Does Size Matter?
When a team is being selected, there are a number of variables in play that help determine which players make the cut. Outside of team oriented factors, each individual is typically selected based on a combination of technical, tactical and physical factors. While psycho emotional elements could also be a consideration, they are commonly harder to assess, take longer to identify and are not well understood by most sport coaches.
In playing levels with multiple birth years (eg. minor hockey levels), many players and parents think that once their child has ‘done their time’ at a lower tier (eg. AA) as a first-year player, the right spot for them to play and progress is at the top tier (eg. AAA) as a second year player. The thought is that this enables the athlete to play with others their own ‘age’ and play with better competition, which is often viewed as the best place to develop. Emerging research; however, leads us to believe that age may just be a number when determining the right level for athletes to play.
In recent years, major youth sporting organizations, such as USA Soccer and UK Soccer, have begun using a tier categorization known as bio-banding. Bio-banding is a technique used to match athletes based on their stage of physical maturation (biological age), rather than by chronological age (number of years past birth). Using non-invasive body measurements, we can get a rough estimate of the stage of development one is in; and thus, their biological age. Rather than clumping all of the 13 year olds, for example, together to make teams, bio-banding places athletes together based on their stage of physical development. To be clear, the level is not determined by the athletes’ height but by their current percentage of predicted adult height. Taller and shorter athletes may still be on the pitch together, but the idea is to get all of the athletes that are approximately 75%, for example, of their full physical maturation at the same level. Click here to check out a physical maturation assessment tool.
The down side of bio-banding is that there is no consideration for technical or tactical competence, it is simply used as a way to organize athletes based on their state of physical maturity. On the flip side, under the current arrangement, the top tier of most sports leagues, especially ages 11-15, is filled with athletes who are more advanced physically at that time. This does not necessarily mean they will end up being bigger, stronger athletes in the future, they may just be ahead of the curve developmentally. Subsequently, the lower tiers end up being a random arrangement of athletes with less skill or those who are less physically mature at that time.
So what’s the point? The point is that physical maturity status is a relevant variable when determining the appropriate level an athlete should be playing. Playing at the top tier is not always the best bet for every kid. If a coach says your kid is too small to play at the next level, they may have chosen poor words but they may also be onto something if your son or daughter is late to the physical development party. In the interest of development, we do not want young athletes playing at a level where there is a major skill discrepancy, but we also do not want a major physical development discrepancy, especially when we are talking about athletes who have not yet entered puberty.
If an athlete has an average skill set and is late with their physical development, chances are playing at the top level of their age class is not the right place for them at that time. This does not mean they will not be a top tier player at some point in time, but rushing the process does not serve them any purpose. There is a reason why only ~35% of players on WHL rosters were drafted in the WHL draft. It’s not because the scouts do not know what to look for, it’s because they do not know what they are looking at. The draft happens when many of the players being selected are just beginning puberty. How could you possibly know what a 14-year old, pre-pubescent kid is going to look and play like when they’re 17, 18 or 19?
For young athletes, and their parents, keeping one’s state of physical maturity in perspective is of great importance. There is no shortcut to the top and sometimes those who grow slower need to be patient with their development. The last thing we want to do to our youth athletes is train them to be bench players, unnecessarily expose them to injury, or damage their self-esteem because they are constantly playing over their head.
Buchheit, M., & Mendez-Villanueva, A. (2014). Effects of age, maturity and body dimensions on match running performance in highly trained under-15 soccer players. Journal of Sports Science, 32(13), 1271-1278.
Malina, R. M., Cumming, S. P., Rogol, A. D., Coelho-e-Silva, M. J., Figueirodo, A. J., Konarski, J. M., & Koziel, S. M. (2019) Bio-banding in youth sports: Background, concept, and application. Sport Medicine, 49(774), doi:10.1007/s40279-019-01166-x