Lang, M., & Light, R. (2010). Interpreting and implementing the long term athlete development model: English swimming coaches' views on the (swimming) LTAD in practice. International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, 5(3), 389-402.

blue line

This article reviews the Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model that represents a sports-wide set of principles that significantly influences national sports policy in England [and Canada]. An evaluation is made of how British Swimming adapted the model and how it is perceived by a limited number of swimming coaches in England (six elite and five non-elite coaches).

[Editor's Note: Categorical statements are made in this abstract/commentary with the claim of being supported by scientific works but those works are not referenced in this abstract. The full disclosure of the confirmatory science is included in the second edition of the e-book Swimming Pedagogy and a Curriculum for Stroke Development by Brent S. Rushall.]

Two general concerns were revealed:

  1. British Swimming's (the Amateur Swimming Association) regulations governing competitions are viewed as being contradictory to the implications of the LTAD.
  2. There was an overemphasis on training volumes [a physiological emphasis] leading to a neglect of technique work [although it is included in the early stages of the model].

As was opined by other reviewers of this article, the bases of the LTAD were viewed as the singular opinions and writings of Istvan Balyi (1990), which contains some science, anecdotal stories and beliefs, and general dogma that conveys a sense of originating in the lore of Eastern Europe pre-1990. As well, more popular dogma and beliefs that pervade swimming at the turn of the century are also infused into the model.

Contrary to what is known, Balyi and the originators of the British LTAD specify skill learning as being worthy of emphasis in the pre-pubertal years with an adjustment for gender. Such a stipulation is incomplete. There are no publications by experts who note chronological age differences in initial skill learning between the genders and thus, that implication is unjustified. Additionally, there is no mention of the post-pubertal male period of accelerated skill learning. The emphasis on skill learning is incorrectly limited and incomplete.

As a typical example of the appeal to unsubstantiated beliefs is the notion that it takes 10 years or 100,000 hours of deliberate practice to excel (the "theoretical framework" of Ericsson et al., 1993, 1994). Such a concept is too restrictive when it is applied to large diverse populations. It fails to take into account the extreme variation in ages of success at the highest levels of swimming that are currently and historically evident, as well as failing to accommodate the different demands between sports for sport-specific skills, psychological, and physiological development.

The LTAD includes the following incorrect implications.

  1. Non-swimming training (e.g., complementary sports, strength work) has benefits for serious swimmers [the scientific studies show they do not].
  2. Aerobic and anaerobic systems are discreet in exercise [they are not – the aerobic system is always working and works near and up to maximal capacity when anaerobic work is attempted].
  3. The final swimming stage (when swimmers are mature) is when the greatest volume of training and participation are programmed [which contradicts the observation that training volumes begin to lessen if intensity is maintained after maturity is achieved in the late teen years].

The Swimming Pathway (British Swimming's LTAD) is structured as follows:

  1. FUNdamentals (boys aged 6-6 and girls aged 5-8).
  2. Learning to Train (boys aged 9-12 and girls 8-11).
  3. Training to Train (boys aged 12-15 and girls aged 11-14).
  4. Training to complete (males aged 15-18 and females aged 14-16).
  5. Training to Win (males aged 18 and over and females aged 16 and over).
  6. Retirement/Retention.

Stroke technique is to be emphasized in the first two stages. However, the overall model fails to interpret physiological growth and development and the capacities to perform of each gender and the various age-groups. Overall, each stage increases the volume and commitment to pool attendance. The highest volumes and participation are recommended for fully mature individuals [signaling the belief that more and harder training will improve a swimmer's "engine" further, despite growth of such entities having reached their finite levels with the cessation of growth/maturation]. At much greater length, it is possible to show many false premises involved in the structure of the model. There is scientific evidence that contradicts a substantial number of the beliefs that have been infused into the LTAD (some of the more obvious ones were highlighted by Lang and Light). The model includes a "volume emphasis" which is passé and has been replaced by the recognition that intensity training, particularly race-pace interval work, is much more appropriate and beneficial for serious swimmers' performances.

