The planning and organization of training is fundamental to the optimal development of any athlete or client. The concept of periodization presented by Dmitri Matveyev in the 1960s and later revised and popularized in the Western hemisphere by Tudor Bompa (1) in the 1980s has revolutionized the way we approach training and sport conditioning today. Bompa and other founding fathers formalized structured models of applying the progressive overload theory to the training process at different stages of development throughout the athletic career. These and various other methods appearing in literature today have been used successfully by coaches around the world in the long term preparation of elite athletes.
The key to long term physical development begins at a very early age as children learn to coordinate their bodies and perform basic motor tasks. Unfortunately a large majority of industry methodology would suggest that these motor tasks are learned naturally and need not be drilled. For example, how often are young children told to go out and run endlessly around the pitch to condition their bodies for soccer? This exercise relies on the assumption that these young individuals know how to run a very complex motor task involving the intricate coordination and firing patterns of almost every muscle in the body. The point is, our young athletes must be taught how to perform these movements safely and correctly across short distances prior to the introduction of more volumous activities.
This approach relies on the implementation of a sound multi year plan that recognizes the individual characteristics of each child. Further, this plan should progress these individuals beyond their athletic career through all the stages of development. Several long term models have been presented in literature, (1, 3, 4); however, few - if any, carry the process beyond the athletic career and recognize the importance of fitness and healthy living to the retired athlete. Quite often our heroes of yesterday have a difficult time making wise lifestyle decisions throughout this transitional period. They are often left to their own devices to rehabilitate injuries and reintegrate into a more general physical fitness and lifestyle program.
The following model recognizes these and other critical factors and aims to support positive outcomes at all stages of development.
EPTS 7 Stage Model of Periodization (11)
- Motor Learning Stage: (age: 6-12)
- General Athletic Development Stage: (age: 10-16)
- Specific Fitness and Skill Development Stage (age: 14-18)
- Competitive Stage (16 +)
- Post Competitive Stage (end of athletic career)
- General Health Stage (1 -2 years following athletic career)
- Vitality Stage (65+)
As with many other models, the EPTS model associates chronological age with different stages of development. Notice that the ages overlap, demonstrating recognition for individual rates of maturation and the peak sporting age principle (1, 3). That is, certain athletes will progress more quickly due to early maturation, or because high performance in their chosen sport is associated with a younger chronological age (e.g. women’s gymnastics, figure skating). Alternatively, other athletes may progress more slowly based on delayed maturation or an older peak sporting age (e.g. sprinting, weighlifting).
Motor Learning Stage (6-12)
Traditional early childhood development models recommend a low intensity/high volume approach with a dominant focus on strength-endurance and aerobic endurance exercise. I strongly oppose this viewpoint and suggest that higher relative intensity at lower volumes will yield significantly greater results. It is important to qualify this statement as I am not suggesting that these young children should be performing Olympic lifts by the age of eight. What I am suggesting is exercises that are challenging to perform over low to moderate repetitions (6-12) at controlled rates of travel (tempo) should be prioritized in an effort to build a strength foundation. For example, it is far more beneficial to perfect the technique and recruitment patterns in a static lunge over low repetitions than it is to have these youngsters lunging across the soccer pitch.
These children do not have the strength-endurance to maintain form in these complex movement patterns over high repetitions. In essence, this philosophy recommends the performance of extremely challenging exercises at high volumes. This approach neglects the most fundamental principle of strength-endurance; you must have strength prior to building the capacity to endure it! We must aim to challenge children’s strength and recruitment patterns by progressively increasing the demands of the exercise prior to attempting to build strength-endurance or aerobic capacity.
The strength-endurance advocates will argue that these children are not anatomically or physiologically prepared to handle high intensity exercise. Yet, we have them sprinting, jumping and bounding in many of their activities. These skilled movements require a tremendous amount of strength and coordination in the lower body and trunk. Repetitious abdominal crunches as are classically applied in these stages will contribute little to the stability of the trunk and pelvis in these movements. In fact these types of strength-endurance exercises are contributing to postural deviations and muscle imbalances which significantly increase injury potential. All this damage has to be undone in the latter stages of the training plan, thereby halting further progress.
