For many sportspeople the journey to becoming a professional begins in a club or a professional academy. It’s a long road to the top, a physically demanding process. Many will fall by the wayside and not realise their goal of making the grade at their club or wearing the colours of their national team.
But professional sports bodies are keen for home-grown players to reach their full potential, to nourish each generation that is looking to come through the ranks. If clubs are not run in the right way, talented children and young adults will not be given their best shot at reaching the top of their sport.
Late bloomers struggle to catch up
In sport, children are traditionally grouped by chronological age for training and competition. Young athletes of the same age can, however, present marked variation in physical maturity. This presents significant challenge, both to the children developing later than their peers, and to those engaged in the processes of identifying and developing talented young athletes.
Accordingly, improvements in assessment and management of growth and maturation in young athletes have been identified as a priority by organisations, such as the Premier League, Lawn Tennis Association, and British Gymnastics for increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of youth development programmes.
Understanding player potential
For all players to have the best chance to reach their potential, assessment and consideration of growth and maturation is critical. Clubs must consider maturity when making decisions about training, competition and team selection.
Dr Sean Cumming is a reader in the Department for Health. He researches growth and maturation in young athletes and has been working with high profile organisations, professional sports teams and their industry partners, to develop and implement national growth and maturation screening programmes, policies, educational initiatives and resources, and athlete performance management systems.
Collectively, these changes have led to improvements in the assessment and monitoring of growth and maturation in young athletes, the processes of talent identification and development and the management of injury risk. As a result of these changes, young sports people are being given a fairer shot at reaching their goals.
The research underpinning these impacts described in this case study comprise three sequential strands.
Underpinning the research
Creating an index of maturation
In the past, clubs have had to make decisions based upon the physical attributes of young sports people that are not fully realised until adulthood. Being able to detect differences in growth and maturational status, identify important phases of development (puberty for example), and predict each young player's true potential is essential. Collaborating with colleagues from North America, Europe, and the University of Bath's Institute for Mathematical Innovation, Dr Cumming created a series of non-invasive methods and protocols for determining biological maturation and biological age, and identifying when athletes enter important stages of development, such as the pubertal growth spurt.
These methods have been documented as a valid and reliable estimate of maturation in athletes leading to its adoption within the growth and maturation policies, screening protocols, and athlete monitoring systems for the Premier League, US Soccer, Lawn Tennis Association, Bath Rugby, Royal Ballet School, Cleveland Indians, and Scottish Rugby Union.
Identifying maturation bias
The second strand of the research analysed how the variety of maturation rates in young athletes led to inequities and inefficiencies in both talent identification and talent development. Conducted across multiple sports (football, rugby union, tennis, ballet) this research identified consistent maturity-associated selection biases that emerged from the onset of puberty. These biases varied relative to the sports demands and increased in magnitude with age.
It also clearly documented the many physical (size, speed, power, strength, momentum) and psychosocial (coach evaluations and practices, self-perceptions) mechanisms and processes that contribute towards these biases. Dr Cumming’s research also clearly showed the massive hurdles that late, and/or early in the case of ballet, developing athletes face and the mechanisms needed to overcome the bias.
The research was also the first of its kind to demonstrate that for late maturing players to be retained in Premier League academies, they had to possess more adaptive learning strategies; a phenomenon known as the underdog effect, and that the pubertal growth spurt adversely impacted coach evaluations of match performance in football, and more than doubled injury risk and burden in youth football.
Bio-banding put into practice
The final strand of the research sought to co-create, implement and evaluate strategies aimed at resolving many of the inefficiencies and inequities associated with variance in growth and maturity. In collaboration with the Premier League and its constituent clubs, Dr Cumming pioneered scientific research on the practice of bio-banding; demonstrating that the inclusion of maturity matched, in addition to aged group competitions, benefited early and maturing players through the provision of optimal and developmentally appropriate challenges and learning experiences.
Endorsed by the Premier League and US Soccer, these findings led to adoption of bio-banding within the Academy Games Programmes for both organisations, for the purpose of ‘aiding player development and recruitment’.
Growth and Maturation Screening Programme
Dr Cumming’s research is now starting to have a real world impact. To support the Premier League’s Growth and Maturation Screening Programme, Dr Cumming collaborated with industry partner, The Sports Office Ltd. (now Kitman Labs), to build and integrate a ‘growth and maturation module’, a performance management system monitoring the development of over 3,000 registered players at Premier League and Category One Academies.
Using the methods and techniques used in Dr Cumming’s research, the module affords more efficient and reliable assessment and monitoring of player growth and maturation status and is integrated with the parallel National Benchmark Fitness Testing and Injury Surveillance modules. This enables academy staff to:
- create and access on-demand player and team audit reports
- determine players current and future growth and maturity status
- group players by maturation (bio-band), evaluate fitness and performance relative to age and maturational standards
- identify when players approach and enter developmental stages associated with increased injury risk (pubertal growth spurt).
As part of their Elite Player Performance Plan, the Premier League invited Dr Cumming to chair an advisory group to discuss growth and maturation in academy footballers. Dr Cumming’s research and methods have directly informed, and are embedded within, the league’s Growth and Maturation Screening Programme and accompanying policy and guidance.
Launched in 2016, this module has collected over 79,000 maturation data points from over 11,000 registered academy players aged 9 to 16 years.
Impact felt around the world
It is not just football that has benefitted from Dr Cumming’s research, bio-banding has now been adopted in a number of different sports including tennis, rugby, gymnastics, and even in the world of dance. The impact has even seen the term ‘biobanding’ included as a new word in the Collins English Dictionary in 2019.
Endorsed by the Premier League, the success of this research collaboration led to the introduction of bio-banding within the Academy games programme in 2016, with numerous clubs including Arsenal, Manchester United, Brighton, Southampton and Bournemouth having engaged in bio-banded fixtures. A number of clubs are regularly integrating bio-banding within competition and practice and are already reporting benefits, including the mitigation of maturity associated coaching biases and reductions in injury incidence and burden among players during the pubertal growth spurt.
'Working within the academy, our job is to identify and develop the best future footballers. The work that we have done on growth and maturation in collaboration with the University of Bath has helped us to progress our understanding and practices in this area.' — Dr James Parr, Academy Sports Scientist, Manchester United Football Club
In 2018 US Soccer endorsed and introduced bio-banding as one of three innovative strategies within their high-performance programme, approving an additional investment of $1,500,000 to support the initiative. Bio-banding is now part of US Soccer’s Developmental Games programmes for boys and girls with inaugural tournaments held in Texas (2019) and Los Angeles (2020). Dr Cumming and Sam Scott, lead academy strength and conditioning specialist at Southampton FC, were also invited to present their research on bio-banding to the French Football Federation’s national junior coaches at their world-renowned training centre at Clairefontaine (2020).
Bio-banding has been trialled and implemented in numerous countries, including Scotland, Poland, France, Netherlands, Canada, and Australia. Finally, the Youth Sports Trust endorsed bio-banding as one of eight themes in their 2019 policy document for reframing competitive school sports, citing Dr Cumming’s research with the Premier League.