To ensure the future success of any sports club, it’s vital to identify and track talented juniors and develop them as they move up through the youth system. Human Performance platforms like Smartabase are being deployed across clubs at both the top tiers and academy levels to help with this monitoring. While the age of an athlete is one component, the athlete’s physical maturation is being considered more and more when making decisions about how to develop young talent.
Early Adopters of Physical Maturity Assessments
The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) was one of the first nationwide, multi-sport organizations to outline a cohesive plan for taking physical maturation into account when matching athletic children with the sports they are best suited to. While the high-level aim was to find and develop eventual Olympians – particularly in sports that have a smaller talent pool such as rowing, canoeing, and winter disciplines – it also had the more widespread impact of increasing participation among Australian youth. An earlier version of the Australian National Talent Identification and Development (NTID) program suggested that junior athletes conduct three anthropometric self-tests: standing height, body mass, and arm span.
These maturity indicators were then collated with four tests of physical capacity: maximum number of push-up repetitions in 30 seconds, vertical jump, 40-meter sprint, and either a shuttle run (beep test) or 1.6-kilometer run. If the results were deemed to be above average, the athlete was encouraged to visit a Talent Assessment Center, where they would be retested. A subsequent assessment would then recommend which sports matched their physical attributes, maturity level, and sporting ability.
Since the initial success of the NTID program, the AIS has evolved it into the Foundations, Talent, Elite, and Mastery (FTEM) framework. A key component of identifying young talent is, according to the AIS website, “Adoption of an evidence-based, multidimensional and inclusive approach where an athlete’s current profile and future talent potential (cognizant of their maturational status) is gauged.” This evidence-based testing is then combined with coaches’ and scouts’ subjective assessments to see what the relationship is between an individual’s on-paper potential and their real-world performance in competition. Other countries have adopted a similar approach, with the England Talent Pathway (ETP) committing £85 million in funding to talent identification and development in 43 sports, Canada advancing young athletes at regional centers of excellence, and Sport New Zealand investing in a long-term talent plan.
Capturing Key Maturation Metrics
In The Vanguard Roundtable podcast, Mark Dyer, athletic development coordinator of US Ski and Snowboard’s D-team, stated that many individual national governing bodies and sports clubs were also incorporating biological maturation into their talent identification models. “Things like maturation offset, peak height velocity, and a percentage of predicted adult height are starting to be used,” he said. Maturity offset is the number of years someone is from their peak height velocity, which is the period when a child experiences the greatest growth in their height. Both can factor into predicted adult height.
Other maturity measurements could include muscle mass/body composition and, as mentioned earlier, bodyweight and arm span/reach. A review in the British Journal of Sports Medicine explained how maturity fits in with other aspects of young athletes’ progression: “Talent development from novice to elite is superimposed on a constantly changing base – the processes of physical growth, biological maturation, and behavioral development, which occur simultaneously and interact with each other.”
One aspect of physical maturity that many sports academies, clubs, and governing bodies have become wary of in recent years is the relative age effect. This phrase was used by Roger Barnsley and Angus Thompson in 1988 when they investigated the talent identification practices of Canadian youth hockey clubs and found that coaches were biased toward selecting players born near or after the cutoff for a certain age group. They assumed that the oldest eligible individuals would be the most mature biologically and, therefore, the most dominant on the ice. This led to these players having a greater chance of making it to the NHL. Barnsley and Thompson later found that a similar notion was widespread in baseball, football, and other sports.
Dyer stated during the podcast that US Ski and Snowboard and organizations in other sports are cautious when attempting to predict young competitors’ future performance using just their age and its relationship to biological maturity. This way, they avoid succumbing to the bias of the relative age effect or over-emphasizing maturation offset.
“I know USA Football and a lot of the clubs in Europe are trying to put a maturation level onto talent and general fitness as well,” he said. “That’s something that’s coming to not only see what is next…but also what is causing that talent. It may be that an athlete is three years above their maturity level. We want to start adding in some of that maturation offset to see if it is something that is a short-term or long-term gain in terms of a talent identification.”
Making Maturation Data Actionable
A 2022 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research assessed the physical maturation of 794 talent-identified youth athletes who attended a specialized school sports academy over five years. In attempting to create normative values for various sports, they noted that anthropometric and physical performance measures were “key assessment and monitoring tools” that can help coaches find the right fit for young competitors and then help them progress along development pathways. It was unsurprising that they found as the participants got older, they also increased in height, weight, and other measures of body size. But what was significant is that as they matured, these changes also related to “higher vertical jump, faster sprint performance, and improved physical endurance.” In other words, the more mature an athlete’s body is, the greater their output can be from a physical testing standpoint, which could cross over into their outcomes in competition in some cases.
