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  • Writer's pictureHugh Lawrence

Junior sport and future success (1)

North Harbour Rugby’s decision over the last few days to scrap its junior representative programmes below the age of 17 has, unsurprisingly, attracted a lot of largely uninformed criticism. So, let’s look at what we know about junior sport – not what we think we know, but knowledge based on sound evidence drawn from research.

So three sentences into this post, there’ll be some readers who have turned up their noses up at the term “research”. What do those academics know that I, a practicing coach don’t know? The short answer is; a lot. Junior sport performance, talent development and children’s sport are heavily researched. Sporting codes want to know how to maximise the talent pipelines, what to prioritise and how to build the long-term future of limited talent pools.

First, to paraphrase the great Swiss education reformer Johann Pestalozzi, a child is not a small man. I could stop right there. If you don’t, can’t or won’t grasp this crucial idea, there is little chance you’ll have insights to the needs of junior athletes; aka ‘children’.

Typically, junior sport competition is organised along age group lines, mostly in two-year bands, so that in some cases there could be players with up to two years age difference. You don’t need to be a scientist to know that not all 14-year olds are at the same level of maturity. Big and little children competing in collision sports matched by age and not physiological maturity seems inherently problematic.

I would not be the first coach to observe that players in year two of an age-group programme are better performers NOT primarily because of my coaching, but as we would say “another year older and another year stronger/taller/faster”. In other words, they matured physically, cognitively and emotionally with no help from the coach.

But more importantly, junior competition achievement is a poor predictor of future performance.

I’ve pointed out before that children stick with sport when they are with their friends, enjoy their time (sometimes known as ‘fun’) and learn something. So, the question is what should be the focus on junior sport programmes. First, the best thing we can do for our children sport is provide them with excellent coaching. At a time in their lives when they are most physiologically, cognitively and emotionally responsive, why do we not prioritise excellent age-appropriate coaching?

Second, ensure they have well-organised local competition that enables them, week-on-week, to experience the joy of playing the game, of winning and losing defined broadly and of learning how to compete. Ill-matched bodies with early maturers dominating the play has little merit. Third, well-organised regional competition gives more young athletes the chance to develop their playing skills (technical and tactical) without imposing substantial travel costs on families – an obstacle to many families keeping their children in sport.

Recent research shows that in aggregate, younger and later-maturing individuals selected to talent development programmes appear to have greater likelihood of attaining professional levels. We also know that maturation is not a simple matter. The child's chronological age and biological maturation status are central to sports performance development and hard to predict.

Despite having all this knowledge, we seem not to learn. For example, research consistently shows the ‘relative age effect’ (players borne close to the age-group cut-off date) seems to influence preferential football selection. The uneven birth date distribution in European elite football suggests that talent selection is influenced by a child's physique rather than skills. But we know that height, muscular development or BMI are unreliable performance predictors because during and following puberty, growth varies massively. Despite this long-standing knowledge, we still pick the big kids because as the basketball saying goes, ‘little guys get tired and big guys don’t get smaller’.

(photo source: changing the game project)

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