LTAD For...

Athletes & Parents • Coaches • Officials • Clubs


Athletes & Parents

Athletes in water polo, and all sports, progress through many phases in life prior to reaching excellence (or expert performance) in their adult years.  Research states it takes thousands of hours of deliberate practice to become an expert in any field - sport, business, art, etc.   Deliberate practice is training specific skills in a controlled environment focusing on improving each detailed movement of skill with feedback from a coach or an understanding of the corrections needed to make by analyzing ones errors.  In sport, it takes more than just “Xs” and “Os” to become an expert.  There is the physical component (i.e. strength, stamina, flexibility, speed, psychology, etc.).  And it all begins at childhood in the park, in the summer pool, in gym class and plain old fun unstructured play with parents. 

This part of life where we learn how to be active and how to move occurs between the ages of 0 and 12 years old and is called Physical Literacy.  Physical Literacy is the concept that children must learn how to move properly when they are in preschool and elementary school. Contrary to popular belief, no one is a “natural born athlete.”  The idea is if we give children the opportunity to do the right physical activities at the right time in their development, more of them will enjoy getting active and stay active. They will develop more confidence in their bodies and better sport skills.

Just as it is important to learn languages at a young age it is important to learn how to swim, walk, run, jump, throw, catch, skate, kick, etc.  These are what are termed as Fundamental Movements Skills (FMS).  Children need to learn the FMS before they learn fundamental sport skills.  Fundamental sport skills are the movement skills applied to a sport situation - passing and shooting a water polo ball in deep water and horizontal movement in the water for example.  If they are introduced to sport skills before movement skills, they often struggle to learn the sport skills.


With the acquisition of the FMS and fundamental sport skills a child will be able to move onto the next stage of the LTAD with ease, and more importantly, have the confidence in their physical movement abilities to remain an active healthy Canadian for life.

Although it is important to start learning the fundamental water polo skills before the age of 12, it does not mean that you cannot start playing water polo at 13 years old.  Although, chronologically you may not be in the approximate age for the Technical Foundations - your lack of water polo experience will place you in this stage.  Which means you will need to learn the Technical Foundations skills prior to moving onto the Competitive Foundations skills.  This may not impact which league, tournament and age group as these are determined by chronological age (i.e. 14 and under), however; how this athlete is coached will be different than their peers who are truly Competitive Foundations athletes.  Each LTAD stage of development has different recommendations for how to train athletes and how much they should be competing.  All of this is with the intent of following the path of the thousands of hours of deliberate practice.  The majority of learning and the development of the physical abilities occur mostly in a controlled practice environment and not in a competitive environment.  Although competition may be fun, sometime less is more!

For those who do not want to play water polo in the Excellence stream, there are plenty of opportunities for you to play competitive water polo and use water polo as a vehicle for lifelong participation in physical activity.  You may enter water polo as a player at any age of your life in what is called the Competitive for Life and the Active for Life streams.



Prior to reading this section it is recommended that you review the LTAD Overview section and understand the defined terms.

As a water polo coach you are already aware that an athlete progresses through various developmental stages where they have to learn various skills and tactics - you have to learn how to eggbeater before you can pass and shoot, for example.  As a coach, you have a general feeling and understanding of the needs of your team and how they need to progress throughout the season - this is what we refer to as the “art of the coach”.  Now imagine we can provide your artistic coaching side with the scientific knowledge of bringing an individual athlete in a team sport environment from playground to podium!  Taking an athlete within your club and thinking outside your 10-12 month season and developing the best athlete he or she can be over the long-term (senior age for example).

The Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model takes the art of the coach and integrates this with the science behind growth and development, planning and periodization and the windows of accelerated adaptation.  The water polo in Canada LTAD model has developed stages of development based on the developmental age of an athlete, which is subsequently based on the physical, emotional, mental and cognitive maturity of the athlete.  With this in mind, there are certain physical skills (technical, tactical, strength, speed, flexibility, stamina, etc.), motor skills (balance and coordination) and mental skills that need to be trained at specific points in an athlete’s life.  There are periods in an athlete’s life (the sensitive periods of adapted acceleration) where the window for learning a specific physical and motor skill is wide open for optimal learning.

In most cases, you will have a large group of athletes, and within that group there will be athletes at many different stages of development - especially those coaching athletes from 12-17 years old as puberty and other growth factors play a role in athlete development.  As a coach it is important for you to understand where your athletes are within the water polo in Canada LTAD model.  Planning a practice and creating an annual plan should vary for each athlete within each stage of development.  This is where the art of coaching becomes instrumental as the coach has to create individual training plans within a team environment.  Club coaches need to be working closely together to monitor the growth of the athletes and their stages of development and provide them with age appropriate training and competition so the athlete (not the team) can be the best he or she can be over the long-term.

So what does it mean for a club coach to be implementing LTAD?  Here are some helpful tips in implementing LTAD:

  1. Know how to measure your athletes.  Not just skill testing, but what is the true developmental age for each of your athletes.  See The Role of Monitoring Growth in Long-Term Athlete Development for helpful measuring tools.  Understand how to place each athlete within your group at the various LTAD stages and train them appropriately.

  2. Be cognitive of the relative age effect.  The relative age effect exists because age group cut-offs are based on December 31st , and therefore, athletes born in the first three months of the year will have a maturation advantage during the rapid growth years (approximately 12-17 years old) over those born later in the calendar year (the late maturers).  Understand what skills (physical, motor and mental) need to be trained at each LTAD stage.  See the WPC LTAD overview document “The pursuit of excellence and an active lifestyle” for more details.  Know the optimal times to train certain skills and when certain physical skills should not be trained because of growth considerations (during puberty for example).  Create training plans for athletes so that when the relative age effect is not present anymore (after puberty and the rapid growth years) that all athletes had an equal opportunity to develop as the late maturing athletes are usually left out.