The regulations of British Swimming are rightfully criticized as promoting excessive training [for 200 m races] while "protecting" young swimmers from supposedly welfare-threatening 50 and 100 m races. The reasons for such a decision must be based in beliefs and lore for they in no way reflect the knowledge-base of human growth and development as it pertains to exercise. Balyi's comment: "Overemphasizing competition in the early phases of training will always cause shortcomings in athletic abilities later in an athlete's career" (Balyi & Hamilton, 2004, p. 4) displays the restricted dogma that underlies sport planning of that singular source. Contrary to popular misconceptions, children and young teens are particularly adept at diffusing situations that to adults appear to be very stressful (e.g., they recover quickly from grief; the length of time that problems are considered is relatively short, etc.) and can be taught how to enjoy swimming competitions (Rushall, 1994). The adult fear of children competing in swimming races is only appropriate if children are not coached with methods appropriate for their age-group, and as was pointed out by Holt (2010) are not taught the appropriate mental skills for coping with competitions and the sport.

Overall, there is very little true research that is cited as justification for the structure and recommendations of the LTAD. Because of the preponderance of dogma and ill-formed beliefs in the LTAD, it would seem that a general approach to do the opposite of what is recommended would be a better coaching strategy for competitive swimming.

The responses of the interviewed coaches are generally critical of the LTAD, particularly its emphasis on developing a swimmer's "engine" (Istvan Balyi in Gordon, 2004). Its physiology/conditioning-centric approach to swimming is losing its appeal because of three reasons: 1) the scientific literature contradicts many of the popular beliefs/misconceptions (Rushall, September 12, 2009) that have led to incorrect/irrelevant training content; 2) the development of physiological factors is maturationally and inherently limited; and 3) at the higher competitive levels, physiological factors do not differentiate competitive rankings. However, the entrenched practices of swimming training keep emerging in the study respondents' comments. It appears that swimmers have to swim for the full period of allotted pool time [to meet the need for volume] to the extent that technique cannot be taught. Alternatives for instruction are available (Rushall, 2006). It is possible that dividing practice time into an instructional period to teach technique (possibly for half the practice session) and following that with repeated instruction while performing sane and valid interval swimming could lead to better experiences for swimmers. Such a structure would decrease the volume of swimming but mainly by removing the irrelevant/senseless swimming "sets" that are commonplace in pools almost everywhere.

While a plea is made for opportunities to teach technique to young swimmers, the paucity of knowledge about the scientific principles involving skills is notable. The major factor concerning skill that should be embraced in sport in general is that skills/technique can always be improved across the normal range of competitive ages. Technique work is just as important with the oldest swimmers as it is with the youngest swimmers. A case can be made that technique is more important than conditioning with older swimmers because it is the factor that best differentiates successful from unsuccessful elite swimmers (Cappaert et al., 1996a; Cappaert et al., 199b; Dutto & Cappaert, 1994; D'Acquisto et al., 2004; Millet et al., 2002). An emphasis on developing technique that is race-pace specific should be included in all LTAD substructures.

A further case can be made for emphasizing technique throughout a swimmer's career. For a long time, physiological tests were promoted as being important indicators of swimming potential. Unfortunately, the statistics supporting such an advocacy were weak and often equivocal. The feature that does lend some testing value is propelling efficiency, essentially the most efficient use of a swimmer's physical resources for particular velocities of swimming (Chatard et al., 1990; D'Acquisto et al., 2003; D'Acquisto et al., 2004; Toussaint et al., 1990). Swimming efficiency is technique dependent. As techniques improve, so do swimming performances [at all levels of swimming].

Another implied assumption that underlies some of the thinking about the LTAD, and in particular prepubescent children, is that early success does not lead to later success. There are statistics that show successful 10 and under swimmers mostly do not go on to have successful careers. It can be strongly argued that early success is not the cause of later failures and drop-outs. There are many more influential factors that affect motivation and the desire to participate that restrict the longevity of successful young swimmers in the sport.

