Annie McCarra is a Strength & Conditioning Coach, with a Master of Science in Performance Coaching, in which her research focused on the injury profile and movement analysis of Rugby union players. From Tipperary, Ireland, but currently living in Johannesburg, South Africa since 2014, Annie has worked with a number of athletes across various sporting codes, from which she has developed a keen interest in injury reduction strategies, as well as youth development, and is currently exploring the physical development pathway of rugby to better prepare the youth player for the game.
rugbyscsa: Being Irish and finding yourself in South Africa, how have you found the country in terms of sporting culture, coaching expertise, and people you have met in the industry?
AM: The passion for sport and sporting talent in South Africa is incredible. I have great respect for coaches and athletes here, who face a much greater battle to perform at a high level when compared with other countries where funding and access to amenities/resources are far easier to come by. Despite these challenges, South Africa continues to produce amazingly talented athletes, at the hands of amazingly talented coaches. In Ireland, I think that the growth of rugby, and all sports, can be attributed to great communication between the unions and sporting bodies, and the emphasis that is given to research and evidence-based coaching allows our small populated island to compete against the sporting powers of the world. Ireland has long supported the use of Long Term Athletic Development (LTAD) models in sport, which have proven very successful in Rugby (see link below). So, I think that if South African sporting organizations could improve communication and put more emphasis on LTAD, their performance on the world stage would surpass the already impressive records they hold.
rugbyscsa: Can you give us a short break down of what long term athletic development is?
AM: LTAD was created to improve the quality of sports coaching to enable athletes to reach their full potential and has been applied by various sporting organizations throughout the world, with various models. Regardless of the differences, they all aim to guide the development of athletes through the stages of growth from childhood through to adulthood, considering periods of sensitive development known as “windows of opportunity” – for example early to middle childhood is a crucial time for the development of fundamental movement skills, which shifts to sport-specific skills towards late childhood.
rugbyscsa: Why is following a progressive plan of development with youth so important for players to reach their full potential?
AM: Physical development in the childhood years is essential for long term athletic development and successful participation in sport, and of particular importance is the development of Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS), which are the building blocks for a movement that form the foundation for many of the skills needed to participate in sports. FMS does not develop naturally, so they need to be learned and practiced, and if they are not mastered before 12 years of age, full potential in movement abilities can be compromised.
rugbyscsa: What according to you are some of the essentials when considering LTAD?
AM: I think the most important consideration of any LTAD program is progressing according to biological maturity rather than chronological age. Every child develops differently, with some maturing early and some maturing late. This can be difficult when working with youth athletes who are normally grouped by age, but it is important to encourage the progression of early maturing children who develop quicker, as well as to be patient with late-maturing children who need more time to develop skills. Often the child who develops slowly but is given the time to catch up experiences a superior development due to the increased challenge. This is known as the “underdog hypothesis”. A good example here is Brian O’Driscoll, who due to his late development didn’t get picked for his u15 team, but the continued practice became arguably one of the best rugby centers in the world.
rugbyscsa: What are some of the common mistakes you see in youth programs that coaches do that will hinder a player’s development?
AM: A lot of coaches try to implement a scaled-down adult program when coaching youth athletes – children are not mini-adults, and there are several developmental differences that must be considered when coaching youth. On the other end of the scale, coaches are sometimes scared to coach certain fitness components like strength, which is essential throughout player development from early childhood through to adulthood. However, I will stress that the coach must be qualified in this area – ask for assistance from a coach qualified in strength and conditioning if necessary.
rugbyscsa: World rugby has been very proactive to protect players from injury, especially at the youth level. In what way will implementation of the LTAD plan help to reduce injury in school’s boy rugby?
AM: There is a lot of research to support the links between good functional movement and decreased risk of injury. On top of this, with FMS being the building blocks of the sporting activity, if you can develop a strong foundation and continue to reinforce the strength of this foundation, then you will end up not only reducing your risk of injury but also performing at a higher level.
rugbyscsa: There is a massive misconception regarding strength training in youth athletes and one of the questions I get most from parents. What’s are your thoughts on developing strength, speed, and power in youth athletes and how would you progress each trait?
AM: All components of fitness are trainable throughout the pathway, with varying focus, and despite the concerns about strength training in youth athletes, there is no evidence to support the myths commonly heard about the damaging effects of such training. In fact, the gains made from appropriate supervised resistance training in the youth stages will better prepare a player for the impact and ground reaction forces they are likely to experience in the sport, which improves performance and reduces the risk of injury. In the childhood years, an accelerated adaptation of the neuromuscular system occurs, and with the benefits of strength transferring to all other fitness components, there is more than enough evidence to support resistance training for youth. Development of strength should follow a progression from fundamental bodyweight exercises between approximately 6 and 9 years of age, to introduction and reinforcement of a range of resistance exercise techniques between approximately 9 and 12 years, where a gradual increase in load can occur with the primary focus remaining on technical competency. This should continue into the teenage years with a gradual shift from technique to performance outcome, with the same principles applying to power and speed.
rugbyscsa: Have you ever come across sporting codes that make use of Bio-Banding (grouping athletes based on maturation, rather than chronological age), and what are your thoughts on it and practical application of it in a school system?
AM: Bio-Banding has been used in competition for some time in soccer, and more recently in Rugby and American football, and although it may seem logical, there is limited evidence to show that it reduces the risk of injury, increases equality in competition or optimizes athletic development. However, from a strength and conditioning perspective, I feel that bio-banding is an appropriate way to accommodate individual differences in growth and maturation. The implementation of an athletic development program which progresses athletes according to their abilities, not only supports the importance for individual maturation based progression but also allows the athlete to progress through the pathway safely, ensuring a solid foundation is built throughout. I think this could be practically implemented into a schooling system, in the form of an ability focused athletic development program where students progress through stages which are competency-based, rather than age-based.
rugbyscsa: Where can the reader find out more about your work and other resources regarding LTAD?
AM: I am currently working on a physical development guide for youth in general sports, as well as a rugby specific guide based on the same principles, and I hope to reveal more about this soon. Meanwhile, to receive updates on developments and relevant information on this and other S&C topics, you can follow me on Facebook @AnnieMcCarraSport. If you are interested in learning more about LTAD and its application, any of the numerous papers produced by Rhodri Lloyd and colleagues would be a good place to start (see links below).
I would also recommend watching some of the presentations available on the UKSCA website by Des Ryan, who is Head of Sports Medicine and Athletic Development at the Arsenal F.C. Academy.
And finally, although not on the topic of LTAD, my favorite book: ‘Bounce – How Champions Are Made’ by Matthew Syed, is a great read for any coach and confirms the success of some of the principles of LTAD.