Ross presented these thoughts at a recent International Rugby Board conference in Dublin and they deserve to be considered by all NGB’s worldwide. Rather than capitulate to ‘not having the stomach for the fight’ it is down to all of us to make a difference with the athletes in our charge. Our NGB’s may not follow immediately but it takes just a small number of committed people to make a difference. You will be surprised at the number of teachers, coaches and administrators out there who, although shackled by the ineptitudes of their NGB infrastructure, are keen to make change. For those committed people all I can suggest is that you continue to share your thoughts and practices with each other.
1. How do you identify talent without either destroying it or neglecting it? Talent is destroyed when it is chosen for the wrong reasons. If you pick players at 13 based on size, speed and strength, you pick a temporary advantage. But because it is rewarded by the competitive system, it never needs to develop other attributes. Talent is neglected because late developers often do not receive a look in, and are lost to the sport early because of the way the system has been created.
2. How do you maintain healthy competition without providing a conflicting message to coaches? You cannot create and implement LTAD which says “delay competition”, and then have annual competitions for 10 or 13 year olds, the results of which are crucial to future success as a player. That is a mixed message, and the coach will always go with performance.
3. How does a sport embracing LTAD affect that sport’s standing in society? The reality is that sport is a big deal, even from young ages. Here in South Africa, high schools look for young children with athletic potential and offer scholarships and potential career paths. At a young age, good athletes are virtually professional and society has come to accept this as “normal”. Implementing LTAD challenges that, and if the entire environment does not also do the same, then it creates a conflict between one sport and another, and even within a sport.
For example, I work with SA Sevens, and we are looking at driving the specialization of players to become Sevens players from a younger age. We are not going down to the 10-year olds, but it illustrates that because players themselves are finite, they are the subject of competition. Imagine rugby implements LTAD and football does not – a good number of young players, perhaps forced by parents, will move towards football. There is a degree of “security” in early specialization, however wrong that perception may be.
4. Who are the other stake-holders in LTAD? It’s simply not reasonable to suggest that one sport have an LTAD programme from 5 up to adulthood. As mentioned, it’s unnecessary because you don’t need 10,000 hours to begin with, and it’s also costly and potentially crippling to place the entire burden on each sport. Therefore, you recognize that other stakeholders, such as parents and government, also play a crucial role, particularly early on when you actually don’t want players to specialize, but rather engage in a number of different sports, learning a range of skills and abilities. This is perhaps the key concept for LTAD.
5. How do we change mind-sets? In all of this, it’s important to recognize that sporting systems, countries, federations, have a certain inertia. They are giant, sometimes slow-moving bodies and if you stand in the way, you get flattened. Therefore, to successfully implement LTAD, you must address the mind-sets and begin to ‘nudge’ them in a different direction. Failing this, LTAD, or any other similar plan, is nothing more than a fantasy of “best-case”, and won’t work in the real world. It will take brave leadership to change the competition structure, for example, and to adopt a no compromise attitude towards youth talent ID and selection, based on current principles. I doubt many will have the stomach for the fight, but that may be what it takes.