Developing Young Athletes

Stages of Athletic and Social Development: Perspective on Developing a Young Athlete

By Jimmy Yoo, MA Sport Psychology

Sport psychology coaching kids

We are currently in an era where children are pressured to specialize in a sport as early as 10 years of age.  These young athletes are heavily recruited by youth travel or club teams, where the majority of their time is spent competing versus training and just enjoying sports.  Travel teams, select teams, and/or competitive club programs are promising parents that their children increase their chances of a college scholarship and the potential to become professional athlete, IF they commit to year around single sport specialization and travel to competitive tournaments where college recruiters and professional scouts evaluate them.  Parents whose children are on these teams will recruit as well by telling prospective parents that if their child does not commit to playing on a club/travel/select team at the youth level, they won’t have a chance of making the varsity team for their local high school.

It is good to have dreams and aspirations for our children, but it is vitally important to make sure that our kids are having fun, that we (as parents) are allowing them to participate in as many sports and physical activities as possible, and that we are allowing our children to develop at their own pace.  Like all things in life, sports and being physically active is a process.  For athletes, developing physical strength and agility, acquiring technical skills, learning tactical skills, and honing psychological skills (like mental toughness and anxiety reduction) are keys to their success.  With that in mind, children need the necessary time to develop each of these skills.  For example, before an athlete enters high school, the majority of their time should be spent on skills development, with less time being devoted to competition and tournament play.  If you try to fast forward or skip some steps in the process, i.e., having a child play up an age level because you think they are better than the kids their age, it may look and feel like an advantage for that season, but in the long run it could negatively affect your child as an athlete and as a person. 

As a lacrosse coach and as a mental skills coach, it is commonplace to see high school athletes committing to a Division-I college/university as a high school sophomore.  It is equally as common that many of these same athletes will decide to de-commit from said college/university and retire from their sport upon graduating from high school.  These athletes admit that because they played at a competitive level since they were 10 or 11 years old, their ultimate goal was to commit to a Division-I college/university.  But, once they achieved that milestone, they realized that they were completely burnt-out and instead of being motivated to play at the next level, they were instead looking forward to life without competitive sports.

As parents, it can be difficult to understand how to help develop and support your child as an athlete.  Questions like, how young is too young to start participating in a sport?  When should my child start specializing in a sport?  How do I make sure that my child is successful in the long-term as an athlete and as a person?  How should I define sport successes and long-term expectations for my child-athlete? And, are they really enjoying the sport they play or are they doing it because we really want them to?

As coaches, it can be confusing to understand why some athletes are highly motivated to consistently participate in a sport, while others don’t seem motivated at all.  It can also be frustrating to see athletes perform well in practice yet struggle, get frustrated, and/or anxious when they participate in competition.    

Erik Erickson’s Theory of Personality and the 7 Stages of Long Term Athletic Development (created by Canadian Sports For Life) provide useful information to help parents and coaches understand how to best support and develop athletes from a young age.

Erik Erickson, a renowned developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst, believed that over the course of a person’s life, he/she develops through social adaptation.  Meaning, as people interact and develop social relationships throughout their lives, their ability to problem-solve determines their development and personality.   Erickson developed 8 Psychosocial Stages of Development from birth to death.  **Note: Erikson’s model does not have exact dates as Erikson recognized that everyone develops at their own pace.

7 Stages of Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) was created by Canadian Sports for Life.  This methodology demonstrates that by introducing and training the correct skills at the right time of development, kids and adults will become more active, stay active, and perform better.  I found this information in John O’Sullivan’s book Changing the Game.   A book I highly recommend to parents and coaches. 

To better understand these two methodologies, I created five phases of athletic and social development.  I have summarized each phase and provide more detailed information concerning each phase at the end of the article:

Phase 1 Summary: Foundation Building (birth to age 6). 

*Stage 1 (Active Start, ages 0-6) of the 7 Stages of Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) is present in this phase; as well as Erickson’s Stage 1 (Trust versus Mistrust, ages 0-1), Stage 2 (Autonomy versus Doubt and Shame, ages 1-3), and Stage 3 (Initiative versus Guilt, ages 3-5).

The focus for children between the ages of 0-6 are acquisition of basic skills and creating habits that build the foundation for physical and social development.  At this stage, children start the slow process from complete dependence on others to starting their journey toward independence.  Things that are introduced at this age become ingrained habits.  During this time, it is up to adults (parents, caretakers, coaches, and teachers) to introduce and encourage children to learn and develop.

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Phase 2: Acquisition of Skills (ages 6-12).

*LTAD Stages 2 (FUNdamentals, girls 6-8/boys6-9) and 3 (Learn to Train, girls 8-11/boys9-12); and Erickson’s stage 4 (Industry versus Inferiority, ages 6-12).

Children transition from foundational development to learning skills (social skills, life skills, and sport specific skills) and strategies (related to problem-solving and tactical skills related to sports).  Learn by doing.  This is a time when children enter school and start to acquire knowledge and skills.  They will learn from others in school (specifically peers), on the playground, with parents, and other adults.  Of note, peer relationships take center stage at this time. 

