention should be paid to flexibility during PHV, due to rapid growth.
    3. The optimal window of trainability for suppleness for both genders occurs between the ages of 6 and 10 (Dr. K. Russell).

Periodization

Periodization is the important planning needed to connect an athlete’s long-term goals with each day’s training and recovery requirements. Essentially, periodization is scientific-based time management mapping out training, matches, and recovery over an extended period of time to help maximize the health and performance of an athlete.

Periodization optimizes the sequencing and integration of training, recovery, and competition throughout days, periods, and phases so an athlete reaches an optimal sport’s form for the decisive competitions of the year.

There are single peak periodization and multiple peak periodizations. An example of this would include in one macro-cycle (annual plan), meso-cycles broken down into 5 stages:

In other words, the year is segmented into the offseason, preseason, in-season, and the postseason with different goals for each stage. This is vital for the continued health and growth of the athlete physically and mentally.

Actions:

  • Provide Periodization models for each stage of the LTAD
  • Create periodization models for each geographic region, gender, and age-grade team

Continuous Improvement

Long-Term Athlete Development is a work-in-progress. Continuous improvement guarantees that we are always evaluating our sport and are readily able to adapt and apply new sports science innovations and changes in the game to our development model. LTAD provides a structure that is flexible enough to continuously evolve with these inevitable changes to the sport and our subsequent national team strategies and development systems.

Our core goal remains sharing the game with as many people as possible in a healthy and enriching environment. The American Rugby Model gives a framework by which we can do this for participants of all ages and with varying goals of recreation and performance.


Shortcomings of LTAD

Long-term Athlete Development models are the start of a conversation. LTAD is framework to help answer the ongoing questions of resource allocation (people, money, time, structure, etc). Talent identification and subsequent development is at the heart of LTAD from a high-performance perspective. There is some science to this, but it is not in many cases linear and formulaic. Talent development is multi-faceted, complex, and in many ways still unknown. For every rule in LTAD and talent development, there are exceptions.

LTAD is a macro-view of the growth of an athlete from birth to professional to “retirement.” The vast majority of athletes come into the LTAD model not at the beginning in rather in late elementary school, high-school, college, and even post-university. For most athletes it is not a linear progression but moments of immediate and great growth followed by periods of plateauing.

There are aspects about Dr. Balyi’s original model that have since proven controversial. The “10,000 Hours” and Windows of Optimal Training being two of the most prominent:

  • Mastery has been shown in less than 10000 hours and mediocrity in far more than 10,000 training hours.
  • “The literal or wrongful interpretation of Windows of Opportunity can lead to neglecting other attributes” as in many ways the windows are based on averages. “As a result, if a coach tries to apply LTAD principles based on the average, there is a danger of “writing off” any young athlete who doesn’t adapt, or obey the ‘science’.”[i]

[i] http://sportsscientists.com/2013/02/long-term-athlete-development-foundations-challenges/ Science of Sport. Ross Tucker, PHD. 

[i] Arne Güllich & Eike Emrich (2014) Considering long-term sustainability in the development of world class success, European Journal of Sport Science, 14:sup1, S383-S397, DOI: 10.1080/17461391.2012.706320

[ii] ISSp poSItIon Stand: to Sample or to SpecIalIze? SeVen poStulateS about youth Sport actIVItIeS that lead to contInued partIcIpatIon and elIte performance. Jean Côté1, ronnie lidor2, dieter haCkfort3. ueen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada2 The Zinman College of Physical Education and Sport Sciences, Wingate Institute and Faculty of Education, University of Haifa, Israel3 ASPIRE Academy for Sports Excellence, Doha, Qatar. JSEP, 2009, 9, 07-17

[iii] The specialising or sampling debate: a retrospective analysis of adolescent sports participation in the UK. MATTHEW W. BRIDGE & MARTIN R. TOMS University of Birmingham, School of Sport & Exercise Sciences, Birmingham, UK (Accepted 13 August 2012) .

[iv] USA Ice Hockey ADM Model

[v] O’Sullivan, John. ChangingTheGameProject. http://www.soccerwire.com/blog-posts/osullivan-the-early-specialization-dilemma-in-north-american-soccer/#.VNjy3Z-Peqg.linkedin

[vi] USA Ice Hockey ADM Model, under-8 Overview

[vii] ADM, USA Hockey, “Long Term Athlete Development and the ADM” short paper. 

[viii] Pacific Sports - Optimal Windows of Trainability (Balyi and Way 2005)