An innovative way of grouping young football players according to their physical maturity rather than their age has been demonstrated to show big benefits when it comes to spotting hidden talent and reducing injuries.

Bio-banding – a strategy which has existed for a number of years but has only recently been trialled by clubs in the UK – groups players according to their maturity level. This means youth teams are mixed when it comes to ages, but roughly equal when it comes to how physically developed players are. It is designed to avoid the David and Goliath situation whereby a late developing child is pitched against an early developed child, who has an advantage in size and strength.

Advocates suggest bio-banding should not completely replace traditional practices which group players by age. But they suggest bio-banding can be an additional coaching tool used to better identify and retain talented yet late maturing athletes and can expose early and late developers to new challenges and learning opportunities.

Understanding individual difference in development is also being used as a strategy to help reduce injuries during periods of rapid change, such as the adolescent growth spurt. There has been interest from a number of major sports teams, including AFC Bournemouth with whom University of Bath researchers recently evaluated players' own perceptions of competing in a bio-banded football tournament.

For the new study led by AFC Bournemouth and supported by the University of Bath, researchers evaluated over 100 young players’ perceptions of bio-banding. Their results, published in the Annals of Human Biology found three main benefits for young players:

  1. Early maturing players – who are bigger, and physically stronger - found more physical and technical challenge, leading to new opportunities for development. They also benefited from learning to play with older and more experienced players.
  2. Late maturing players found less physical and technical challenge, but more opportunity to showcase their technical and tactical abilities, and adopt positions of leadership.
  3. All players perceived there was less injury risk.

In addition, during the bio-banded tournament, late developing players told researchers they thought there was more opportunity to practise leadership skills, influence game play and to express themselves more on the ball.

Lead author of the study Ben Bradley, Head of Academy Sports Science & Medicine at AFC Bournemouth, said: “At AFC Bournemouth we work hard to individualise each player's programme as much as possible, and studying growth and maturation is a huge part of that. Bio-banding has allowed us to provide a different challenge for our academy players alongside the traditional chronological age games format which means they are exposed to different opportunities to develop.

“That therefore allows us to evaluate and review the players from a different perspective, which can give us a broader view of their development and potential. Whether a player is late, average or an early mature, our research has shown they are being challenged in different ways from a technical, tactical, physical and psychological perspective.”

David Johnson is completing a PhD with the University of Bath and AFC Bournemouth. He added: “Bio-banding has been an excellent tool for the academy to develop both our early and late maturing players, as well as helping us to understand individual difference to a greater extent.”

Dr Sean Cumming, at the University of Bath’s Department for Health and Institute for Mathematical Innovation, is fast becoming a world-expert on bio-banding and has provided advice and guidance to sports teams and federations around the world. This has ranged from football and rugby to baseball, triathlon, tennis, gymnastics and ballet. Sean is convinced of the potential benefits bio-banding players can bring.

He said: “Research investigating the potential benefits and pitfalls of bio-banding is still in its infancy but the results from our preliminary studies are encouraging. Players and coaches clearly perceive benefits from athletes periodically competing and training with physically matched peers.

“Bio-banding should not replace age groups, which are ideal for matching players on the basis of experience, psychological, behavioural, and social development. But, bio-banding, as a strategy, should exist as part of a diverse game programme that offers optimal challenge and opportunity for all.”

In collaboration with Dr Sean Williams and Dr Darragh McGee from the University of Bath, as well as recent Bath graduates Dr Siobhan Mitchell and Dr Gill Myburgh, Dr Cumming is currently engaged in research with a number of clubs and national governing bodies to investigate the broader implications of growth and maturation and bio-banding for young athletes.

This includes work with AFC Bournemouth, Southampton FC, Manchester United, The Lawn Tennis Association, British Gymnastics, The Royal Ballet School and the Youth Sports Trust. Through this work, the team hope to address how differences in growth and maturation impact player performance, selection and retention in academy football, and whether injuries and dips in performance can be better mitigated through bio-banding. They are also interested in investigating whether bio-banding used in a school setting can help optimise opportunities and experiences for early and late developing children.

He added: “What is especially exciting about this work is that the questions and solutions are being largely driven by the coaches, practitioners, and teachers with whom we work. This to me is especially important as they have much better understanding of the problems they face and how to best achieve impact in these learning environments.”

The latest study also involved Exeter FC and Watford FC.