Exercises that challenge the strength and coordination of these young athletes' should be prioritized above the more metabolically driven stimuli. They must also be selected in a manner that recognizes the anatomical, physiological and psychological development at different developmental stages. This approach prepares young athletes bodies for the impact of the complex motor tasks involved in sport at any level.
The motor learning stage as the title suggests is focused on the development of general motor skills such as running, jumping, hopping, throwing, catching and kicking. A strong focus is placed on the general physical qualities of body awareness, agility, coordination, balance, strength, and quickness. Contrary to popular belief, the focus should be placed on anaerobic activities (3, 4) as opposed to building the “aerobic base”. This approach shifts the focus to quality above quantity, thereby avoiding the inherent risk of developing poor movement patterns and ingraining suboptimal neural pathways. Transitional muscle fibres and metabolic mechanisms are also more likely to take on strength and power characteristics (6, 7), a principal adaptation required for the majority of sporting activities. This approach also stresses the importance of technique at a very young age and contributes to a greater understanding of the training process as the athlete matures.
- Short distance speed work focusing on reaction time, first step quickness, agility and coordination, the development of running technique, and lateral footwork with quick changes in direction should be prioritized. Children must learn proper running mechanics and changes in direction over short distances prior to introducing longer duration running. The outcome of which is a significant reduction in acute and chronic injury patterns, joint and muscle imbalances, postural deviations and structural aberrations created by improper loading. Coaches should aim to slowly progress the intensity of the drills as ligament strength is still developing and bones are still calcifying (2, 10).
- Low repetition callisthenic strength work focusing on the quality above quantity method can be mixed into the practice sessions. Aim to perfect the movement patterns and build stability and coordination around every joint in the body. Make use of gross movement patterns requiring large ranges of motion and a high degree of motor coordination, the outcome of which is strength through range and general stability and coordination. The neurological systems at this age are not fully developed to handle fine motor skills effectively (3).
- Children should be encouraged to develop balanced levels of overall flexibility and muscle tension with a high focus on strength through range. The PNF CRAC technique [contract-relax antagonist contract] (8) is very effective for this purpose with the added benefit of increasing body awareness and developing neural pathways. Children should be encouraged to use light contractions (25% of maximum) when employing this method. NOTE: It is advisable to perform these movements individually as young children do not have the cognitive abilities to understand the intricacies of applying partner stretching methods. Alternatively, the coach can apply these methods himself in a one on one situation.
- Focus should be placed on the role sport and activity plays to the psychological growth of the children, the development of self esteem. Young children evaluate themselves based on their performance. Therefore, coaches and parents must look for opportunities to create success for these youngsters. The focus should be on fair play, teamwork, sportsmanship, respect and above all FUN!
- Children should be encouraged to participate in multiple sports to develop balanced skills (3, 9, 10). For example, basketball is a great sport for developing footwork, agility, coordination, and power. Martial arts disciplines are an excellent way of developing balance, speed, reaction time and explosiveness. These different sporting activities should also be used as a means of conditioning these young athletes. This avoids the risk of burnout and/or boredom from structured conditioning workouts.
- Training should incorporate a large variety of non-competitive games as the attention span at this age is quite short. Games should be modified to keep the rules simple and offer ample opportunity to create success.
General Athletic Development Stage (10-16)
The general athletic development stage is a challenging stage for coaches and trainers due to the individual rates of maturation and structural development. Athletes will experience growth spurts at different rates throughout this stage. Their bodies often feel foreign to them as they experience difficulties with balance, coordination, strength and flexibility. These physical qualities must be challenged in a manner that creates success for these individuals. The exercises and drills must be programmed in a manner that recognizes the individual needs of each athlete at their relative level of development. Quite often this involves splitting the athletes up into smaller groups, or working with them individually.
- At this stage the training becomes more specialized, focusing the majority of training time on two or three specific sports. The development and perfection of general skills and movement patterns is a primary focus. Neurological development permits the use of fine motor patterns within the confines of the athlete’s cognitive development.
