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Research > Syntheses > Developing Climbing Talent > “The Stages”

Note: this is #5 of 8 different write-ups on LTAD available at my website. For the overview, click here.

Talent Development Frameworks have stages, and these “stages” are not based strictly on age or performance capability.

Let’s catch you up: this is one part of an overview of research into athletic talent. This research is usually referred to as Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD), Talent Identification (TID), or Talent Development (TDE) research. It has implications for everything from “who’s got it” to “will I reach my potential if I didn’t start when I was 4” to the “secret sauce”. So let’s talk about frameworks for development, part of the “secret sauce”.

The frameworks based on the LTAD, TID, and TDE research include the American Development Model (ADM)[i] from the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, the Long-Term Development in Sport and Physical Activity 3.0[ii] from Canada’s Sport for Life, as well as the more climbing-specific Sport Climbing for Sport, for Life LTAD.[iii]  A “stage” system of overlapping age-ranges is recommended by Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) frameworks to develop youth athletes.

One could simplify these frameworks to suggest that they:

  • transition young athletes through a series of stages that correspond with ideal development;
  • not burn out the athlete before they’ve truly had a chance to show what they’re capable of;
  • include an evidence-based justification for athletic development, and;
  • get more of a program or country’s athletes transitioning to the adult world, whether that’s into the realm of the “super elite” or into recreational, adult sport.

Some nuggets which you may or may not find interesting:

  • The American Development Model (ADM) recommends 5 stages, while the Canada / Climbing LTAD recommend 8 stages.
    • It’s important to note that the ADM is not just about how to putting kids in the right stages of development, it’s also about education for coaches, parents, judges, and organizations.
  • It may be helpful to simplify each stage centered around important concepts, such as “child-led activities” and CABS (see stage 1 or “Early Stages”).
  • Females may trend toward shifting stages before males due to the fact that they are on average 2-years ahead of males from a maturational standpoint.[iv]
  • The original research direction focused on ‘sensitive periods’, or ‘windows of opportunity’, for development. For example, Hirtz and Starosta’s 2002 paper on motor coordination suggested early, broad (or generalized) development — prior to the growth spurt years (10.5-12.5 in females and 12.5-14.5 in males) of speed and co-ordination may set the foundation for later specificity.[v] However, please see the section on “criticisms” and “windows” for more on why research in this area is challenging to interpret.
  • Additionally, evidence suggests that while certain generalizations can be made about pathways to elite performance, they are highly individualistic and ‘idiosyncratic’.

*Note: The Climbing LTAD and Canada 3.0 age ranges generally start females 1-2 years earlier than males at the different stages.

Ford and their research colleagues did a review in 2011, finding that the evidence-base for the LTAD isn’t solid.  At the same time, Ford et al. recognized the challenges of experimentally validating what is basically a practitioner framework.[vi]  Unfortunately, they also found the framework too generic and not individualistic enough.  That being said, their tone can also be described as one supporting this “work in progress” even as they recommend additional investigations into the scientific underpinning of the framework.  For more about the criticisms of these frameworks, please jump to this link.

A quick aside: The ADM, Canada 3.0, Great Britain (GB) Pathway, and Climbing LTAD frameworks in the above table are easily comparable simply because they all come from a similar source.[vii] [viii]   The original source was likely Istvan Balyi in 2003 and Balyi and Hamilton in 2004.[ix]  However, Balyi has been discussing this subject with colleagues since at least the 1990’s.  Balyi published a book in 2013 with several colleagues but you can also see a 4-pager in-depth article here.

The Specifics of the Framework

The Early Stages, or Young Clubs are generally focused around encouraging play & fun, child-led activities, intrinsic motivation, encouraging multiple sports, and general transferable athletic capabilities sometimes called CABS or Coordination, Agility, Balance, and Speed.  In general, the climber is supposed to transition from a high percentage of “child-led activities” and entirely “activity” rather than “sport-based” (~0-6) to a point where they do a combination of instruction, adult-led play, and free play with most of their time focused on activities rather than formal sports (~6-9), and finally toward sampling competition and sampling multiple sports (~8-12).

