Producing an elite performer is a long term project which must begin at childhood. Sporting organisations put in place long term athletic development plans in order to do so. The aims are to enhance the holistic development of each individual, whilst also reducing the risk of injury. The key variable which impacts optimal development and injury risk is biological age.
What is Biological Age?
Biological age identifies where the child is in their progress towards a mature state. Maturation ends at adulthood, the journey to this mature state can vary tremendously within children of the same chronological age. As children become biologically more mature they increase in height, weight and muscle mass. These physical alterations cause enhancements in strength, speed and power. The variability in timing and tempo of maturation can causes biological differences of 2-3 years within children of the same age group.
Why does it impact development?
Early maturing children will be bigger, stronger and more advanced during childhood. This will provide them with an unfair advantage, especially within contact sports. Hence we see a selection bias towards early maturing children within many sports during childhood. Later maturing children will only catch up physically once the mature state is reached, however this can occur 2-3 years later. This disparity in physical capabilities will negatively impact a child’s development plan if not individualised. During the process of biological maturation children will reach Peak Height Velocity (PHV) and the “window of opportunity”at different times. Understanding how these time points impact the plan is critical.
The impact of PHV
PHV is the most aggressive growth spurt a child will have. PHV hinders physical capabilities and increase the risk of injury. The body is placed under a greater strain during this period due to the accelerated growth of the long bones. This will make the muscles tighter and shorter impacting flexibility, as well as negatively affecting the neuro-muscular configuration. The term adolescent awkwardness stems from this. Training would need to be adapted during this phase in order to prevent injury and also maintain/relearn physical literacy. If the appropriate adjustments are made then post PHV is when a train-ability window opens up.
A “window of opportunity” arises 12-18 months post PHV, due to increases in circulating hormones and fat free mass. This is an opportunity to make maximal gains in strength, speed and power. To gain maximal enhancements the child must have a base of fundamental and sport specific skills. These can be built upon and overloaded during this phase. Understanding when and preparing a child for this will only benefit there overall physical development. Both PHV and the “window of opportunity” will occur at a younger age for early maturing individuals. Understanding a child’s biological age is also important within the talent ID process.
Identifying whether a child will be an elite performer is extremely difficult. There will always be anomalies and wrong decisions. Making this process objective is essential. Using the assessment of biological age is a key component of making objective decisions. It allows for a greater understanding to why certain players are having success within the youth years.
There is a bias across many sports towards the selection of early maturing children due to their success at youth level. More often than not this success is down to their physical advantage. Early maturing children thus neglect the development of their technical and tactical qualities. Therefore their overall technical, tactical and physical development will be hindered. When this physical advantage dissipates at adulthood, the later maturing children will be better placed to be successful. This is due to them concentrating on enhancing their technical and tactical qualities for success at childhood. Now at adulthood when physically they are equal, or even superior, the later maturing child has greater overall qualities for success.
Understanding, assessing and practically applying the information of biological age is vitally important within a long term athletic development plan. For more information on this topic and a structured plan specific to football purchase “How to Physically Develop and Elite Soccer Player: Ages 8-16”