However, the study authors suggested that anthropometric testing, physical performance data, and other maturation metrics would continue to be of limited value until they were utilized to create age-, gender-, and sport-specific benchmarks for youth coaches, scouts, and other staff to use in talent identification and development. This is where a human performance optimization platform like Smartabase can come into play. Organizations in all sports use such a system to collect and manage information on young players as they move along development paths. Anthropometrics and other talent identification insights can be combined with performance test results, external load data from practices, match statistics, and more to create a full view of each athlete’s development and how they compare to their peers.
Utilizing maturity data and other information to inform selection and development decisions is challenging if a club or academy doesn’t have a unified athlete management system (AMS), a standardized data collection methodology, and continuity among its coaches. “If you’re trying to store all this data in disparate places, have a platform that’s hard to use, or you’ve got high turnover with staff, then you lose the ability to centralize that information and track it over time,” said Jack Halley, Fusion Sport principal consultant, in The Vanguard Roundtable episode. “So all those key markers around the maturity of an athlete and their physical profile as they go through adolescence – you don’t get to capture them. Clubs are looking for that unicorn athlete, so we’re trying to predict if someone who’s 15 is going to be the next superstar by the time they’re 19 or 20. If we don’t have that consistency of data capture through their adolescence pathways starting at the participation level, then we’re losing some really valuable insights.”
Avoiding the Pitfalls of Early Specialization
Often, a player who is big, tall, and strong for their age is fast-tracked because they’re a physical anomaly in their age group. In some cases – such as the Williams sisters in tennis and LeBron James in basketball – this can work out well. But other young athletes can wilt under the pressure of being expected to advance before they’re ready for it. During the roundtable, James Veale, data analyst for AFL Academies, was quick to point out that while his organization wants junior athletes to excel on the football field, it also prioritizes them maintaining balance across multiple activities as they mature, rather than specializing too soon. Even if a player shows signs of being more biologically mature than their teammates, it’s important that this doesn’t lead to them getting pushed too far too soon or made to specialize.
“Our draft age is 18 – their senior year of school,” he said. “That’s really the only time where the pathway will suggest that athletes start to look at narrowing their focus across sports. We’re really big on load management and not burning athletes out or having overuse injuries. The better players arguably are the ones who come from multi-sport backgrounds. If you’re constantly just trying to play, recover, play, recover, then your ability to actually continue to progress and your body’s natural development will be stalled, which is what’s going to really push you into that injury space.”
Such a cautious approach to using youth athletes’ maturation data to make selection and development decisions is just as applicable to individual sports. Following up on Veale’s comment in the roundtable discussion, Dyer stressed that if early maturation leads to a skier or snowboarder becoming specialized too soon, their initial projections for success might be mismatched with the long-term outlook of their competitive career.
“Through talent identification, it’s so hard to say that this 12-year-old is going to be the next Mikaela Shiffrin,” he said. “It’s so hard to put a pinpoint on that, and I think a lot of people are trying to search for that kind of answer. But in ski racing, it’s a gamble because a lot of what happens is people put so much weight into specialization. They see someone in U12 or U14 crushing everybody in the region, then they just stick to ski racing. And by the time they hit that second or third year, these athletes are burnt out and those who mature later come up. We don’t even see our best World Cup results until late 20s to early 30s.”
Including Athlete Maturation in a Well-Balanced Development Strategy
It’s clear that biological maturation is a noteworthy component of youth talent identification, although just like any other data point, it isn’t foolproof and needs to be put into context by being evaluated alongside other objective and subjective information. Otherwise, a soccer player like Lionel Messi might be disregarded because of their small stature, even though they more than make up for a comparative lack of size with an abundance of technical ability, while a larger athlete could be selected even though their stature far outweighs their skill. Managing young athletes’ data in a centralized platform like Smartabase and visualizing it in dashboards can help coaches take a measured and balanced approach in this area so they recognize where young athletes are in their physical development without capping their potential.
At US Ski & Snowboard, Dyer and his colleagues work closely to overlay a broad range of objective data with the subjective expertise of regional coaches who oversee talent identification in their area, see how juniors perform in competition, and chart their progress at annual camps. This leads to a patient, well-rounded strategy for talent identification and advancement. “I think a lot of programs are taking this more holistic approach now, seeing what the talent level is in their sport and what their fitness, strength, and conditioning is like,” he said. “And then also getting a sense of who the athlete is, what they stand for, and how they present themselves day to day. It’s really just taking that slow cook approach in how we develop these athletes. A good youth athletic development system gives them opportunities to run through the pipeline.”
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 Robert M Malina et al, “Biological Maturation of Youth Athletes: Assessment and Implications,” British Journal of Sports Medicine, July 2015, available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26084525
 Roger Barnsley and Angus Thompson, “Birthdate and Success in Minor Hockey: The Key to the NHL,” Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science, 1988, available online at https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fh0079927
 Paul Larkin et al, “Gender- and Sport-Specific Normative Anthropometric and Physical Values in Talent-Identified High School Athletes,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, July 2022, available online at https://read.qxmd.com/read/35836319/gender-and-sport-specific-normative-anthropometric-and-physical-values-in-talent-identified-high-school-athletes