This is the perfect time to have your child participate in a wide variety of sports.  A child starts to learn more about technical and tactical skills development through fun activities and games as opposed to regimented training.  The more fun and engaging the activity, the more likely they will continue to develop that skill and stay with the sport.  Again, the focus is on skills development and having fun!

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Phase 3: Training to Compete and Identity Development (ages 11-23). 

*LTAD Stage 4 (Train to Train, girls 11-15/boys 12-16), Stage 5 (Train to Compete, girls 15-21/boys 16-23); Erickson’s stage 8 (Identity versus Role-Confusion,

Socially, this is a time when teens define who they are as individuals.  For example, a teen may define himself or herself as a hard working student, a member of student council, and/or an active volunteer in his or her community; and an athlete will choose to specialize in one or two sports and identify herself/himself as a swimmer, lacrosse player, cross-country runner etc…  During this time, teens also learn to develop time management skills and will formulate goals and expectations for their future.   This is a critical stage in your child’s life because it is a time when they will be transitioning from childhood to adulthood.  It is the time when they are trying to figure out “WHO THEY ARE and HOW TO ACCOMPLISH IT.”

For the athlete, this is a time when they transition from foundational development to specialized training.  At this time athletes have committed to specializing in one or sometimes two sports.  Training hours are increased and this is the time when an athlete will recognize whether they have the ability and dedication to be an elite performer at their sport(s).  To do this they must spend more time refining skills in practices that consist of high-volume and high-repetition.  As part of their time management, athletes also must learn to delegate time between training, recovery and injury prevention/management, and performance.  Athletes will acquire these skills by learning more about nutrition, strength and conditioning, mental skills development, and the importance of rest and recovery for the body.  At this point, athletes are seeking out any and all resources that will help them get a slight edge on their competition and so they can perform consistently at a high level.   As a result, by the later half of this phase, athletes’ transition from a focus on specialized training to being focused on competition. 

Phase 4: Competition Ready and Relationships (ages 20+).

*LTAD Stage 6 (Train to Win, girls 18+/boys 19+); Erickson Stage 6 (Intimacy versus Isolation, 20’s to late 30’s).

Socially, this is a period where young adults develop intimate relationships.   According to Erickson, if you were able to resolve the conflict in stage 5 (identity versus role-confusion), a person should be able to form intimate relationships with others.  If they weren’t, they will struggle with trusting and committed relationships.

At this stage, athletes should have developed all of the technical, tactical, physical, and mental skills necessary to compete at the elite and professional levels.  Their goal is the pursuit of excellence and external success like winning metals, trophies, and championships.  It is important for the athlete to have a trusted support network that helps them to successfully perform daily.  This network includes family, coaches, nutritionists, doctors, physical therapists, masseuses, and mental skills coaches (sport psychologists).   Often times, you will see this team of people as an athlete’s entourage that accompanies them wherever they go. 

Sport Psychology family fun

Phase 5: Active for Life, Giving Back and a Reflection on Life (Ages 30+). 

*LTAD Stage 7 (Active for Life, any age); and Erickson Stage 7 (Generativity versus Stagnation, ages 40-60) and Erickson Stage 8 (Integrity versus Despair (ages 60 to the end of life). 

Socially, at this stage, people have mastered certain skills and are now applying these skills to a career and in life.  As a result, people look to pass on their knowledge to the next generation.  As they near the end of life, these people will reflect on their past accomplishments and failures to determine whether they lived a fulfilling life or one filled with regret and lost opportunities. 

If athletes had positive experiences in sports throughout their childhood, teenage years, and adulthood, it is highly likely that they will choose to stay active for life.  For example, if an athlete ran track in high school, they will identify themselves as a runner and may even join a running group/club later in life as a means to exercise and be part of a social group that shares similar interests (in running). 

Appendix: Defined stages of LTAD and Erickson’s 8 Stages of Psychosocial Development.

Phase 1: Foundation Building (birth to age 6). 

Phase 2: Acquisition of Skills (ages 6-12

Phase 3: Competition Ready and Identity Development (ages 11-23). 

Phase 4: Competition Ready and Love (ages 20+)

Phase 5: Active for Life, Giving Back and a Reflection on Life (Ages 30+). 


Botcher, S. (2014, November 23). 9 communities to pilot Canadian Sport for Life approach to sport and physical activity – Active For Life. Retrieved February 25, 2016, from

Cherry, K. (2015, July 02). How Erik Erikson’s Own Identity Crisis Shaped His Theories. Retrieved February 25, 2016, from

LTAD Stages. (n.d.). Retrieved February, 2016, from

McLeod, S. A. (2013). Erik Erikson. Retrieved from

O’Sullivan, J. (2014). Changing the game: The parent’s guide to raising happy, high-performing athletes and giving youth sports back to our kids. New York City, NY: Morgan James Publishing.

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