  3. To be an expert in any field (sport included) a person needs thousands of hours of deliberate practice.  Deliberate training is not just about showing up at the pool and jumping in the water.  It is training that specifically focuses on areas that need improvement.  Feedback needs to be instant - feedback is not only the coach verbalizing the improvements needed, it is the ability of the athlete to identify the errors and see a positive outcome for the correction of the errors.  For this to occur athletes need to train more than they compete and they need appropriate competition (sometimes less is more) to assess the effectiveness of their training.  See Competition is a Good Servant, but a Poor Master and Competition Review for information on training and appropriate competition.

  4. Planning and periodization needs to be done as a club so there is a harmonious flow from each group within the club.  Coaches need to work together for the long-term benefit of each individual athlete so when they progress from one group to another they are effectively moving through each LTAD stage.  Failing to plan is planning to fail!

  5. Understand the coach development model.  The water polo coach education system is called the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP).  Coach training is based on the type of athlete you are coaching.  Water Polo Canada is developing coach education programs for each LTAD stage.  Coaches should be trained and certified for each coaching context that is relevant to the athlete they are coaching.  For example, a coach who trains a 12 and under and a 14 and under group should be trained as the Community Club Coach and certified as the Competitive Coach.  Please visit the NCCP Overview for more information on coach education.  Please continue to check this page on a regular basis as updates will be made on a regular basis.


Prior to reading this section it is recommended that you review the LTAD Overview section and understand the defined terms.

Referees play vital role in the long-term development of an athlete.  Although they do not affect the day-to-day training of the athlete nor do they affect program planning, they do however provide support in competition.  In sport, competition is extremely important for athletes.  Meaningful competition can be used as a good servant of the effectiveness of training programs and it is also a means to keep athletes engaged in water polo from cradle to grave.  Providing support in the world of Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) is about understanding the role of competition in the development of the athlete and the particular stage of development.  Showing up and blowing a whistle is not all that is expected of water polo referees!

It is important for referees to know the various stages within the water polo LTAD model.  It is also important for referees to know the purpose of competition and how competition is being used at each stage to development.  The role of the referee changes as athletes’ progress through the LTAD model.  For example, a referee who is officiating a game at the 12 and under age group must be aware that competition is supposed to be fun and it is the first experience for these athletes in a structured competitive environment.  The children are learning the rules, and therefore, the referee plays the role of teacher as well as a game official.  Applying adult rules and the interpretation of the FINA rules for children will not promote fun and is contrary to the LTAD principles.  Please see the WPC LTAD overview document “The pursuit of excellence and an active lifestyle” for more details.

Water polo in Canada is going through some exciting changes, which pertain to a new and improved competition structure.  Within these changes there will be modified games rules that are age appropriate and meet the physical (athletic abilities and motor skills), emotional, cognitive and mental needs of the athletes for the benefit of their long-term development.  The Competition Review will also be addressing the stream of athletes who are not in the high-performance pathway.  Referees can have a profound effect on these athletes as once again applying the FINA rules may not be appropriate to keep athletes involved in the sport on a recreational (Active fore Life) or competitive (Competitive for Life) basis throughout their life.

As water polo in Canada is implementing these LTAD philosophies through coach education and revising the competition structure, WPC is also revising the referee education system.  The new Officials Training and Certification Program (OTCP) will align each referee education program with the LTAD stages.  Referees will be equipped with tools to understand the training, and more importantly, the competition needs of the athlete.  Please visit the OTCP Overview section of the web site for more details.



Prior to reading this section it is recommended that you review the LTAD Overview section and understand the defined terms.

Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) is a player development model that is athlete centred, coach driven and sport science and administration supported.  As a water polo club you are the first contact and entry point for new parents and athletes to the sport of water polo.  That first experience in water polo, long before even thinking of the National Team or National Club Championships, needs to be a positive experience to ensure life-long participation in sport and water polo.  These children and young teenagers entering your club may be your future ambassadors for the sport if they go on to play for the National Team, perhaps a future coach or referee or maybe even the future President of the club.  For all of this to come to fruition it is important to understand the role that the club and its volunteers play in the LTAD process.

Empowerment of coaches to make technical decisions such as training needs, equipment needs and competition decisions is the coach driven element of an athlete centre environment.  As a club, you are there to support the coach and provide the coach with educational opportunities through the National Coach Certification Program (see NCCP Overview for more details) and professional development.  An educated coach will provide a more effective learning environment for children, teenagers and adults.  In addition to supporting (and encouraging) the coach in their education, providing the coach with the necessary tools through strategic planning and recruitment and retention programs is vital.  Understanding the LTAD will help you in creating these plans and tools.

It is not absolutely necessary for clubs and their volunteers to fully understand the sport science behind the LTAD, however, understanding that individual athletes develop at different rates based on their growth and development (physical, emotional, mental and cognitive maturity) will help you provide better programming.  Understanding the different reasons why children, teenagers and adults play water polo will also help you structure your age groups and programs.  Do recreational and high performance athletes need the same amount of pool time, equipment and coaching?  How long should the season be for the various streams (Physical LiteracyActive for LifeCompetitive for LifeExcellence) and for each stage of development? Do we have the capacity to deliver best in class programming for every age group and stream?  These are the types of questions the LTAD and the Competition Review will help guide you in your decision making of what is your role as a first contact institution for new water polo athletes and the entry point for National Team athletes.


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