- Structured strength training sessions can be introduced in this stage with a high focus on technique and coordination. The focus should be on developing overall joint and muscle balance and optimal movement patterns around all joints. Strength training should maintain the lower repetition, high quality approach with progressive increases in exercise demand. Static and dynamic balance should be challenged through ground based iso-lateral exercises as these young athletes will generally not demonstrate the proprioceptive control to handle stability based equipment.
- The focus on speed, agility, coordination and balance is maintained with the introduction of progressively more challenging drills. The anaerobic nature of these drills is also maintained, however the focus shifts to gradually developing the ability to sustain proper technique over longer distances. Aerobic work can be increased slowly and gradually progressed throughout this stage.
- Flexibility training should focus primarily on supporting the above joint and muscle balance goals. These athletes should also be taught to monitor their muscle tension levels and incorporate different techniques to reduce or raise muscle tension. For example, the introduction of a controlled dynamic flexibility circuit with the goal of increasing muscle tension and sensory feedback may be introduced prior to a practice or game. Alternatively, self myofascial release, long duration static stretching, active isolated techniques and even neurodynamic methods with more advanced and mature athletes can be used to decrease muscle tension in hypertonic tissues.
- The psychological development of the athlete must be handled with care as significant physiological changes are taking place during this period. The coach should encourage two way communication and demonstrate respect for the athletes. It is equally critical to create success for all athletes at this stage regardless of their level of physical development. The coach must demonstrate a strong commitment to fairness and equality.
- Coaches should aim to empower their athletes by educating them about the training process; they should be encouraged to take more responsibility for the training outcomes. They should be provided with programs containing simple drills, exercises, stretches and skills. This demonstrates confidence in them and helps foster self esteem. Caution must be taken not to overwhelm the athlete, as the focus on fun in training should be maintained.
- Exposure to the stresses of competition is important at this stage. The focus is not on winning, but on improving technical skills under the stress of competition. Tactics such as visualization/meditation, relaxation techniques and pre game rituals can be introduced to help the athletes cope with these stresses.
- Annual planning should follow a basic linear or reverse linear model as these athletes are not yet prepared for the more advanced periodization methods.
Specific Fitness and Skill Development Stage (14-18)
The specific fitness and skill development stage as the name stipulates focuses on perfecting specific skills and maximizing specific fitness attributes. Specialization of the positions within the sport has been established. Athletes have almost fully developed structurally and physiologically, therefore training should become progressively more challenging through the introduction and implementation of higher intensity modes of training. With the increase in training intensity, training volume must be monitored carefully with longer recovery periods worked into the plan.
- Focus on posture and joint balance becomes increasingly important as specialization increases. Inherent imbalances in the sport and tactical training will demonstrate themselves to a greater degree with the increases in volume of specific training.
- The focus on strength training increases at this stage. Neurological training modes such as maximal strength, speed-strength and strength-endurance are introduced and increased in focus throughout this stage (assuming the sport requires these adaptations). Compound movements involving functional movement patterns of the muscles involved in the sport are favoured at this stage, assuming joint stability and synergistic activity has been perfected.
- Flexibility should continue to focus on supporting the above goal of joint and muscle balance by focusing on hypertonic tissues. Length/tension relationships should be monitored very closely at this stage. Athletes are encouraged to get in touch with their bodies and learn to become more aware of the subtle signals the body is sending. This is critical to the ongoing injury prevention process and largely dictates what form of flexibility/muscle tension technique will be used. Myofascial stretching can be introduced as clients gain more body awareness, but they should be encouraged to make use of the techniques best suited to them.
- The education process increases significantly in this stage as the athlete’s cognitive abilities improve. The coach should aim to educate them about training and lifestyle decisions that may be impacting their development and performance. Topics such as recovery/restoration, nutrition, and goal setting can be discussed throughout this stage. Circadian health should be discussed with recognition of the “owl” like shifts in biological rhythms, and the demand for increased sleep that occurs in teenagers (20).
