USA Hockey’s American Development Model (ADM) has been in place for over 10 years and has become the gold standard for athlete development in the United States.
“The stuff USA Hockey is doing, I hope the rest of the U.S. sporting world can see and envision for their own sports as well,” said Joe Eisenmann, a sports performance scholar-practitioner. “They do such a great job.”
Eisenmann would know too. He has spent the past 25 researching and implementing athlete development and sports performance principles in a variety of settings. He has spent numerous years on universities such as Michigan State University and currently University of Nebraska-Kearney, and in the training field with Spartan Performance, USA Football and Volt Athletics.
“I’ve been a sport parent. My son plays hockey,” said Eisenmann, sharing his varied perspectives on athlete development. “I have had to try and persuade coaches and hockey boards about implementing long term athlete development. I have been a coach myself. I have my academic, scholarly aspect of this field. I have seen it from three different lenses, and it is easier said than done, no doubt.”
Despite the many positives associated with the ADM, Eisenmann has observed that many of the myths or misperceptions of long-term athlete development (LTAD) are also present in the hockey community.
Pathway to the Pro’s
Given his depth of experience in the field, asking Eisenmann about myths of LTAD brings a number of topics to mind, but its association with elite athletes is at the top of the list.
“When a lot of people see that term, they think right away of elite young athletes” said Eisenmann. “They think, ’Oh, this is long term athlete development. This is how my kid is going to make the Olympic team or the NHL.’”
Knowing the ADM is funded by the National Hockey League and was adopted by the United States Olympic Committee, this perception makes sense on the surface. There’s just so much more to LTAD than people realize.
“We all need to take note of the importance of this model being able to positively influence all youth in America,” said Eisenmann. “Speed, agility, power, strength, balance, coordination, stamina, all of those physical qualities. I don’t care if we call them fitness or athleticism. We want our kids to be physically fit and have those physical qualities as they move through life to either, from a sporting context, perform at their optima because everyone likes to perform at their best, no matter what level that is, to reduce the risk of injury, and as you carry that forward to adulthood, to reduce your risk of chronic disease.”
“I focused a lot on the physical part, but we also have to take into consideration psychosocial development, character development and other life skills like sleep and nutrition. Every kid should be getting that.”
Ironically, one of the other most common misunderstandings is on the opposite side of the spectrum. Many believe the ADM and LTAD are built for the participation of the general population and aren’t the right way to develop elite athletes.
“At younger ages, these ‘elite’ and ‘participation’ pathways overlay each other,” said Eisenmann. “At ages seven and eight, we’re not predicting who is going to be on the Olympic team.”
“If they have good quality coaching, whether they’re in AAA or rec hockey, they’re just going to continue to develop. As we get into those pubertal years, we’re going to see more of an emergence of kids who really do want to pursue this, and those who have the skills and abilities to.”
Unfortunately, the commercialization of youth sports has driven a trend towards more pressure to perform at younger and younger ages when the most important thing for all kids at young ages are building fundamental movement skills and a passion for sports and activity.
“Let them be with their friends and have fun. When they get pressured at those young ages, we run into trouble in the adolescent years,” said Eisenmann. “Patience is the name of the game with long term athletic development.”
Windows of Trainability
When the ADM was first launched, windows of trainability was a focal point. The concept emphasized training specific skills at specific ages.
“What we know now is that all of the physical traits I mentioned before are trainable at all ages and all stages of development,” said Eisenmann, who gives the example of strength training as an area that was misinterpreted. “It got buried in the adolescent years because there’s still a lot of myths about resistance training and the development of overall athleticism. Many people think young kids shouldn’t strength train.”
“A lot of parents and coaches get this image in their head of an eight-year-old under a heavy barbell. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about these fundamental movement patterns of squatting, lunging, hinging, pushing and pulling both vertically and horizontally and then bracing and rotating the core.”
Once young athletes have mastered those fundamental skills, which also include running, hopping, throwing, catching, etc., then you can begin to build on them with more complex movements or by adding additional resistance.
“Strength is a really foundational physical quality that is going to enhance the continued development of those fundamental movement skills and sport specific skills as well,” said Eisenmann. “If we’re not strong, we’re not going to be able to move well.”
Another topic related to LTAD that is often mentioned but also frequently misunderstood is that of late bloomers.
“People will label these late bloomers, and it may not equate to being a late biological maturer,” said Eisenmann. “It just may be their skills and abilities, whether it’s technical or tactical, didn’t develop until later on.”
“When I say late maturers, it’s based on their biological maturity. These are the players who are going through the adolescent growth spurt a little bit later. They might be a freshman or even a sophomore in high school and then they’re going through their growth spurt.”
Late maturing athletes, especially those who are also born late in their birth year, can be at disadvantage during tryouts and other select camps compared to other athletes. That’s where Eisenmann emphasizes it’s so critical for people in charge of programs to understand LTAD.
“Make sure evaluators and coaches are aware of the relative age effect and the biological maturation piece as well. This also goes to quality coaching throughout our system. If we have quality coaching throughout our system, it really shouldn’t matter what team you are on because you are going to keep developing your skills.”
Building Better Athletes
Again, the good news is hockey is a leader in terms of athlete development. It’s just a matter of constantly finding ways to get a little bit better.
One area Eisenmann believes presents a huge opportunity for hockey associations is off-ice training:
“Do a really solid dynamic warm up where we get the kids moving in all directions: forward, backwards, laterally and then also rotation. Then, do some sort of strength training with them: squatting, lunging, hinging, pushing, pulling, bracing and rotating, and you do this twice a week for 20 minutes. Over the course of the season that may add up to 30 or 40 hours of training. We like to call it micro dosing. We’re micro dosing you with athletic development.”
That small adjustment applied to each age group and in a progressive model for the entire association can have an enormous impact on the movement skills and athleticism of every player in the program.
“We’re doing things really well on the ice with the technical and tactical development of our young players, but how can we enhance their overall athleticism,” asked Eisenmann. “As the ADM team likes to say, ‘let’s build athletes first, hockey players second.’”
While dry land training in arenas is not advised this year due to the pandemic, it’s an area association should be working to implement or enhance in the future.