Long-Term Athlete Development in India
In this article G. Rajaraman, Editor of circleofsport.com, and an alumnus of the inaugural ELMS -ABF High-Performance Leadership Program writes about Long Term Athlete Development in India and how a cohesive strategy to adopt LTAD would lead to greater success in the International podiums and increase the chances of higher medals’ tally.
There have been proclamations that India would finish in the top 10 in the medals table at the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The confidence with which such statements have been made stokes aspirations and hopes among sports lovers in the country but draws a mixed response from those deeply involved in the promotion of the sport.
The greybeards receive such optimistic expressions with a raised eyebrow. They remind anyone who is prepared to hear them that a projection of a dozen medals was made back in 2016 – and India came home with two medals. The younger lot, uninitiated in pessimism, throws its weight behind that declaration.
India earned its best placing in Olympic Games history when it finished 48th in the Tokyo Olympic Games medal table with one gold, two silver, and four bronze. Had Indians won three more gold – the shooting team and the wrestlers were the ones expected to lead the charge, India would have finished 20th, unthinkable a few years ago.
Yet, it helps to step back and view the landscape dispassionately. That will enable a deeper understanding of how India is backing up its stated intentions of becoming a global sporting powerhouse. It may help to examine the structure of Olympic sports in India where each National Sports Federation has partnered with the Sports Authority of India to nurture talent.
For all that, the Indian Sports Ecosystem can be quite complex to a casual observer. Multiple power centres and decision-making bodies, often working in tandem but sometimes in conflict, also raise doubts if everyone is on the same page as far as Long-Term Athlete Development is concerned.
Did Indian athletes succeed despite the system, as critics like to point out every now and then? Did India find success in the international arena without long-term planning? If the success was based on sound plans, who drew them up? Was it a High-Performance Coach? Or was it the vision of a National Sports Federation? Or was it the sheer drive of the individual athlete?
Back in 2019, when I was privileged to be a part of India’s maiden High-Performance Learning Programme, there was no other way to find the answers than by undertaking a pioneering, if preliminary, study. Sadly, many stakeholders did not take part in the survey that was perhaps the first research-based study on the subject in India.
Having not found the desired number of responses, I was left with no option but to expand the universe a bit. Disappointingly, only a sixth of those who undertook the High-Performance Leadership Programme responded. I was, therefore, compelled to look for secondary data to add value to the study.
What is Long-Term Athlete Development?
It seems to have gained currency in India in recent years but was articulated by Istvan Balyi, a Hungarian who served as a resident sport scientist at the National Coaching Institute in Victoria, British Columbia – first in 1998 as a three-stage process, then as a five-stage model in 2001, as a six-stage model in 2004 before evolving as a seven-stage model in 2013.
Simply stated, Long-Term Athlete Development is a systematic, progressive evolution of individual athletes. It has been defined by the Dictionary of Sport and Exercise Science as ‘a model that explains sport-specific best practices for a serious athlete at each stage of skills learning’.
What needs to be done at each stage of human development to give every child the best chance of engaging in lifelong, health-enhancing physical activity; and for those with the drive and talent, the best chance of athletic success? Effective long-term athlete development focuses not on short-term gains and early success, but on what is best for the sports participant throughout life..
The Long-Term Athlete Development model is a framework for optimal training, competition, and recovery schedule for each stage of athletic development. Bayli and his colleagues had envisaged seven stages while Athletics Canada reorganised these in 2015 to have nine Stages, including one post-retirement from active sport.
Since the number of respondents – especially from among the National Sports Federations, Sports Authority of India, and Olympic medallists – is negligible, the inferences drawn from the responses to the survey may not be an accurate reflection of the perception of Long-Term Athlete Development among key stakeholders.
So, the following inferences were made from a combination of Primary and Secondary Data.
National Sports Federations and Sports Authority of India have handled the evolution of Indian athletes with some planning. A lot more needs to be done by all stakeholders, notably the Indian Olympic Association and the National Sports Federations along with the Sports Authority of India for the ecosystem to align with and hasten the use of Long-Term Athlete Development.
India’s school and college sports systems need to bring themselves in sync with the overall sporting ecosystem and embrace a contemporary approach. It is important because the young athletes often get caught between two streams of competition and miss out on one or both due to over-training and increase the risk of injury without paying attention to recovery.
There are some feeder routes – including the Army Boys Sports Company, with the Army putting in place a system and offering excellent training facilities – but they can only lead an athlete to National competitions and Camps. Thereafter, the athletes’ training is primarily under the National Sports Federation with funding from the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports.
Different Long-Term Athlete Development models need to be drawn up for different sports, based on India’s own experience and cultural background. Like the United States, Olympic and Paralympic Committee has developed its own model, IOA can take the lead in India and play a more proactive role in developing a sports culture.
Above all, a lot more education on the Long-Term Athlete Development process is needed in the country. There is a knowledge gap that must be bridged before India becomes more aware and, therefore, buys into the concept before enjoying its benefits. There is a lot more that needs to be done before Long-Term Athlete Development becomes ingrained in the Indian sports ecosystem.
Is the Centres of Excellence route embraced by Indian sport now the way forward?
It must be stated that there was little time to survey the infrastructure and support systems in place at the Centres of Excellence, though the scrolling through the Sports Authority of India website suggests that there is every intention of ensuring the best of infrastructure – including world-class field of play, coaching, sports science support in these centres.
That Khelo India accredited academies are being called in the Train-to-Win stage rather than in the Train–to-Train and Train-to-Compete stages could well be an indication that the visionaries have missed a crucial step in the essentially progressive nature of the Long Term Athlete Development programme. By any reasonable yardstick, athletes in the Train-to-Win stage would be in National Centres of Excellence and not in Khelo India Accredited Academies.
Conclusions & Suggestions
Despite the best efforts of this researcher, the gap remains. India needs a detailed study on LTAD. Perhaps, someone with more fortitude and resources can attempt this study covering all sports and whether the National Centres of Excellence and Khelo India accredited coaching academies are taking the vision forward.
There must be independent research on the 10 factors that influence Long-Term Athlete Development – Physical Literary, Specialisation, Development Age of athletes, Sensitive Periods, Mental, Cognitive and Emotional Development, Periodisation, Competition, Experience, System Alignment, and Continuous Improvement – so that India continues to evolve its own system.
The conflicts between scholastic sport and age-group sport of the National Sports Federations must be avoided and the nation must have one calendar for each sport, deriving from the international calendar.
Athletes, parents, coaches, and administrators must be educated about the model if it is to meet the success it seeks. Without an understanding of how the Long-Term Athlete Development system is designed, stakeholders can be in a hurry to obtain results. That can lead to disruption by way of a high proportion of athletes drop-out at various stages of the programme.
Sports culture, which desires and celebrates early success, must be educated about the benefits of Long-Term Athlete Development and groomed in patience. It does not seem to matter that such a desire leaves little room for the slow or late developer, pushed aside by over-zealous coaches who are driven to pursue results.
For the concept of LTAD to truly be effective, it would need the full support of National Sports Federations and become an integral part of the coach education system. All stakeholders must come together and define LTAD in the Indian context so that the nation benefits and we have more sports-aware and health-conscious citizens.
Editors Note: This article is a summary of the project work undertaken by Mr Rajaraman as part of the High Performance Leadership Program. If you are interested in the research conducted and would like access to the full project report please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org