Long-Term Athlete Development in Action

In previous articles, we have considered specific techniques that can be used to help athletes achieve peak performance. All of these techniques have their place in the context of regular training. Given that elite fencers peak in their late twenties after 15 to 20 years of competition, successful training schemes must take a long-term view. The government and UK Sport both support a model of long-term athlete development (LTAD) that can be difficult to coordinate over such a long time scale. It has been my aim to find clubs who have and (more importantly) use the LTAD to enhance their fencers’ performance.

One coach, who set out seven years ago to create the best Public School fencing club in Great Britain, beginning with just five fencers, achieved his goal in dramatic fashion at the 2008 Public Schools’ Fencing Championships. In 2009, the Elizabeth College Fencing Club (Guernsey) went on to take a clutch of medals, to win the senior master of arms, and to achieve the highest point total for a school team in the history of the competition. In the same year, a team from the school brought home the bronze sabre team medal from the Commonwealth Junior Championships in Penang – not bad for an Island with a population less than 60 000, smaller in size than Stockport!

“Success is not an occasion to rest,” lead coach, Dr Robert Harnish, explained. “2008–09 was the first year of my new five year development plan. The goal was to produce a steady stream of elite athletes for the British cadet and junior squads. While our achievements in 2009 may seem remarkable, it soon became obvious that we had more or less accomplished all that we could within any sustainable, self-financing club structure on the Island. And where structures limit performance, structures need to change. 2010 has been all about rethinking the way forward. The price has been a short-term dip in performance; but the long-term benefits laid out in the revised development plan make it a price well worth paying.”

The launch of so many new clubs in the UK make it imperative for all clubs to have a clear development plan that is capable of catering for all its fencers – even if that means transferring some athletes to another club.

Officially, there are four distinct levels of sport. The Foundation level allows new athletes to partake in the sport, offering opportunities for anyone to become a fencer. The foundation level is extremely important if a sport is to ensure that many individuals discover fencing as a life-long physical activity and that a large number progress to the next level. A good example of the Foundation level is mini fencing. The second level, Participation, focuses on training to compete. Most club fencers train at this level. It is the stage at which exceptional talent is most easily spotted and developed. The third level is Performance. The fencers at this level are the top fencers in the clubs, those who regularly compete at domestic level and constantly fight for ranking points to maintain their place in domestic teams. Finally, the Elite level is concerned with the highest level of performance – International success/recognition.

As coaches, we all hope to produce an elite athlete; but this achievement is the outcome of hard work, regular training and quality coaching throughout the other three levels. An elite athlete, though the most visible, is but one indicator that a club has got the training process right. By having an LTAD plan and concrete coaching staff more dedicated to the athletes’ success than to their own reputations (coaches focused on process over outcome), all athletes are given the opportunity to achieve their best – and the best to achieve excellence. In September this year, Dr Harnish will launch the Elizabeth College Academy of Fencing. It is not a club, but rather an association of clubs committed to working together to foster athlete development at all levels. If you would like to view the LTAD plan, please email either me on jon@highperformance.pro or Dr Harnish on RHarnish@elizcoll.org. There are no secrets in sport, just opportunities to improve what we do.


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