How does age and maturation affect motor coordination and performance?
A research review from the Performance Digest
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By Tom Green
5th October 2019 | 3 min read
Contents of Research Review
Football (soccer) is the most popular sport in the world and currently hosts approximately 21.5 million youth players under the age of 18. Many of these players strive to perform in a professional setting which requires a high degree of technical and tactical skills, as well as performance-related characteristics such as speed and agility. Many of these performance traits develop with the adolescent growth spurt which, ultimately, leads to an advanced physical profile (e.g. a taller, faster, and more powerful athlete). In turn, this leads to early maturating players being selected for youth academy positions rather than their late developing peers. Whilst there is some evidence that the late maturing player “catches up” over time, these players can often end up out of the system and less likely to reach a professional standard. This study investigates the differences in both generic and soccer-specific motor coordination to understand the affect of age and maturity on elite youth soccer players.
A total of 619 youth soccer players (U10’s to U15’s) were recruited from 6 different youth academies from the Belgian premier league. Both anthropometric and field test data were collected at the site of the academies by trained assistants over the 2016-17 season. All tests below were collected on the same day with a 10-minute warm-up performed between measurements and performance test. The total duration lasted roughly 45 minutes per player.
To assess maturation level, the Mirwald equation was used (See attached article for a great single-use calculator) which allows sports scientists to predict the average timeframe of peak height velocity (PHV). To account for underestimation of PHV, specific z-scores were generated that classified the youths as either ‘early’, ‘on-time’, or ‘later’ maturing.
Several generic tests were also collected, including a shortened version of the Körperkoordinationstest für Kinder (KTK) test. A soccer-specific test was conducted which included a circuit set out by cones with four left and four right turns at different angles, to be completed as quickly as possible. These were performed without a ball first for familiarisation and then with a ball. Speed was assessed over 5 and 30m. Agility was measured using a T-test which was executed twice with both a right turn and left turn to assess multi-directional agility
The present study examined age and maturity status differences in talent identification programmes. The main findings of this study were that both speed and agility improved with maturation where the adolescent growth-spurt is likely to occur (under 14’s and 15’s). In addition, generic motor coordination showed a significant affect on age and maturity, suggesting that these improved with both physical and chronological age due to a larger number of generic training hours. The soccer-specific test revealed improvements with age, but there was no significant main effect size for maturity, indicating that age, not maturation, affected these results in this study. The gradual increase in performance characteristics and skill acquisition are thought to be accrued through a larger number of contact time in professional training.
This study emphasises the link between maturation and performance improvements in all tests apart from soccer-specific motor coordination. As a result of this, it may be valuable for academies to think about if the age brackets (14-16) are a good time to assess a player’s worth based on physical and performance qualities. During this time, fluctuating levels of coordination and differences in the maturation stage may lead to large variability in performance, causing some players to not stack up to their peers who are physically more developed and can express greater force/speed characteristics. At this time/age groups, players may be unfairly removed from the squad, whereas a more considered approach that allows the athlete time to grow may have provided the team with greater talent for the senior squad.
A recommendation for academies would be difficult to suggest and may be more appropriately designed by the club or sport. However, a cut-off period of at 17-18 may give players a greater likelihood of reaching their potential, as PHV should have already occurred by this time (i.e. PHV typically “levels out” at approx. 17 years).
During this confusing period, players should also be supported with small snippets of knowledge that are digestible and can help them through these challenging times. For example, please see the attached video on ‘what makes your muscles grow’ which can be shared with your athletes.
A major strength of this study is that the sample size (619 participants) is not only large, but incredibly varied in terms of age (10 -15) and, therefore, maturation stage. This allows us to see the relationship between age and coordination, where coaches could consider how they train around these times of natural physical development.
In light of these findings, this project emphasises the need for progressive training around the age of peak height velocity, as this period is a critical time frame for skill acquisition and physical development. A fantastic insight into maturation monitoring and training adaptation has been provided by Gary McDermott, Steve Grinham, and Joel Moody during their time at Southampton F.C. in the attached podcast recorded in 2016. This
podcast identifies the measures taken to find the next superstar and also the aim to produce good people. I think that we have to guide our players through these periods and provide them with a good mix of consistency and variability to ensure growth and development that will support them into adulthood.”
The full study can be read here.
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