Are we failing children? Putting them in ability groups based on their school year versus their physical maturity...

Have you ever wondered why some children succeed in sport while others do not? 

Why do talented youth athletes not make it as far as we predict, and why do others come out of nowhere to achieve great things?

Me too...

At schools and sports clubs, the easiest way to group players is by their school year. For example, if you were in the U13s this season, you would have been born between 1st September 2009 to 31st August 2010. 

While this is the easiest way to sort, you have to ask yourself whether it has the best interest of player development in mind?

During the ages of 9-13 for girls and 12-16 for boys, children usually go through their largest growth spurt, referred to in sports science as peak height velocity (PHV). Predicting when this can help us provide training and education based on an individual child’s needs. A pre PHV child would be what is commonly referred to as a late developer, on time or circa PVH would suggest that they’re developing in line with their peers and post PHV indicates they have gone through their largest growth spurt.

Think of it this way... 

Have you ever seen a player at your school or club, who's recently grown a large amount, and they look like Bambi on roller skates when moving around the pitch? Or becoming more clumsy for no reason, falling over with the skills they were good at before breaking down? These children are about to, going through or soon after their growth spurt. This period of maturity can result in a higher risk of injury, as their bones have grown, but the muscles, ligaments and tendons are trying to catch up, resulting in loss of coordination, balance and some motor skills.

And finally,

We have all seen the children in a team who stand out for their size, strength and power! Often in a lot of cases, youth teams are built around these players to “get them the ball” so they can run over the opposition. These children are generally in the post PHV stage or early maturers, and generally taller, heavier and have greater speed, strength and power which give them an athletic advantage. But the question is, how long will that last?... 

It may seem that early maturers have all the benefits, however, the downsides of early maturation, if not picked up and noticed, is the risk of these players not improving their catch and pass or being able to manipulate a defender. This can result in this child, when other players catch up, being overtaken and possibly becoming demotivated due to not seeing the same level of success, sometimes resulting in cases of dropping out of the sport. Also, as some research suggests if you are an early maturer and you go through your whole youth career being at the top of your game; when you go from being a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a big pond and you experience failing to make a team for the first time, you do not have the skills needed to cope with this which can also impact that child’s confidence and sometimes their overall mental well-being. 

I know first hand of the struggles with this, during my youth playing career, I was bigger than a lot of the other players. One time when playing football at around 12 years old, a parent on the other team demanded to see some documentation to prove my age as I “looked too big!”. When I returned to rugby after realising that the thing I liked most in football was slide tackling, I became the bulldozer of every team I played for. While this was great and I scored a lot of tries from the age of 4-15, sufficient time wasn’t spent on my basic skills like catching and passing, which resulted in me having to work twice as hard when I was older to develop…

What if a simple training intervention, we could level the playing field and increase the chances of athletic development for all children? With a simple test, we could establish where each child at school or player at a club is in their physical maturation and use this information to group players throughout training? The benefits would be so great and even have the potential to change the way that PE is delivered in schools. These would include:

  1. A plan that puts the player at the centre - creating individualised programmes based on their physical needs
  2. Levels the playing field to make sure all children get access to athletic development 
  3. More success for later maturers keeping them engaged in sport
  4. Developing future coping strategies for early maturers to help them ride the ups and downs
  5. Help schools and clubs make better decisions around the needs of their students/members

With a little planning and organisation, we could not only improve children's physical ability but also their confidence and mental health, setting them up for success through sport and for life!

Hugh Bantin

Really interesting, should we not be grouping children on size rather than age, particularly in physical contact sports, to help them develop the skills they need as it best suits their individual physicality Reply

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