Softball Canada activates Long-Term Player Development at grassroots level

It’s not always easy for parents and coaches to understand.

Softball Canada was one of the earliest adopters of Sport for Life’s concept of Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD)*, which the national sport organization used as the inspiration behind its own sport-specific Long-Term Player Development (LTPD) framework. The organization has made it the basis of its programming over the course of the past decade, but that doesn’t mean all of its members can wrap their heads around all the subtle tweaks and innovations that have been introduced, or why they’re necessary. It can be difficult for some to see the big picture.

That’s where the Athlete Development Matrix (ADM) comes in, according to Softball Canada’s Manager of LTPD Programs Angela Ballantyne. It’s a resource that informs sports what they need to do and when; it opens the door for sports to adequately inform program design, coaching programs and materials, and effective competition reviews. The ADM gives coaches practical advice on how to implement the LTPD framework, step-by-step. And when a sport is able to make the abstract philosophical goals of long-term development concrete, parents can more easily comprehend the impact these programming elements will have on their children.

“If your child’s coach is talking about the Athlete Development Matrix, or planning their season structure with the goal of developing your child as an athlete, that tells you the coach cares about providing a quality sport experience. To access and make use of these resources demonstrates that they care about the outcome, not just winning, but the progress of the individual athletes. For a parent, that should be the key thing,” said Ballantyne.

Ballantyne has been with the organization for 11 years, and she’s watched as the LTPD became integral to every program under their umbrella, from their Active Start Timbits Softball program to their high performance athletes. Working alongside Sport for Life’s Dr. Colin Higgs, Softball Canada has been able to identify gaps in its  framework and places where they can strengthen their approach.

“We’ve been lucky in that pretty much everyone jumped on board with LTPD and were supportive of the changes. Our membership has been open to exploring change, and though sometimes the concepts are vague and hard to understand, we know they’re based on research and that’s what our members like to see from us: evidence-based decision-making,” she said. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, their organization has been delivering professional development webinars as part of the Softball Canada Speaker Series. In June Ballantyne hosted one with coaches Dave Peatkau (B.C.) and Adam Walker (Ontario), who each shared how use of the ADM had been integral to their success over the past few years. They shared the experiences of their respective teams both in training and competition, gave coaches tips on how to plan their practices better, and put forward their own theories on how to use the ADM to get the most out of training. According to Walker, this transformed how his team the Simcoe Braves experienced the sport.

“In using the ADM with our athletes it allowed us to focus on the development of the athlete and helping them achieve their goals. Our focus turned to the long-term success of our program rather than focusing on one season or one game at a time,” he said. 

“By putting more emphasis on long-term goals, it took a lot of pressure off our athletes by looking at the big picture rather than what happened at each game. I believe we ended up with athletes that will have more long-term success and will stay in the sport longer.”

This was the goal all along, according to Ballantyne. 

“Developing athletes over the long-term is a group effort, not a one-person show. Our resources are created with the input of  softball experts, administrators, players, coaches, parents. Every aspect of our sport has been involved in creating these working documents, and everything we do is always in flux because we’re willing to change and try new things,” she said. 

“The best part of being a coach is seeing your athletes succeed. When we’re able to point out gaps in the training, or as a team focus on the development of life skills, this resource may be just paper but it’s giving you the keys to the kingdom to see your athletes excel.”

Sport for Life’s Director of Quality Sport Development Carolyn Trono has been keeping her eye on the work being done by Softball Canada for a while now, because it exemplifies the sort of implementation that she believes in. She was thrilled to learn that the ADM had become so central to their operations, and that they were using it the way it was intended.

“Softball Canada has been nimble and proactive in activating Long-Term Development from the national level to grassroots, and I think they’ve hit a home run when it comes to shifting their focus from high performance achievement to the solid development of every athlete who joins one of their teams,” she said.

“The ADM has gone from being a document that often sits on the shelf to something that’s being used on the field every practice by coaches to redesign their entire approach. The work they’re doing is meticulous and incremental, and in the long run they’ll be reaping huge dividends. I can’t wait to see what that looks like.”

*  Sport for Life has since rebranded its framework as Long-Term Development in Sport and Physical Activity, but encourages sports to continue using the established terminology of their sport-specific Long-Term Athlete Development frameworks.

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