Training to Train to Compete:
Long Term Athletic Development Part II

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.


In last months article (“From Birth to Master ...”) I introduced a training model called Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) which is being used in many countries such as  Canada, Australia, the UK, Ireland and the USA.

From last months article I wrote:

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 ...).”

I gave an overview of the six stages of development for a late-specialized sport like Water Polo and went into a bit more detail on the first two stages (FUNdamentals and Learning to Train). These two stages covered the ages from 6-12 years.

Biological windows of trainability, which refers to sensitive periods of accelerated adaptation to training, which occurs prior, during and early post puberty was also discussed. This topic alone could be a whole series of articles. To reach your true genetic potential you must be exposed to certain modes of activities during these sensitive periods or biological windows. I gave the example of throwing a baseball and Warden et al. (2009) has shown that positive adaptations to the throwing arm occur when throwing is introduced during these sensitive growth periods.

This article will focus on the next two stages of development, “Train to Train” and “Train to Compete”.
Like the previous article, much of the information below has been gathered from


This stage is typically for the athlete age 11-15 for girls and 12-16 for boys. It continues the theme of the previous two stages regarding building a broad base but the focus shifts from physical (movement) literacy to the development of a solid base of aerobic, speed, flexibility and strength conditioning. Skill development is still a primary concern in this stage but with the increased demands on the athlete (more practice hours and competitions) there should be ample time for the coach to concurrently develop skill and physical conditioning.

The athletes are not specialized yet but many will be narrowing their sport training focus down to two sports. Of course the athlete can and should still be enjoying many different sports with in the confines of the formal training they will be receiving during these two main sports.

During the later parts of this stage, some athletes may be identified as potential national or other higher level team players. It should be stressed that if the athlete is not identified at this stage that they still should be encouraged to continue with their development and if reaching this higher level is their goal that they still have lots of time and it is only a matter of effort on the athletes part to get there. It is a big mistake for coaches to either write off or hail certain athletes as the next ________ (name of some famous player). It does neither of these athletes any good to do this. Coaching and praising effort is absolutely essential while doing the same for “talent” can actually have a negative consequences down the road (Dweck, 2006).


Michael Jordan is very likely the best basketball player of all time. Did you know he did not make his high school team the first year he tried out, he was deemed to short at 5'11”/1.80m while the following year he was 6'4”

The onset of puberty can vary greatly in these athletes which is one of the reasons you will see a variety of physical and skill development. It is usually assumed that the child that enters puberty early has the advantage and while this is true at that early age because they are just bigger and stronger then everyone else, there are also advantages to being a “late bloomer”. Although the “late bloomer” may be a smaller athlete it is believed that this is can be a good thing because they have a longer sensitive period for skill development (they end up having a longer “learning to train” stage).

Another explanation for the various levels of skill and physical development is an athletes relative age or when the athlete was born. Barnsley & Thompson (1988) have showed that their are more top level Hockey players in Canada born in the first 3 months of the year.


In an interview with ESPN, Malcolm Gladwell, author of “Outliers: The Story of Success” says:

“In Canada, the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey programs is Jan. 1. Canada also takes hockey really seriously, so coaches start streaming the best hockey players into elite programs, where they practice more and play more games and get better coaching, as early as 8 or 9. But who tends to be the "best" player at age 8 or 8? The oldest, of course -- the kids born nearest the cut-off date, who can be as much as almost a year older than kids born at the other end of the cut-off date. When you are 8 years old, 10 or 11 extra months of maturity means a lot.”


In the Canadian Hockey example above, just imagine how many athletes would have been weeded out of higher level play at a very young age just because they were 10-11 months younger then their fellow teammates. These are just some other aspects of the importance of LTAD and not specializing too early in life.

Some notables regarding the purely physical training side of things is to “emphasize flexibility training given the rapid growth of bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles” (source). The exercises I outlined in the following articles are an excellent place to start with training flexibility.

Upgrading Your ROM

Stretching the Shoulders for a BIGGER Shot - Part I

Stretching the Shoulders for a BIGGER Shot - Part II

There are also windows of adaptation for strength development around age 12 for females and 15 for boys. These windows are correlated with the peak height velocity (PHV) and the onset of puberty. During this strength window, the athlete will be able to develop strength at a very fast rate. In a previous Water Polo Planet article I published a strength program that I described as being for the athlete new to strength training. This program is very a good match for this age group.

Applying Top Ten Physical Training Tips (an easy to follow strength program)


This may be the stage that is mistakenly used most often for athletes of all ages. It is the stage of sport specialization with much higher demands on competition success and year round high volume and high intensity training. Depending on the sport, the age of the athletes will vary but is generally for females ages 15‐21 and males ages 16‐23. There is not much information available specific for Water Polo but the British and Canadian Water Polo's LTAD model splits this stage in two. First stage is typically the high school aged athlete (up to 18/19 years old), with the second stage being the college/university age player.

“For many sports this stage is divided into two stages, one for athletes who are developing the capability to win in national competition and international age group competition with another stage for those who are bridging to regular participation in international senior competition.”

A unique feature of this stage is that it splits in to two streams, the competitive as described above and an active for life stream. This gives the athlete the option to continue the sport and continue leading an active lifestyle. This recreational stream (active for life) should be a great opportunity for growth of the sport. Everything does not have to be focused on the highest level of play.

Active for life athletes increase the membership of the sport and thereby increase revenues for clubs and organizing bodies among other benefits. In the club system, this group can fit in nicely with an already existing masters program.

From the Water Polo Canada LTAD document we can see some of the differences between the two stages discussed above.


In this article I discussed the two stages that encompass the teen years and early adulthood. These two stages lead the athlete all the way through high school and into college/national team or an Active for Life (recreation) stream.

While the first two stages (FUNdamentals and Learning to Train) discussed in the previous article are focused on learning broad sport skills from many different sports with a focus on learning while having fun. The two stages discussed here, Training to Train and Training to Compete shift toward specialization, increased competition demands and development of all aspects of physical conditioning, basically things get a little more serious.

There are also windows of adaptation for strength development around age 12 for females and 15 for boys. This window correlates with the athletes growth spurt and onset of puberty.

This article is only a glimpse at these two stages and LTAD in general. I encourage you to seek out the resources and references listed below for more information. There is lots of science behind many of the recommendations in the LTAD model.

In the next few articles I will continue to 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:


Barnsley RH, Thompson AH. Birthdate and success in minor hockey: The key to the N.H.L. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science 20, 167-176. (1988) Click here for a copy (500 kb)

British Water Polo. LTAD brochure. Download link: British Water Polo LTAD

Dweck CS. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books. ISBN: 978-0-345-47232-8 (2006)

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

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

Water Polo Canada LTAD model. download link:

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