When I think about long-term athlete development, the first word that comes to my mind is difference. My first guiding rule as a coach came from my mentor Roger Eischens: “It’s aways about difference.” That couldn’t be more true when we start talking about long-term athlete development. Coaches need to account for different bodies, a different society, and different priorities while maintaining the same purpose.
At the small scale, we need to respect the individual differences and variation amongst the athletes we coach. You are going to have situations where you give 30 athletes a movement puzzle to solve, there will be 30 different solutions. Respect that and use that as the basis for deciding the path of the athlete’s development. There will of course be situations where you have to try and make one size fits all. But if you just recognize that one size doesn’t fit all, that awareness alone will help you become a better coach.
At a larger scale, society is quite different now than it was just a half century ago. People have changed, habits have changed, and sport has changed. In order to develop athletes we therefore first have to understand what we had in the past and we’ve given up. We need to recognize what culture has created to help up. And the things culture has put in our way.
In the world of physical activity and physical education, unfortunately most of those changes have been for the worse. That’s a topic I discussed in depth at the 2017 Scottish Athletics Conference. The consequence is that we have to start earlier and realize the exact deficits we are facing when creating a plan.
The priorities and focus purpose of sport and training is also drastically different at the youth and professional levels. More and more youth training fails to fully take this into account and simply mirrors what those at the top do.
One thing is the same and has only become more true over time. I view it is our job as physical educators and coaches to sustain and support the physical choices and aspirations of every child, no matter their potential. We can sit around and moan about what is wrong with the world. Or we can do something about it and try to help whoever walks in our door. Whether we create Olympians or simply help someone develop a joy of movement, that is true long-term athletic development.