Developmental Model of Sport Participation

Quality Coaching Framework

A complementary model to LTAD is the developmental model of sport participation (DMSP), a model that breaks athlete development into three stages. The DMSP is grounded in the belief that, due to the unique demands of each sport and wide variance in individual athlete development profiles, no specified ages or lengths of time can be associated with each of its three phases.

1. Sampling phase. Athletes take part in multiple sport activities and develop all-around foundational movement skills in an environment characterized by fun and enjoyment. Participation in this phase should not be restricted by skill level, because the goal is to maximize participation and expose athletes to the sport.
2. Specializing phase. Athletes begin to focus on fewer sports, possibly favoring one in particular as training demands increase. Participation opportunities may decrease at this phase, and athletes are typically grouped by skill level.
3. Investment phase. Athletes commit to achieving a high level of performance in a specific sport. This phase of athlete sport participation is typically limited to a small group of athletes who are identified as showing promise for high-level performance.

The DMSP phases are intended to provide a general framework for considering how athletes are developing and the type of coach they need as they move through the different phases.

Two points of emphasis in DMSP have important implications for coaching: unstructured play and sport diversification. Although it is clear that a high amount of focused, deliberate practice is needed to become a skilled athlete, research shows that expert athletes grow up in environments that allow for frequent play. Deliberate practice is challenging and requires intense focus. If coaches fail to counterbalance such focused practice with opportunities for free play, they place their athletes at increased risk of emotional and physical burnout and overuse injuries. Free play activities are organized and led by the athletes themselves to maximize enjoyment and intrinsic motivation. The most beneficial balance between deliberate practice and informal, unstructured free play will vary based on performance level, the point in the competition season and the particular makeup of the team. Coaches who most adeptly provide the proper mix of deliberate practice and free play do the best job of fostering their athletes’ talent development (see figure 4.3).

The DMSP also addresses the issue of early sport specialization by encouraging sport diversification, or sampling. Early sport diversification has proven to lead to longer, more successful involvement in sport. Early sport specialization generally fails to help athletes achieve their best performances later in their career, which is the goal of LTAD.

Considerable evidence shows that high-performance athletes sample many different sports, as opposed to specializing in just one sport at an early age. Most college and Olympic athletes in the United States played multiple sports until high school, and college coaches typically prefer recruiting multisport athletes. Sport sampling is also one of the key recommendations of the International Olympic Committee consensus statement on athlete development. Due to the unique competition demands of each sport, there is no common age recommendation for when athletes may need to transition from sport sampling to sport specialization. In sports such as gymnastics, where elite-level performance is commonly achieved at a young age, LTAD timelines obviously require some modification.

Takeaway: A coach’s foremost duty is to serve athletes’ best interests, doing so in an ethical manner. The Four C’s provide a useful set of comprehensive athlete-centered outcomes around which coaches can both plan and assess their success. The USOC’s Ethics Code for Coaches offers coaches a sound, values-based reference to guide their actions.