Authors: Vicki Harber, PhD and Paul Jurbala, PhD, Sport for Life
You’ve probably heard of the Relative Age Effect – the concept that when children are placed into groups such as school classes or sports based on their chronological age, those born early in the cohort may have physical or intellectual advantages compared to those born late, leading to selection for enriched opportunities that tend to compound the advantage. Research into sport shows relative age effect can be a systemic advantage to the early-born and disadvantage to the later-born, excluding late-developers and robbing programs of talent and potential.
An alternative to traditional age-based divisions is bio-banding; the process of grouping athletes on the basis of growth and maturation, rather than chronological age (Cumming et. al, 2017, p. 34). Bio-banding is showing positive impact by reducing injury rates and improving an individual’s ability to improve both technical and tactical skills by adjusting for their training and competitive experiences. It is one of several approaches to providing developmentally-appropriate training and competition that aim to avoid the pitfalls of simple grouping based on chronological age.
Who is using bio-banding?
In the UK, Dr. Sean Cumming of the University of Bath is working extensively with several English Premier League (EPL) youth academy programs to implement bio-banding. The EPL has a well-developed and well-supported Player Management System that collects data on youth academy players for analysis, allowing for accurate monitoring of player information over time, not just snapshot moments of physical growth or performance. In 2016 the EPL organized the first bio-banded youth tournament. Feedback from the players has been positive. Other sports that Cumming has been working with include rugby (New Zealand as well), tennis, gymnastics and ballet. See this Vimeo for more info.
How to make it work
According to Cumming et al (2017), “The accurate measurement of chronological age, height, and weight of the youth players and of biological mid-parent height is central to the protocol for estimating predicted adult stature. As such, it is important that those responsible for taking such assessments are appropriately trained and qualified.” (page 36). An introduction to assessing growth can be found in the Sport for Life resource “The Role of Monitoring Growth in LTAD”. However, to understand how measurement for bio-banding is done in detail, refer to the Cumming et al. (2017) or Khamis and Roche (1994) articles referenced below.
In practice, organizations and coaches using bio-banding should be prepared to monitor the physical growth and development of athletes regularly until the end of the adolescent growth spurt, and adjust the individual athlete’s training and competition accordingly throughout. This means athlete “transition” to different levels of competition would be determined by the pace of development, not by registration year or date of birth. In training, bio-banding might also be used to group young athletes into different physical training sessions, and to track progression in technical skills and athleticism over time based on the bio-banded category.
The grouping of young athletes through bio-banding is not a bullet-proof method for assuring appropriate athlete development – it is a strategy to be considered in addition to usual chronological-based groupings. Regardless of matched percent of adult height (the primary bio-banding measurement used), the coach (or support staff such as sport psychologist) must always assess the young athlete’s overall technical/tactical and psychological readiness to be placed into these non-chronological assignments. Although work to date has been done largely in boys, we suggest that awareness of social cohesion for girls would be another important consideration if using bio-banding for girls
“Although bio-banding places athletes into groups on the basis of physical characteristics, it does not preclude the consideration of psychological and/or technical skills. An early maturing boy, for example, might be discouraged from competing against or training with older youth if they lacked the technical competence and/or psychological maturity to ensure a safe and positive experience (50,51). Similarly, a late maturing boy who is already thriving within his age group is unlikely to benefit from competing against peers who are younger but of similar maturity. Bio-banding does not preclude the consideration of technical and psychological development. These attributes should be taken into consideration when grouping athletes by size and/or maturation for the purpose of training and competition.” (Cumming et al., 2017, p. 35)
How do we move forward with the use of bio-banding?
Changes like bio-banding are more likely to be implemented when coaches experience a problem they wish to solve or want to tackle a long-standing issue, than when researchers provide “top down” recommendations. Cumming points out that knowledge about the early and late maturing athlete dilemma has been around for many years (see Robert Malina’s work from the 1970’s on). It was only when the EPL academies were losing athletes due to injury or lack of improvement, that they started questioning their habits of recruiting young players (i.e. talent ID at the ages of 8-10 years of age), and realized they needed to start doing things differently.
Both Cumming and Dr. Adam Baxter-Jones at U of Saskatchewan comment on the importance of keeping parents informed about the purpose of bio-banding. Although most parents feel good when their child is asked to “play up” there is negative stigma attached for the child being asked to “play down”. EPL academies have addressed this by naming bio-banding programs after who have succeeded by “playing down”. One example is Harry Kane from the Tottenham Hotspurs, an England International, who has said “It’s hard to tell at that age what a player is going to turn into. I was small for my age. I was a late developer…it’s hard to call a player at such a young age. As I got older and older, I grew up a bit, caught up to the rest of my players my age, and it went from there.”
We also need to ensure our coach education programs provide accurate information on athlete growth and development, how to monitor it, and how to manage early, “normal” and late-developing athletes in our programs.
Balyi, I., and R. Way (2005) The Role of Monitoring Growth in Long-Term Athlete Development. Sport for Life.
Cumming, S. et al. (2017) Bio-banding in Sport: Applications to Competition, Talent Identification, and Strength and Conditioning of Youth Athletes. Strength and Conditioning Journal 39(2):34-47
Khamis, H. J., & Roche, A. F. (1994). Predicting adult stature without using skeletal age: the Khamis-Roche method. Pediatrics, 94(4), 504-507.
Podcasts about bio-banding featuring Sean Cumming:
Pacey Performance (episode #147)
Athlete Development Show (episode #10)