Long Term Athlete Development: Developing psychological characteristics & skills for sport performance – Julieanne McAuliffe

The most common model that has been adopted and implemented by sport governing bodies worldwide, for long term player development plans is the Long-Term Athlete Development Model (LTAD; e.g. Cycling Ireland, Irish Rugby Football Union, Scottish Rugby, Athletics Canada, US Lacrosse). LTAD is thought to have two goals, which are to improve sport performance and increase sport participation. The late specialization version of this model, which would be relevant for most team sports, consists of seven stages; active start, fundamentals, learn to train, train to train, train to compete, train to win and active for life (Balyi & Hamilton, 2005). The LTAD was initially developed as a biological model, but LTAD plans now consider other aspects needed for sport performance such as technical, tactical and psychological. However, while “LTAD plans link stages of athlete development with the psychological skills that ‘should’ be taught and attained” (Holt, 2010, p. 422), there seems to be little guidance on how to achieve that.

Due to the nature of the long-term athlete development model, the onus is on coaches to help athletes develop the psychological characteristics and skills they need for sport performance. Therefore, it is crucial to provide coaches with information and training on how they can promote the development of psychological skills and characteristics in the athletes that they coach. I have briefly outlined below how coaches can develop the following psychological characteristics and skills in their athletes: self-regulation, motivation and coping.

  1. Self-regulation is considered central to obtaining optimal athletic performance (Toering et al., 2009). Research suggests that when dealing with young athletes, coaches should develop self-regulation skills using modelling, education and instruction, feedback, and support which will eventually lead to athletes practicing these skills independently and then finally being able to self-regulate (Collins & Durand Bush, 2014). In order to ensure effective self-regulation, Zimmerman (2000) proposed a social-cognitive model of self-regulation (SCMSR) that comprises three phases: (a) forethought, (b) performance, and (c) self-reflection. The forethought phase consists of the individual setting goals and devising strategies to attain those goals. In the performance phase, those strategies that are developed in the forethought phase are implemented. The last phase is the self-reflection phase which involves athletes engaging in a self-evaluation process.


  1. Motivation – Self-determination theory proposes that motivation ranges on a continuum from most to least self-determined. It is thought that an athlete’s self-determination is promoted through fulfilling the three basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence and relatedness. By fostering a mastery climate, coaches can fulfil athletes’ needs for competence and autonomy. By building team cohesion,  coaches can help fulfil the basic psychological need of relatedness by fostering a sense of comfortability, planning fun into practices and games, motivational speeches and guiding athletes to set goals.


  1. Coping – Failure to cope can lead to a decrease in performance; therefore, coping should be an integral part of a psychological component of LTAD. In order for athletes to develop practical coping skills, they must understand their stressors. A practical technique which can help athletes identify stressors and their coping strategies is reflective practice. A typical model that is used to direct reflection is Gibbs (1988) model of reflection. This model is a six-stage cyclic model which requires that athlete to: describe what happened, remember their thoughts and feelings, evaluate what happened, analyses and make sense of what happened, conclude on what else can be done and create an action plan of what to do if it happens again.


Julieanne McAuliffe is a postgraduate researcher in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick.  You can contact Julieanne via email at Julieanne.McAuliffe@ul.ie or on twitter @McAuliffeJA

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