As the father of two young boys, Jeff Richardson began researching youth development in recent years. What he discovered didn’t match what he always heard and even taught himself.
“It set me down a path that changed how I saw things,” Richardson said.
What Richardson found was the world of Long-Term Athlete Development. It’s a community that focuses on movements over mechanics and doing things at the right time of an athlete’s life to develop in a sport or activity. Having fun is emphasized and the process is the focus, not the end result.
“I realized a bunch of areas that I had missed and had always heard taught,” Richardson said, “but through learning realized I was off in those areas.”
As he continued his research and became engaged with the LTAD community on Twitter, Richardson became a believer. He flew to a pair of conferences and was even a presenter at another this year. Last August he launched a blog and this spring formed his own organization –– United In Competition Sports Development –– to bring the training framework to Houston. Last week Richardson began twice-a-week baseball training sessions with elementary boys.
“For a long time we’ve taken the adult game and tried to shrink it down instead of finding ways to help to develop each kid. We’ve tried to make them fit into a box instead of meeting their needs,” Richardson said. “I hope to help them enjoy the experience and develop a love of the game.”
Richardson said he fell in love with LTAD in three roles he plays in life: as a father of Beckett, age 4, and Tucker, 7; as a physical education teacher at Houston Middle School; and as assistant coach for the Houston High School baseball team. He said it has changed the way he approaches each area.
Richardson, who was introduced to LTAD when stumbled upon tweets from researcher, coach and sports scientist Dr. Joe Eisenmann, got an up-close look at athlete development last May when he traveled to Philadelphia for his first conference. In December, he networked and learned from coaches, instructors and experts from both the United States and Canada at a conference at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. Two months later, he was a presenter at a conference in Chicago.
Inspired by what he was learning and now teaching, Richardson said he wanted to bring the concept of athletic development to Houston. As a board member, he worked with the Parks and Recreation Department to modify the city’s coach pitch league. He wrote practice plans for coaches that emphasized movements through skipping, hopping and throwing while having fun in a “Fortnite culture.” He also suggested offensive and defensive stations for players during games to help with skill development and keep everyone involved. They include home run derbies with whiffle balls and learning to catch with paddles and sticky balls.
“It’s more enjoyable than showing up for an hour and barely being involved,” Richardson said. “I think it better fits the needs of our kids and their skill development and makes it more enjoyable.”
The approach isn’t solely for youth sports either.
As the Tigers’ pitching coach, Richardson said he doesn’t focus as much on techniques or throwing motion with his high school. Just like the approach with younger athletes, the goal is to move fluidly while letting their bodies be naturally athletic.
The philosophy is working. HHS pitchers had a combined 2.96 ERA in 2019 while striking out 248 batters in 166 innings. En route to a 16-10 record and the program’s first district championship in 12 years, head coach Brent Hall often credited Richardson and his staff with carrying the team. Hall worked alongside Richardson last week with his youth program.
“What I’ve tried to implement is having our pitchers develop into good movers instead of looking at specific mechanics,” Richardson said. “Each player’s body is going to move differently than the guy next to them. I’m trying to figure out how to individualize that for each pitcher that we have.”
Richardson began sharing about his LTAD experiences and what he was learning when he launched a blog in August. He titled it “United In Competition” because he said he sees the potential for sports to unite a community.
After the school year ended, Richardson officially launched his sports development program and announced the opportunity to participate in his baseball experience. He said the training is driven by five Cs: competence, confidence, cultural, character and connection. Each value stresses development of the child as both a player and person over results.
It's the LTAD way.
“A lot of times we try to ‘microwave’ athletes and miss out. It’s more slow cooking when it comes to developing an individual in youth sports,” Richardson said. “I compare youth development to reading. When they are five, you don’t throw a chapter book at them and say, ‘Go get ’em.’ You have to learn ABCs and words, then move up to small books that are repetitive before going up from there.”
During his baseball sessions, Richardson said he wants participants to move more and think less. He accomplishes it through drills like throwing a frisbee – a movement pattern with the upper body and arm extension that simulates a swing – and other exercises that children can relate to.
“If kids can develop fundamental movement skills, they can be successful,” Richardson said. “Baseball is really just a bunch of movements put together and lining them up with timing. When we teach kids to become mechanical, we mess up those movement patterns and it becomes something very unnatural. The kids’ bodies know what to do if you just teach them the intent.”
Jeff Richardson is bringing a new approach to youth sports called Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) to Houston through his newly-formed organization United In Competition Sports Development. He started the process this week with a baseball experience for elementary students.
A St. Louis native who moved to Houston in 2016 with his wife, Loran, Richardson said his ultimate goal is for kids to enjoy playing sports and develop into lifelong athletes who love participating in whatever game or event they chose. He said his mission is more focused on developing kids who continue playing, not drop out due to pressure or bad experiences. He also hopes to see athletes play multiple sports instead of specializing in one or two.
And as kids and eventually families buy into the LATD philosophy, Richardson wants United In Competition to do exactly what it says for the community.
“I hope it brings everyone together to celebrate competition,” he said. “To celebrate each individual participating and for kids to understand things are better when we are working together to improve instead of being focused on individual accomplishments.”