Ask the Expert: Dr Kevin Till (Leeds Beckett University)

Kevin is a Professor in Athletic Development within the Sports Coaching group at Leeds Beckett University. Kevin has published over 120 international scientific peer-review publications over the last decade related to youth athletes, strength and conditioning, sport science and coaching. Kevin is also a UKSCA accredited strength and conditioning coach and has worked across multiple sports, mainly rugby, for the last 12 years and currently works as a S&C coach at Yorkshire Carnegie RUFC and Leeds Rhinos RLFC within their academy programmes.

Dr Kevin Till

What has led you into youth sport?

I was always a lover of sport as I grew up and played a variety of sports with my focus on rugby. I also enjoyed athletics, particularly sprinting and naturally progressed to resistance training in my adolescent years. These early experiences gave me an appetite for learning about training and the science of training, so I attended Leeds Beckett (was Metropolitan) University to study an undergraduate degree in Sport and Exercise Science. Following this I was offered an internship at Leeds United Football Club alongside a MSc in Sport and Exercise Science at Leeds Beckett and this was when I started to focus upon youth athletes.

I worked with the club’s academy, primarily their Under 18s, delivering their fitness coaching (at a time when strength and conditioning was starting to emerge as a field). I spent a year with the club and learnt a lot and then started to apply this work within other sports across multiple ages in cricket, tennis and rugby. I then enrolled on a PhD in 2007 initially focussing upon the Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) Model. This broadened my understanding of youth sport and athletic development and since then I have always worked and researched within youth athletes, predominantly in rugby. Now working in the Sports Coaching programme at Leeds Beckett University, there is a large focus on coaching children and young people and the impact coaches can have on children’s lives whether that is just participating within sport through to developing tomorrow’s talent.

What has been your biggest influence in your practice in youth sport?

My biggest influence as a strength and conditioning coach I would say would be Dean Riddle who is now the Applied Sport Scientist at Seattle Seahawks. Dean gave me my first internship at Leeds United FC and has provided a range of opportunities, mentoring and support over the years in developing as a coach and practitioner. I don’t think my career would have taken the route it has without him.

Alongside that, I have had some key academic support in becoming a researcher. Prof Carlton Cooke (now Leeds Trinity University) was my undergraduate, MSc and PhD supervisor and showed me the importance of research, research design and how research can inform and influence practice. This was supported by other academic staff including Dr Stephen Cobley (now University of Sydney) and Prof. John O’Hara (Leeds Beckett University). Over the last 5+ years, me and Prof. Ben Jones work very closely together and this has continued to develop and push me as a coach and researcher. We are constantly trying to use research to answer practical based questions to provide a balance between research and practice within our roles as academics and practitioners.

Alongside these key individuals, I do think it is important to acknowledge all the other staff, coaches and students I have worked with. I think we can take a lot away from all our relationships that evolve our work, whether that research or practice, and much of the work we do is collaborative and based on a team effort.

What is your particular area of interest?

I wouldn’t necessarily say I have a specific area of interest, and I encapsulate a lot of my work under the term ‘Athletic Development’. For me this can involve working with children through to senior athletes to ultimately improve athletic performance that may have performance or health benefits. My work spans the areas of talent identification and development, physical development, S&C, fitness testing, fatigue and recovery, training load, data analysis, injury and even some psycho-social work. If I had to choose a specific focus area, then it would be in relation to talent identification during adolescence and how factors such as age and maturity can influence sporting opportunities within youth athletes.

How do you think this particular area applies to youth athletes? 

Talent identification often occurs in many sports around adolescence (approx. 14 years in boys). However, there is large variability in the timing of maturity. When you consider this with the policy structures within youth sport (i.e., annual-age grouping) alongside the relationship between maturity and physical performance this means that youths can be (dis)advantaged within youth sport and talent identification. Within youth sport this has consistently shown that relatively older (i.e., boys born nearer the selection cut-off) and earlier maturing boys are advantaged within selection to talent identification and development programmes but also have a greater likelihood of just participating in sports, especially in physical sports such as rugby. Therefore, opportunities for youth athletes to participate and develop within sports can be influenced by their age and maturity status. This is important for practitioners to consider for increasing participation and making appropriate selection decisions into their programmes. Further, our longitudinal work has shown that these relatively younger ad later maturing individuals often catch up the early maturers and have potentially greater chance of achieving success in the long-term. This is important for sports clubs and governing bodies to consider how they setup their talent identification and development systems for maximising participation and talent within such sports.

What advice would you give to coaches working with youth athletes? 

My advice for coaches working with youth athletes would be to emphasise the importance of understanding and developing the physical, psychological and social factors for youth athletic development and not solely focus upon the technical and tactical skills of a sport. All too often we see a focus upon technical and tactical sport specific skills with youth athletes but there is so much more impact coaches can have within their practice that will hopefully lead to long-term health and performance benefits from a physical (e.g., reduced injury) and psycho-social (e.g., increased confidence) perspective.

Secondly, I’d say that regardless of the level of coaching that balancing academic qualifications (learning) with applied coaching practice is of benefit to all coaches. If this is an inexperienced coach starting out on an undergraduate degree then it is essential to get your hands dirty and coach participants across a range of ages and environments. Likewise, I also feel that experienced coaches can benefit from further academic study and learning and be challenged in relation to their thinking and current practices. It is great that we have a range of experienced applied practitioners on our MSc degrees.

Lastly, my advice would be to try and apply research and practice closer together where possible. Our aim as research-practitioners should be to develop and deliver evidence-informed practice with youth athletes but academics should also aim to answer practical and useful research questions.

Can you recommend any particular resources for youth sport coaches?

There are some great resources out there, some of which have been mentioned previously in your ‘ask the expert’ including Rhodri Lloyd and Jon Oliver’s Strength and Conditioning for Youth Athletes and Rob Pacey’s Strength of Science website.

Joe Baker, Jorg Schorer and Stephen Cobley have written a couple of books on talent identification and development in sport that are great:

Talent Identification and Development in Sport: International Perspectives

Routledge Handbook of Talent Identification and Development in Sport (Routledge International Handbooks)

For those working within Rugby, myself and Prof Ben Jones edited The Science of Sport: Rugby book which is aimed at coaches and overviews some key science areas for coaches to consider in their practice.

In addition, the iCoachKids is an unbelievable resource for coaches working with youth athletes, which includes free online courses and videos. This is led by Dr Sergio Lara-Bercial (Leeds Beckett University) who has pulled together a great resource. You can view the iCoachKids YouTube Channel here.

Lastly, I will give a plug to our BSc and MSc Sports Coaching degrees at Leeds Beckett University. These courses are focussed upon coaching children and young people for anyone looking for opportunities for learning within higher education

Where can people find out more about you and your work? (Social media links, websites etc.)

For further information on our work then you can find me on twitter: @KTConditioning, ResearchGate or the Leeds Beckett website. There is also a range of presentations from our Carnegie Adolescent Rugby Research conference available here.

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