To coach elite child footballers, size – not age – matters

For the anguished parent standing on the touchline, it all seems so unfair. Week after week they fret as their 12-year-old, a diminutive but naturally gifted midfield general, is harried off the ball by bigger players.

But change may be on the way. Grouping young footballers according to physical maturity, as opposed to age – a practice called biobanding – improves performance and reduces the chances of injury, according to research that will be examined by coaches in many sports.

The study, by a team at the University of Bath’s department for health and published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, is the first to explore young players’ experiences of competing in a biobanded tournament.

Advocates of biobanding – used extensively in New Zealand for rugby union – claim that, by grouping players together according to their size and strength, late developers are given a greater chance to shine while players of all sizes are likely to see their game improve. The initiative, organised by the Premier League, involved players aged between 11 and 14 drawn from the academy teams of Reading, Southampton, Stoke City and Norwich City football clubs.

They played in three 11-a-side games on a full-size pitch with 25-minute halves. They then compared their experience with a normal age-group competition. Significantly, they all said the experience had been positive and recommended that the league integrate biobanding into its games programme.

The bigger boys, who were used to dominating normal training, reported being stretched by the physical challenge of the biobanded games. They told researchers that the matches better prepared them for games involving more physically able opponents, including adult teams. Findings suggested they were encouraged to adapt their game and emphasise technique, tactics and teamwork over physicality.

Harry Kane was released by Arsenal at the age of 11.

Harry Kane was released by Arsenal at the age of 11. Photograph: Alberto Estevez/EPA

For smaller boys, researchers found, the biobanded tournament was less of a physical challenge, but gave them a greater chance to show their skills, exert influence in the game and take on leadership roles. They reported greater confidence and composure on the ball – something that previous studies have shown to be a key predictor of success and development in sports.

“It gives us more freedom,” one player told researchers. “We get a chance to prove to ourselves that when we are up against people our same size, we’re really good and can make an impact on the game.”

The study’s lead author, Dr Sean Cumming, said he hoped to consider biobanding for rugby, cricket, gymnastics and ballet, too. “This training and selection regime can help coaches spot hidden talent among late maturers, and can reduce injury risk,” he said. “This study reinforces the positive effects biobanding can have for players across the spectrum – both early and late maturers.”

Biobanding appears to be catching on around the world. In April, the US Soccer High Performance Department announced that it would work in conjunction with a number of clubs to put on the first biobanded event in any sport in the US.

Clubs hope it will help them spot future stars among late developers. Arsenal famously rejected England captain Harry Kane when he was 11 years old, before he had developed physically.

“Every player grows at a different rate, and biobanding educates sports science practitioners, coaches, players and parents on their level of physical maturity,” said Andy O’Boyle, the Premier League’s head of elite performance. “It helps late-maturing players in their development and offers different challenges to early-maturing players. Clubs have now developed biobanding initiatives themselves and regularly organise their own fixtures and tournaments, as well as using it to aid talent identification and strength and conditioning provision.”


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