Research > Syntheses > Developing Climbing Talent > “Primary Criticisms”

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!  Image by Lisa Axelrad.

Note: this is #7 of 8 different write-ups on LTAD available at my website. For the overview, click here.

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 criticisms for some of the “secret sauce” frameworks.

  • The original LTAD framework was based partially on “windows of opportunity” during the developmental stages. Research on “windows of opportunity” or “sensitive periods” is limited in the physical-sports realm, even while application in music and language may be more robust.[i]
  • Team logistics may make implementation challenging.
  • Lessons Learned from the UK show that practitioners debate the use of an LTAD framework.

Criticism 1: the limits of research

The original LTAD framework may have been at least partially built around ‘windows of opportunity’ or ‘sensitive periods’ research – research some authors claim is lacking (in the sport’s realm).[ii]  These windows/periods are based around research suggesting that certain capabilities may be more inclined toward development depending on how physically mature the youth is, or their “biological age.”  In Ford’s 2011 review of the literature, he was unimpressed with the athletics-related research.[iii]  However, it’s worth noting that (1) the LTAD framework today appear to de-emphasize the ‘windows’ element, and (2) criticism was primarily around the state of the research itself, which is different from saying these windows do not exist.

There may also be some question as to whether exploiting these windows (if accurate) allowed an overall rise of an athlete’s “ceiling” or just allowed them to reach the ceiling quicker.[iv]  I’ve put together a table of what the ‘windows of accelerated adaptation,’ – later recommended to be called ‘sensitive periods,’ – looked like in the original Balyi and Hamilton research.[v]

These windows are also mentioned in the Climbing LTAD with more specificity to climbing.  See below:

Note that these tables will remain under the Primary Criticisms section but I may move them as I learn more about the evidence.

Criticism 2: logistics

The original LTAD is based around tracking ‘biological’ rather than ‘chronological’ age using what’s called “peak height velocity” (PHV).  If coaches don’t monitor PHV, it’s challenging to say where a child should be placed.[vi]  Additionally, there is still debate in the literature regarding the accuracy of measuring PHV vs. other methods, such as the percentage of predicted adult height, or skeletal age – each has pros and cons.

Percent of predicted adult height is a method increasingly popular in sports circles who are experimenting with biologically banding (“biobanding”) children of a similar “maturation age” together.[vii]  The decision to implement this policy is often based on when, from a physical maturity standpoint, a child is successful at a sport.  The stage of success can be different depending on both sport and gender, but categorizing by maturation does appear to hold promise as an “adjunct, rather than a replacement for, age-group competition.”[viii]  

Additionally, evidence suggesting a direct relationship of PHV to climbing is uncertain.[ix]  However, the ADM, Canada 3.0, and Canadian LTAD frameworks themselves don’t appear to over-emphasize PHV.  Alternatively, placement could be grounded in psychological and/or social characteristics.[x]  Alternative models can be found under the section: “What Drives Development.”

Even if coaches do monitor PHV or manage to figure out a psychological/social mechanism for placement, the framework itself is a general characterization and may not be ‘individual’ enough.[xi]  Since I can’t find any direct evidence specific-to-climbing regarding PHV or any other method associating success and development, grouping children to compete and/or train together in order to pursue performance success should be considered a best guess.  The evidence points to the idea that the tempo and timing of each individual’s maturation is very important, but questions still remain regarding whether it’s beneficial to mature later in climbing, or whether maturing early is equally or more beneficial.[xii]

A related criticism of these windows comes down to team programming.  If correct, how do you take advantage of windows, which may require different programming needs, with programs typically built around a “recreational vs. competition” framework?  Relatedly, how do programs take into account ‘talent recycling’ whereby athletes who come from a separate sport may only be missing one or two easily developed areas.  Should they be forced into an early development phase?

The Debate in the UK over the LTAD – Lessons Learned

Swimming: Some national governing body’s attempts to implement the framework are well ahead of climbing.  A review of the British Amateur Swimming Association’s (ASA) implementation of the LTAD model found that it may motivate children to compete in longer rather than shorter events, and that if a child doesn’t participate in Swimming’s second stage (the end of Learning-to-Train) involving the learning of fundamental movement patterns, they miss a critical point of movement development which can’t be recovered.[xiii] 

Other authors suggest a concern that the LTAD within the swimming paradigm includes more volume at the expense of technical patterns.[xiv]  However, a response to this criticism questions whether it is an accurate concern given the source (competing clubs which lose their most promising athletes to better resourced  clubs) and claims of inter-club rivalry.  However, in any case this is a criticism with the coaching, not necessarily the LTAD framework.[xv]  Coaching vs. structural improvement in talent development is an important paradigm that will be touched on under the policy section.

Weight lifting: A criticism of the LTAD within the UK’s weight lifting community is that the framework is entirely devoted to physical characteristics, and as such “ignores behavioural, psychological and social factors that are equally important….”[xvi]  Finally, several authors who argue for early (age 7 or 8, but possibly preschool) incorporation of integrative neuromuscular training (INT) – a combination of fundamental movement and motor-pattern weakness targeting exercises – had this to say: “…youth programs based on either biological or chronological indicators often miss the mark related to the appropriateness of the exercise selection or the design of the fitness program.”[xvii]  These authors prefer “training age” as a way of differentiating relative proportions of INT (general vs. specific) and the type of exercises targeted to each.

In response to some of these criticisms, Balyi, the original creator, notes that the framework is an attempt to get it “roughly right” rather than exactly right.  He specifically notes that in the real world, assigning athletes to a perfect pathway is challenging to validate through an experiment.[xviii]  It’s worth noting that the criticisms do not invalidate the frameworks.  There is still future potential either on the research side in determining validity of specifics (rather than the overall framework) and on the practical side in determining creative, individualistic programming. 

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

[ii] Bachelor thesis titled Talent development in sportclimbing by Nikki van Bergen (2015)

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

[iv] Participant development in sport: an academic literature review by Bailey et al. (2010)

[v] Supra Balyi Hamilton 2003

[vi] Bachelor thesis titled Talent development in sportclimbing by Nikki van Bergen (2015)

[vii] Biological Maturation of Youth Athletes: assessment and implications by Malina et al. (2016)

[viii] Biobanding: A New Paradigm for Youth Sports and Training by Rogol, Cumming, and Malina (2018)

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

[x] Critical Analysis of LTAD model by Federica Affolter (2016)

[xi] Supra van Bergen (2015) referencing Ford et al. (2011)

[xii] Author’s discussion with Dr. Shannon Siegel, Co-chair of the Department of Kinesiology at the University of San Francisco (November 2019).  For evidence supporting the idea that strength-to-weight is an indicator of performance in adults, review the summaries of research under the Beta Angel Project’s Research Inventory section: Anthropometry – Measuring the Climber

[xiii] Supra Affolter (2016)

[xiv] Research Notes: Interpreting and Implementing the Long Term Athlete Development Model: English Swimming Coaches’ Views on the (Swimming) LTAD in Practice by Light and Lang, (2010)

[xv] Interpreting and Implementing the Long Term Athlete Development Model: English Swimming Coaches’ Views on the (Swimming) LTAD in Practice | A Commentary by Greyson et al., (2010).

[xvi] British Weight Lifting Young People Review:  The Development of Youth Athletes by Kite and Bailey, (2017)

[vxvii How Young is “Too Young” to Start Training? by Myer et al. (2013)

[xviii] Long Term Athlete Development by I Balyi, R. Way, and C. Higgs (2013)