How Long-Term Athlete Development works in practice for Swimming Canada

By John Atkinson High Performance Director/National Coach Swimming Canada & Suzanne Paulins Senior Manager, Domestic Operations, Swimming Canada

Swimming Canada works to identify swimming talent on the pathway to performance and ensure the coaches across Canada have the skills to develop and nurture athletes. This is done to ensure swimmers receive what we term Appropriate Athlete Development (AAD) and as such this fits into the Podium Pathway and ultimately supports swimmers ‘long term’ development within the sport of swimming.

The term Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) has been around for a number of years and widely used in Canada and across the world. Over the last 7 years Swimming Canada has developed and put into practice an identification process for talented swimmers who are deemed to be on track (by looking at performances, technical skills, physical and psychological maturity) and offer them and their coaches opportunities in many different areas of the program. Coaches and swimmers are advised on what AAD would be for their swimming, and this is then put into place.

A number of current female national team members were identified around the chronological age of 13, and AAD was recognized as key to their development and transition to the senior team and to the international podium. Plans were established to ensure their progression was tracked within the overall framework of the LTAD model for Swimming Canada. For male swimmer’s the same process is in place and the
identification of talented young men on the whole takes place between the ages of 15 and 19 years old, compared to the females of 12 to 16 years old.  Therefore, in the development of Swimming Canada national team, females who came through this system are now performing at the senior level, such as at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, Korea and the male athletes are beginning to show as was observed at the recent 2019 FINA World Junior Championships in Budapest. The challenge is of course transition through the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan in 2020 and also for the 2024 Games in Paris, France.


General introduction to Swimming Canada Athlete Development Framework and Athlete Development Matrix (ADM)

Swimming Canada recognizes the Canadian Sport for Life Long-Term Development in Sport and Physical Activity 3.0 as the overall framework of our Athlete Development model and is a building block for the Athlete Development Matrix.

Athlete Development Framework

There are different phases in any development framework and in Canada the following stages cover all the areas.

  • Active Start
  • FUNdamentals
  • Learn to Train
  • Train to Train
  • Train to Compete – Podium Pathway
  • Train to Win – Podium Pathway
  • Competitive for Life
  • Fit for Life

The work of the National Program in Swimming Canada is focused around 3 main stages and they are the Train to Train, Train to Compete and the Train to Win areas with particular attention to the Train to Compete and the Train to Win stages of the process and we term this, the Podium Pathway.

Swimming is unique in two very different ways compared to other sports found in the Canadian sport system.

    1. The sport is not responsible for basic instruction: Swimming is the only Canadian sport that does not have direct responsibility for teaching the rudiments of the sport to young children.  Basic teaching is overwhelming undertaken by organizations with a primary mandate of child safety, and learn to swim programs are mostly operated by Red Cross of the Royal Lifesaving Society.  Swimming Canada has partnered with the Red Cross and Lifesaving Society in program design and development but leaves delivery to them.  Children identified as having swimming potential are frequently encouraged to join a swim club – often operating out of the same facility – in order to advance in their sport.  Overwhelmingly children learn to swim during the Active Start or Fundamentals stages of Athlete Development and most often enter swim clubs at the upper end of Fundamentals, around 8 or 9 years of age.
    2. No agreement on optimum technique: There is much more dispute within the swim coaching community about optimum technique and optimum training, than is typically found in other sports.

What is the Athlete Development Matrix (ADM)?

The ADM is comprised of 4 components – physical capabilities, technical/tactical competencies, mental or psychological skills and life skills (cognitive, social and emotional learning skills).  The ADM describes the observations, actions and words we want the athlete to portray, demonstrate and display across each stage of development.  The ADM is a broad roadmap for the development of swimmers, not a detailed prescription from which a training program should be built. The ADM is not a “how to” for coaches yet it provides guidance for coaches to help them create environments, experiences and developmentally-appropriate challenges for athletes to explore, test themselves, and progress in all areas of the ADM.

Physical Capacities Development:  Development of stamina, strength, speed and flexibility across all the stages of development.  While nutrition, hydration, rest and recovery exist in this component, Swimming Canada also includes those items in Life Skills Development. 

Technical/Tactical Skills Development:  This includes the learning of basic human movements, fundamental movement and foundational sport skills and the entire range of sport-specific skills required to achieve the highest level of performance.  This also includes competition and training skills at each stage.

Mental Skills Development:  Swimming Canada has identified the following key elements in the development of mental skills:  positive attitude, motivation, goal setting, emotion identification and control, attention/focus and reducing errors.

Life Skills Development: Social and Emotional Learning Skills (SEL) are highlighted in the development of Life Skills.

Swimming Canada built stage by stage skills for each pillar of the ADM.  The Athlete Development Framework and Athlete Development Matrix were used to create the Competition Improvement Plan – National Meets that was introduced in the 2016/17 season that resulted in a shift in our national competition calendar and focus for overall athlete development that aligned to the Podium Pathway.  The ADM also helped define the recommendations for the Competition Improvement Plan – Provincial and Developmental Meets that was introduced in the spring of 2018.  Both plans provide a staged approach to competitions from the FUNdamental stage through to the Podium Pathway stages of Train to Compete and Train to Win.


We wish every coach and every federation using the FINA Learning Platform (learning.fina.org), all the best in their continued education and learning, that is extremely important in our sport.  Never finish learning and or seeking to improve and progress, Good luck.

Swimming Canada Recent Performance

At the 2019 FINA World Championships in Gwangju, Korea, Swimming Canada had their most successful ever World Championships winning 8 medals in the pool and one medal at the Open Water, this is the best results ever and also eclipsed their previous best World Championships from 1978 (some 15 Word Championships ago).  As well as the 8 total medals won Swimming Canada had 2 World Champions in Swimming at the same world championships with Kylie Masse (100 BK) and Maggie MacNeil (100 Butterfly). The team finished equal 4th in terms of total medals won in the pool and for the first time ever won 3 medals in the women’s relay events.

In Budapest, at the FINA World Junior Championships, Swimming Canada continued to make great progress returning with 12 medals total. The team therefore finished 5th on the Gold Medal table and equal 4th on the total medals table.  Interestingly, Swimming Canada finished 4th on the Overall FINA trophy point scores with a total of 510 points with the men this time contributing 191 point to this total.  The men’s team actually finished 3rd nation overall on the points score and the women also finished 3rd nation overall on the points score.

About Swimming Canada

Swimming Canada serves as the national governing body of competitive swimming. We inspire Canadians through world leading performances to embrace a lifestyle of swimming, sport, fitness and health. Canadians are global leaders in high performance swimming and development for both able-bodied swimmers and swimmers with a disability. Swimming is recognized as one of the most celebrated and successful Canadian summer Olympic and Paralympic sports.