From Birth to Master; Play Ground to Podium; Cradle to Grave:
Long Term Athletic Development Part I

In this monthly series of articles, Mike will discuss the science and practice of physical training for Water Polo. Strength, flexibility, Water Polo science, rehab and other areas of interest with respect to the physical development of the Water Polo athlete will be covered.


Many countries, including Canada, Australia, the UK, Ireland, USA and many others are implementing a model known as Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) in many of their national sport organizations.


This may very well be the first time you have heard this term before. Worldwide, it is still in its infant stage right now. For example, many sports in Canada are already implementing the model with a plan of tangible outcomes coming 20-30 years down the road (e.g. the year 2020+).

Since this is a huge topic to cover in one article, this will be the first of a series of articles related to this topic. My goal for this article is that you will better appreciate some of the nuances of LTAD and how it relates to developing Water Polo athletes particularly the first two stages of development.

Much of the information below has been gathered from my personal experience and organizations like


LTAD is a model rooted in science which attempts to optimize training, competitions and recovery based on the athletes maturation and biological development. It views the athlete as more then just an Olympic prospect but takes into account the entire life cycle of the person, hence the title of this article (birth to master ...).

To keep it simple, athletes of different ages should focus on different aspects of sport development. There are optimum times to develop strength, power, physical literacy and so on. A child who is 10 years old will have a much different training schedule and goals then a national team athlete, which I think should be obvious to most of us. A common mistake that many coaches and parents make is trying to have their adolescent athlete do the same training program as an NCAA, national team or professional athlete. This is a recipe for disaster which will really do more harm then good. Just like an infant learns to roll before crawling and crawl before they walk, the same is true for athletic development.


Windows of Adaptation

There are biological windows of trainability, which refers to sensitive periods of accelerated adaptation to training, which occurs prior, during and early post puberty. Although these windows are always open and you can always get better, it is believed that to reach your true genetic potential you must be exposed to certain modes of activities during these sensitive periods.

An example of these windows of development can be seen in adults who as children never played any sports with overhead throwing like baseball. Watch them try to throw a ball as an adult and it is ugly. They have not developed the motor program for overhead throwing and they also missed out on an opportunity to actually change the boney structure of their throwing arm when they were younger. Warden et al. (2009) has shown that positive adaptations to the throwing arm occur when throwing is introduced during these sensitive growth periods which ultimately allows the athlete to throw some serious heat later in life. The below video is a nice demonstration of this phenomenon. President Obama, who never played baseball or any other overhead throwing sports as a child versus former President Bush who did play a lot of baseball as a child.

Video Link: Throwing a Baseball – Obama vs Bush

Although President Obama could improve his throwing with some practice, he will never reach his full potential as an overhead throwing athlete because he missed that sensitive adaptation window as a child.

Now, I know what you are thinking: “we have to get the kids throwing a ton of balls during these sensitive growth periods”.

Also, if the arm adapts to physical stress of throwing then what about the rest of the body?

Very likely there are adaptations going on in the hips, ankles and else where in the body depending on the activities of the child. We might not be too far off from the thought process that to build world class Water Polo players we need to specialize early in order to take advantage of these sensitive periods of accelerated adaptations to training...

... or is there another more holistic alternative that will likely get even better results?


Although there are examples of world class athletes who essentially specialized in their sport from birth (e.g. Tiger Woods was holding a golf club before he could even walk), there are very likely hundreds of thousands more who failed. When I write “failed” I mean they drop out of the sport and possibly sport in general entirely.

Sports can be classified as either early specialization (e.g. gymnastics) or late specialization (e.g. Track and Field, Team sports ... WATER POLO).

6 Stages of Late-specialized Sports

  1. FUNdamental

  2. Learning to train

  3. Training to train

  4. Training to compete

  5. Training to win

  6. Retirement & retainment

If you want to learn more about these 6 stages please go to:

Although on initial inspection, early specialization would seem to be the way to go for a Water Polo player to reach the NCAA or national team, there are some important facts or consequences we need to consider.

The 10-Year Rule

Scientific research has shown that it takes a minimum of 10 years of training for a talented athlete to reach elite levels. The trap is that many people believe that early specialization is what is needed to make this happen. “If I start young then I will be better sooner.” The opposite is actually true. Most athletes only have 10 years at an elite level. If you specialize too early the likelihood of staying in the sport is diminished.

Source: Canadian Basketball Athlete Development Model (ISBN 978-0-9811969-0-9 )

Many of the best players in the world started playing Water Polo at around 10 years of age. Add 10 years onto to that and they are around 20 years old, probably playing on the U20 national team or NCAA which leads them to another 10 years of elite level Water Polo until around 30 years old.

Early specialization in a late-specialized sport,
like Water Polo, can lead to:

  • One-sided sport-specific preparation;

  • Lack of the basic fundamental movement skills;

  • Overuse injuries;

  • Early burnout;

  • Early retirement from training and competition and often withdraw from
    physical activity.

