What is Bio-banding?
Proposals to match athletes based on physical attributes and maturity rather than chronological age have been attempted in several sports [2, 15]. Based on early research by Dr. Krogman , this strategy is currently labelled as “bio-banding” and involves grouping and evaluating young athletes based on size and maturity status, rather than on chronological age (e.g. under-13s) .
Athletes of the same chronological age can have a different biological age, thus, their differences in physical qualities (e.g. strength and speed) can be tremendous. Moreover, in some age group cohorts, the differences between some young athletes can be as large as several years of difference in biological age. This, in turn, is likely to affect the athletes’ development and performance .
Bio-banding tries to create an optimal environment were both early- and late-maturing athletes can thrive. By diversifying the learning environment through the creation of new and affordable challenges in the form of new settings (e.g. playing with younger/older peers), the process of bio-banding can, in theory, benefit both early- and late-maturing athletes .
For example, in a bio-banded environment where early-maturing athletes are competing against others of similar physical prowess, they will no longer be able to rely on their physical prevalence, and therefore, would be encouraged to use and develop their technical and tactical skills. It would also prepare them for future challenges where they may have to compete against equally, or more, mature players. This equalising approach would also benefit the late-maturing athlete, who would have a greater opportunity to demonstrate their physical and technical attributes .
Why is Bio-Banding important?
As children experience maturational events (puberty) at different ages, their physical, social, and psychological differences are likely to be extremely varied, even amongst children with the same chronological age . In addition, the timing of maturation has important implications for training, competition, and talent identification. As a result, bio-banding could be a suitable way of addressing the issues in each of the following categories.
- Talent identification
Because physical attributes observed in youth athletes are considered to be poor predictors of success at the adult level , emerging evidence suggests that bio-banding, as a complement to age-group competition, can benefit both early- and late-maturing athletes in academy soccer . In terms of youth training, all fitness attributes are responsive to training stimuli at all ages, although some physical qualities (e.g. speed) may be more sensitive to adaptation at particular times of maturation (e.g. pre-peak height velocity) .
It is important to manage and supervise each athlete’s training programme according to their maturation status and present skills. Moreover, the growth spurt is a period of elevated risk for overuse injuries, particularly Osgood-Schlatter disease. Therefore, the training load and the athlete’s health needs to be closely monitored during the growth spurt to avoid overuse injuries [20, 21]. Furthermore, as childhood and adolescence are periods in which motor skills are developed in abundance, it is therefore important for young athletes to focus their attention on their technical and tactical skills at this stage; both for their learning, and for their future performance .
Competition is an integral component of youth sports programmes, where individual differences in growth and maturation have shown to impact player performance and the development of young athletes . In this sense, young athletes who mature in advance (i.e. early-maturers) may experience a competitive advantage in some sports because of their physical size and athleticism, thus being perceived as better . For example, imagine an under-14 male rugby match in which one team’s average height and weight were 160cm and 50kg (i.e. early-maturers), whilst the other teams were 153cm and 44kg (i.e. late-maturers), respectively. This scenario may encourage the early-developers to use their physical advantage and neglect their technical and tactical skills .
This temporary advantage and success will also, in many cases, carry less challenging experiences, which, in turn, may stagnate the young athlete’s development. It is for this reason that the early-developing athlete may often be badly prepared for future competition against physically-matched opponents .
It is also important to acknowledge the tremendous effect that maturation has on the identification and selection processes in sport. For example, late-developers have shown to be 10-times less likely to be retained by elite soccer academies (e.g. Manchester United Football Club and the Aspire Academy) .
In this context, some evidence suggests that bio-banding may provide a useful solution for such a problem by decreasing the impact of the relative age effect . This would, therefore, help institutions and clubs to retain talented athletes that may otherwise ‘slip through the net’. Finally, the current selection strategies that favour athletes based on attributes that are not fully developed until adulthood (e.g. size and strength), may have negative long-term effects on the athlete’s psycho-social development, in addition to their sporting success.