The overall LTAD is based on chronological age. Maturational age largely determines the success of young swimmers and causes termination of participation if later-maturers, who have been making up for their growth deficiency by employing better techniques, eventually grow to have equivalent physiological capacities along with their superior techniques supplant the success status. No machinations of programming or planning will remove or cancel the problems that are caused by advanced maturation in both genders in chronological age-groups.

Toward the end of the article, Lang and Light draw attention to a long-term program devised by Australia (Australian Swimming Inc., June, 1996) and compared it to the British LTAD. Both systems suffer the same weaknesses and faults (Lang & Light, p. 400).

Implication. Lang and Light do swimming a great service by producing this article. It exposes many weaknesses in both the process and product of top-down directives for sport training. They opined that their "study points toward the challenges involved in the process of adapting a general model for athlete development to specific sports".


  1. Australian Swimming Inc. (June, 1996). Australian Swimming multi-year age-group development model. [http://www.nwaswimaths.com/presentations/Development%20Model.pdf]
  2. Balyi, I. (1990). Quadrennial and double-quadrennial planning of athletic training. Victoria, BC, Canada: Canadian Coaches' Association.
  3. Balyi, I., & Hamilton, (2004). A. Long-term athlete development: Trainability in childhood and adolescence – Windows of opportunity, optimal trainability. Victoria, BC: National Coaching Institute British Columbia.
  4. Cappaert, J. M., Kolmogorov, S., Walker, J., Skinner, J., Rodriguez, F., & Gordon, B. J. (1996a). Active drag measurements in elite US swimmers. Medicine and Science in Exercise and Sports, 28(5), Supplement abstract 279.
  5. Cappaert, J. M., Pease, D. L., & Troup, J. P. (1996b). Biomechanical highlights of world champion swimmers. In J. P. Troup, A. P. Hollander, D. Strasse, S. W. Trappe, J. M. Cappaert, & T. A. Trappe (Eds.), Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming VII (pp. 76-80). London: E & FN Spon.
  6. Chatard, J. C., Collomp, C., Maglischo, E., & Maglischo, C. (1990). Swimming skill and stroking characteristics of front crawl swimmers. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 11, 156-161.
  7. D'Acquisto, L. J., & Berry, J. E. (2003). Relationship between estimated propelling efficiency, peak aerobic power, and swimming performance in trained male swimmers. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 34(5), Supplement abstract 193.
  8. D'Acquisto, L. J., Berry, J., Boggs, G., & Mattern, P. (2004). Swimming performance and velocity at OBLA are linked to propelling efficiency. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 36(5), Supplement abstract 1409.
  9. Dutto, D. J., & Cappaert, J. M. (1994). Biomechanical and physiological differences between males and females during freestyle swimming. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 26(5), Supplement abstract 1098.
  10. Ericsson, K. A., & Charness, N. (1994). Expert performance: Its structure and acquisition. American Psychologist, 49(8), 725-747.
  11. Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, T. R., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.
  12. Gordon, R. (2004). A shorter guide to long term athlete development (LTAD). [http://www.sportcentric.com/vsite/vfile/page/fileurl/0%2C11040%2C4716-137912-155128-38041-0-file%2C00.pdf]
  13. Millet, G. P., Chollet, D., Chalies, S., & Chatard, J. C. (2002). Coordination in front crawl in elite triathletes and elite swimmers. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 23, 99-104.
  14. Rushall, B. S. (1994). How to develop healthy attitudes towards racing in age-group swimmers. Spring Valley, CA: Sports Science Associates. Published in Sydney, Australia, by New South Wales Swimming Association Incorporated.
  15. Rushall, B. S. (September 12, 2009). The Future of Swimming: "Myths and Science". An invited presentation at the ASCA World Clinic 2009, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
  16. Toussaint, H. M., Knops, W., De Groot, G., & Hollander, A. P. (1990). The mechanical efficiency of front crawl swimming. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 22, 402-408.

Return to Table of Contents for Biomechanics of Swimming.

blue line