We all know those athletes who appeared to be destined for the national team or NCAA only to stop playing before they even got out of high school. Why does that happen? Could it be that some of these athletes began specializing in Water Polo too early?

Previously, I mentioned an athlete that I coached and watch develop in the club system who started playing Water Polo at around 6 years of age and they reached the NCAA and national team level. You may be thinking that this athlete specialized early, but this is not the case. In the beginning they played Water Polo 1x/week for a hour but they also did many other sports (swimming, basketball, soccer, volleyball) until around 14/15 years old which is when they specialized entirely on Water Polo. In this case, I am sure the early introduction to Water Polo was advantageous but there is a big difference between an early start and early specialization.


I will briefly go over the first two stages of development of a late specialization sport like Water Polo; FUNdamentals and Learning to Train.


Figure showing the concept of physical literacy.

FUNdamentals is generally from the ages of 6-9 years and is focused on fun! It is a period of time when children participate in a variety of programs which focus on developing physical literacy in a fun, non-threatening environment, therefore formal competition is essentially non-existent at this age. The children should be exposed to all fundamental movement skills and build general overall motor skills.

In the context of a Water Polo practice for this age think about all the basic swimming skills (front crawl, back stroke, breast stroke, various kinds of kicking), sending/receiving a ball and basic concept of horizontal vs vertical positions. All of these skills should be learned in a combination of formal instruction and unstructured in a safe and challenging environment.

An example exercise would be playing keep away with minimal rules, possibly shallow end of pool (think safe) while letting the athletes explore the many different ways of handling the ball under pressure in a game that doesn't keep track of score and everyone gets to play.

Some other highlights of the FUNdamental stage of athletic development:


Hand and foot speed can be developed especially well by boys and girls during this stage and if this window of opportunity to develop speed is missed, body speed later in life may be compromised.

“Children this age have a strong sense of what is “fair” and should be introduced to the simple rules and ethics of sports. Basic tactics and decision making can be introduced.”

“Using equipment that is the right size, and that fits well makes learning activities much more enjoyable and also safer.”

“Encourage children to engage in unstructured physical play with their friends every day, regardless of the weather.”

“Continue to play catching, throwing, hitting, running and other physically demanding games with both boys and girls.”

“Physical education programs in the school should be allocated the recommended time of 150 minutes per week – 30 minutes per day.”

“Don’t be concerned with the score.”

“Develop all-round athletes.”

To learn more about this stage of development please go here:

The second stage is Learn to Train which occurs at approximately ages 9-12 in boys and 8-11 in girls. These athletes are ready to begin more formalized training, but the focus should still be on general sports skills with training in a variety of different activities.

Some of the highlights from this stage:

Source: to Train

“This is the most important stage for the development of sport specific skills as it is a period of accelerated learning of coordination and fine motor control. It is also a time when children enjoy practicing skills they learn and seeing their own improvement.”

“While competition is important, it is learning to compete that should be the focus – not winning. For best long-term results 70% of time in the sport should be spent in practice, with only 30% of the time spent on competition.”

“This is an important time to work on flexibility.”

“Develop endurance through games and relays.”

“Late developers (those who enter puberty later than their peers) have an advantage when it comes to learning skills as the Learn to Train stage lasts longer for them.”

“Try to have children take part in some land-based, some water-based and some snow/ice based activities.”

“Keep children working on flexibility, speed, endurance and strength. For strength activities they should use their own body weight, Swiss balls or medicine balls – not heavy weights.”

As you can see, all though this stage is more formal it is still about learning while having fun.

To learn more about this stage of development please go here: to Train


I think Long Term Athletic Development is here to stay. In this article I discussed what is LTAD, early vs late specialization, cost/benefit of specializing to early in a late-specialized sport like Water Polo, and some examples of positive training adaptations that can occur around and during early childhood and the first two stages of athletic development.

Both of these first two stages are focused on learning broad sport skills from many different sports with a focus on learning while having fun. There are also important windows of adaptation for speed, flexibility and other physiological qualities during these stages.

In the next few articles I will further discuss the implications of LTAD and other related concepts of developing athletes with a more holistic point of view.

If you have questions you want answered please leave them in the message board category “Physical Training with Mike Reid"
I can also be contacted through my website:


Warden SJ, Bogenschutz ED, Smith HD, Gutierrez AR. Throwing induces substantial torsional adaptation within the midshaft humerus of male baseball players. Bone 45 (2009) 931–941

James Mandigo, Nancy Francis, Ken Lodewyk. Physical Literacy Concept Paper: Ages 0 – 12 Yrs., Download this Document.

Dave Hill, U18 National Team Mentor Coach, Water Polo Canada. Personal Communication. Nov 9, 2010.

[Click Mike Reid's name at top of page to learn more about his
strength training & conditioning experiences and his web sites.]