How to Create the Best Long-Term Athlete Development Plan

A long-term athlete development plan is a formal or informal strategy that prioritizes the health and wellbeing of student athletes. The purpose of these plans is to ensure the physical, emotional, and mental safety of athletes, while also promoting their athletic and academic skills. These long-term athlete development plans help students progress from youth leagues to high school to the elite level with confidence, wellbeing, talent, life skills, and maturity. 


Without an emphasis on the long-term development of athletes, we often see physical ramifications like short-term and long-term injuries, repetitive stress injuries, improper training, inadequate recovery, as well as incomplete athletic growth and lack of well-rounded skills in life. Too often, sports programs have become about making money rather than about the incredible human beings who are playing those sports: the athletes! 


There are a lot of resources available about creating youth long-term athlete development plans because we need to make sure our young athletes can safely and effectively make it to high school and college sports. In this article, though, we’re going to focus on the development plans for high school and college athletes. These teen and early 20s athletes are especially at risk of being overworked (both physically and mentally) and it’s critical that their coaches consider long-term athlete development plans that will keep them safe for the long haul.


What do you and your athletic program need to do so you can stay healthy in and out of your sport, now and moving forward?

 

7 tips for creating long-term athlete development plans

 

1. Put the athlete’s health first. 

A long-term athlete development plan is simply about ensuring the longevity of the athlete, both in their sport and their life. We don’t want athletes to get concussions in college football that would give them brain issues later in life. We don’t want college basketball stars to blow out their knees and need to walk with assistance. And we certainly don’t want any student athletes to feel overwhelmed or stressed to the point that life and/or college feels too hard. 


First and foremost, student athletes are human. Their physical, mental, and emotional health has to come before the game. If everyone in the program agrees to that, then they likely already have a strong base for building a long-term athlete development plan.  


Read: Answers to the Most Common Questions About College Sports

 

2. Coaches should assume that every student athlete is going pro. 

This is a simple mindset shift that can make even the most eager, winning-happy coaches and players care more about the wellbeing of their team. Unfortunately, we sometimes see high school and college coaches “use up” their students during their four years together. For example, if a college coach knows one of his star players is good, but not good enough to go pro, he might push him a little too hard just to get the win for the team—even if it’s at the expense of the student. 


There’s a difference between pushing your athletes to new heights… and pushing them off a cliff. We find that the best coaches are those that act like they’ll need to deliver the highest quality players into the hands of next-level coaches (like professional teams). You don’t want your star player to get a stress fracture and not get drafted into the NBA. You want your star player to play for the NBA… so you can brag about how you coached him! 


This essentially changes the status of a “good” coach from one whose focus is on winning and losing to instead one who cares about the quality of talent that they produce. This kind of mindset puts the responsibility on coaches to develop their athletes’ physical talent, but also their health, wellbeing, and life skills, too.

 

3. Students should look at the quality of the program. 

This same idea rings true on the athlete’s side. Students who care only about winning or losing will end up overworking their bodies, stressing themselves out, and likely not making it very far in their sport. Instead, when choosing a sports program, whether it’s a club team in high school or an NCAA team for college, it’s important to consider the overall program. Even losing streaks with quality coaches can sometimes teach long-term talents and skills that will be invaluable moving forward in that sport. Selecting the school you go to is an important choice for sports and life, so look at all the factors, including the quality of the program—not just the wins and losses record. 


Find a sports program with coaches who care about conditioning and who have a long-term athlete development plan in place. Better yet, choose those programs where the coaches get to know each person individually to determine every player’s unique needs. Your coaches will be your point person for your development, so choose them wisely.

 

4. Take control of your development. 

Although we just said your coach is the primary starting point of development… they’re really just a starting point. Ultimately, you, the student athlete, have the power to take control of your athletic experience. Ask for what you need. Figure out how to manage your time. Workout outside of practice. Eat healthy foods and don’t overindulge on snacks. Research your sport. Determine how your sport fits into your life and where it falls in your priorities. Stretch, stretch, stretch, and then stretch some more. Throw on a sweatshirt when it’s cold outside so you don’t catch a cold. Talk to academic advisors and coaches for assistance. Learn about what you need to do to succeed. 


Put yourself first. If it ever comes down to it, fight for your development. For example, if you feel like your coach isn’t pushing you enough—or they’re pushing you too much—communicate openly about what would be helpful for your growth as an athlete and student. 


Learn how to balance college life and sports here

 

5. Exercise for health. 

We like to refer to this as “free play.” Take time outside of games and practices to work out solely for the value of your health, not just the sport. If your high school coach is really into skill-based training, do conditioning on your own time. If your college coach loves running drills, do weightlifting on your off days. This will keep your body in tip-top shape both for your sport and for your life, and it can also help prevent injuries. Plus, it can feel good to work out solely for yourself. 


Be mindful of how you work out, though. You don’t want to injure yourself at the gym and not be able to play in the next game. Work with a personal trainer or your coaches to discuss safe methods for your free play. Stretching and yoga are often a great choice for athletes who are looking to stay active and minimize injuries while staying mindful and calm.

 

6. Try out other activities.

Parents and coaches shouldn’t force a student into a single sport or activity. If you like football and cross country, try out both. If you’re a basketball star but want to go out for the school play, do it. And if you’re the student athlete reading this: try everything that you want to try out!


Varying the sports and activities in which you’re involved can be a great way to minimize injury and burnout while also helping you meet new friends, learn new skills, and find out more about yourself. One of our top 50 tips to prepare for college is to try new things and take risks. Oftentimes, it’s those new experiences that will be your most memorable and life changing.

 

7. Download athletic apps. 

If you want to take control of your health and development, there are a lot of tools available. Not only do you have resources available through your university and athletic department, but there are also tools right on your phone. 


Check out some athletic apps that might help you stay healthy and thriving:

  • iHydrate: an app that helps you schedule your water intake, particularly around workouts
  • MyFitnessPal: track your activity and food, including a bar scanner for the nutrition info of your favorite vending machine snacks
  • Sleep Cycle: wake up in tune with your sleep patterns, so you get a restful night without waking up groggy
  • Instant Heart Rate: find out your heart rate in a snap to make sure you’re staying in a healthy zone when you work out
  • Lucid: train your brain like some of the best with mental-skills coaches who have worked with pros like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Brandon Marshall (this is a super important athletic app that will get you in the right mindset for games and for life)
  • Dartfish Express: record video that can be easily manipulated for playback, frame viewing, and labeling to better understand games and practices (another option is Coach’s Eye)
  • Fitplan: at-home training plans to keep you in shape and injury-free during free play
  • CoachTube: access to elite coaches to learn more about the game, practices, culture, mental fortitude, and more (another option is CoachUp)
  • Find more productivity apps for college students here

Use tech and resources to your advantage!

 

Creating your long-term athlete development plan

Take your athletic progress into your own hands. Whether it’s putting yourself first, selecting the right coaches, getting the right gear, or utilizing an athletic app to your benefit, you can (and should) take control of your long-term athlete development plan. Remember that failing to plan is planning to fail. If you plan for long-term success in your athletics and beyond, you’ll see yourself soar!