The Learn / Challenge Stage is generally focused around how a young team can explore training and competition.   It may occur through some deliberate practice while still encouraging play, encouraging intrinsic motivation, limiting but allowing competition, and encouraging multiple sports with emphasis on one.  This is ~11-14 for females and ~12-15 for males. Here you see slightly more focus on training than competition, and the potential to focus a little more on one sport vs. a second sport.

The Transition Stage is generally focused around a maturing team beginning to specialize in a sport, while still encouraging other sports; more structure, organization and challenge; balancing “drill-based” work and “fun”; and beginning to explore higher levels of competition.  Successfully transitioning from “deliberate play” to more “deliberate practice” while keeping motivation high.  This is for 13/14-18+ year of females and 15-18+ year old males. Here you see slightly more of a focus on competition than training and the potential to focus on a single sport.

The Performance & Competition Stage is centered around elite individuals and teams who are interested in specialization (note: in season), elite competition, planning, “drill-based” work, and generally seeing how far the athlete or performer can take the sport.  On a climbing gym-level basis, this stage is probably not offered with few exceptions in North America (see the Montreal Blocshop Adult Team or write-ups on the US Climbing Training Center in Utah).  Other cultures, such as France, include this model as a part of their structure.  This is typically for 16+ year old females, and 18+ year old males. Competition takes up a majority of the focus for a single sport.

*Note: These simple recommendations are based on a simplified synthesis of the ADM, Canada’s LTAD, the GB Pathway, and Climbing LTAD documents.  There are some obvious overlaps, with some small discrepancies.  For example, the ADM encourages other sports through the transition stage for “cross-sport development.”

Canada’s Climbing LTAD framework recommends that different stages participate in climbing competition only up to certain levels.  These recommendations are age-specific due to the fact that the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) uses two-year youth age categories. 

Caveats and below graphic explanation:

  • First is that not every athlete may rise up through the different developmental stages, and as a result room should be made for processes that “recycle” talent from other sports, or identify talent later. 
  • Second, “early specialization” sports, if they exist, may start chronologically younger children at a different point in the process. 
  • Third, a counter to an “early specialization” strategy has begun to form with the concept “early sampling.” The argument goes that a sampling strategy may allow kids to find a better fit and/or create valuable skills for later sports.
  • See the below graphic.

Acknowledgment: I’m indebted to Dr. Russell Martindale, Associate Professor at Edinburgh Napier University, Dr. Phillip Watts, Professor Emeritus of Sports and Exercise Science (Retired) at Northern Michigan University, and Dr. Shannon Siegel, Co-Chair of the Department of Kinesiology at the University of San Francisco, for their review of different sections of this write-up.  They were very generous with their time, advice, and recommendations.  They are not responsible for any mistakes, omissions, or poor arguments on my part! 

[i] The American Development Model from the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee can be accessed at this link.

[ii] The Long-Term Development in Sport and Physical Activity 3.0 Document from Canada’s Sport for Life can be accessed at this link.

[iii] The Sport Climbing For Sport, For Life Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) Document from Climbing Escalade Canada (Canada’s National Governing Body) can be accessed at this link.

[iv] Author’s discussion with Dr. Shannon Siegel, Co-chair of the Department of Kinesiology at the University of San Francisco (November 2019).

[v] Sensitive and critical periods of motor co-ordination development and its relation to motor learning by Hirtz and Starosta (2002). See link.

[vi] The Long-Term Athlete Development Model: Physiological Evidence and Application by Ford et al. (2011)

[vii] For a write-up but few details of the Great Britain Climbing Pathway from 2016, please see this link.

[viii] The British may be doing as much as the Canadians flor talent development, but in a manner which is less centralized from the national governing and more focused on coaching.  See this write-up on one of BMC’s LTAD workshops from Mark Reeves (author of Effective Coaching, a book for Climbing Instructors).  Also, see the UK’s Mountain Training certification scheme for Climbing Coaches.  Also, see this article on the future of BMC’s climbing coaching program.

[ix] Long-Term Athlete Development: Trainability in childhood and adolescence, Windows of Opportunity, Optimal Trainability by Istvan Balyi and Ann Hamilton, (2003).