- It is critical for the athletes to have greater input into the training process at this stage. Encouragement of active participation leads to increased commitment and dedication in training (1). With this comes a greater responsibility for the training outcomes on the part of the athlete. Therefore, subjective feedback becomes an increasingly powerful tool for coaches and should be highly encouraged.
- There should be an increase in the exposure to high level competition at this stage. The focus is still not on winning, but on learning how to win (3) and what must be done to take the athlete to the next level, and stay there! The athlete should still be willing to sacrifice winning for the long term gains.
- Annual planning should incorporate more advanced methods of periodization such as undulating and integrated models. The athletes now have a much better knowledge of their bodies and understanding of load selection, so these methods can be used safely for most athletes at this stage.
Competitive Stage (16+)
The goal of the competitive stage is to achieve peak conditioning and sporting excellence. The focus is on winning! Training plans are highly specialized throughout this stage and demonstrate considerable recognition for the individual characteristics of the athlete. Particular attention is placed on the dominant physical qualities that demonstrate increased performance in the sport. Training intensity increases, volume fluctuates regularly, and recuperative breaks are frequently scheduled into the annual plan. Relatively little general training is conducted as multilateral development has been well established.
- The injury prevention focus continues to take precedent as it does in all stages with a strong focus on postural alignment and joint and muscle balance. Increases in tactical training and competition increases injury potential. This must be eliminated first and foremost!
- Strength training specialization increases with the focus shifting to the dominant adaptations required in the sport. For example, a defensive lineman in American football may focus predominantly on explosive power, while our distance swimmer may focus more on general strength and strength-endurance.
- Speed work is focused on the specific speed demands of the sport. While our tennis player will often dominate in reaction drills, first step explosiveness and lateral agility, our winger in rugby will focus predominantly on agility, acceleration and maximum velocity.
- Flexibility becomes a high focus as the demands of competition can wreak havoc on muscle tension. Athletes are encouraged to use stretch sessions as a form of relaxation and restoration. There is a much higher need for recovery and restoration techniques; more advanced protocols should gradually be introduced.
- Athletes have gained a significant amount of knowledge throughout the earlier phases of training. The coach’s role shifts to that of a consultant as the athlete becomes more involved in the training decisions. Their subjective feedback and input into the training process becomes increasingly important.
- The education process continues to evolve with a high focus on positive lifestyle choices. Athletes at this stage are vulnerable to negative influences and should be educated on the outcomes of their decisions. The coach should always strive to maintain their status as a role model.
- The organization of the training process becomes increasingly intricate throughout this stage. Reverse linear, undulating and integrated models of periodization are employed in these stages, often requiring double and triple peak programming around competitive seasons.
- As the athlete progresses toward the end of this stage, the coach should take the opportunity to discuss the bigger picture of life after sport. The coach must educate the athlete on the impact ongoing training and competition will have on post career health. The number one priority at this point should be to focus on the quality of life after sport.
For many athletes and coaches, the method of preparation in the competitive stage has changed dramatically. Athletes in the Western hemisphere are exposed to rigorous schedules leaving little time left to train (Baseball, Hockey). Many of these individuals are expected to compete and win year round (e.g. Tennis, Golf). The incidence of injury is rising exponentially as the seasons get longer and competition demands increase. As conditioning coaches, we have our hands full simply trying to keep these athletes in the game. Improvements in the specific physical qualities fundamental to many of these sports are sacrificed in favour of injury prevention measures.
This is particularly true of athletes nearing the end of their career. Despite all the efforts of the coaches and therapists, these individuals are often riddled with aches and pains. It is the responsibility of the coach to educate the athlete about the impact of ongoing training and competition to their post career health. The number one priority at this point should be to focus on the quality of life after sport. In part II of this article, I will discuss strategies to help athletes through the challenging post competitive stage and present the final two stages in the EPTS long term planning model (11).
For those interested in more information on Mark Mancino’s approach to Program Design and Periodization, please visit www.epts-intl.com for upcoming seminar dates, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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