The problems with developing early and how to avoid it

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There are two times in life when you go through an accelerated period of growth.

The first is during infancy. It’s a rapid stage of development for a child, evidenceds by the changes in gross motor skill required to learn to walk.

The second is during puberty. Variations in the hormones responsible for growth stamp their mark as our body begins the turbulent transition from child to adult.

But not all children go through puberty at the same time. Research shows that the onset of puberty can vary across individuals by as much as five years.

What’s more, how much an individual grows and how quickly it happens also varies.

Because of the unsettled and varying nature of growth in youth athletes, it affects the game.

‘Early developing’ athletes dominate

Growing earlier than your peers gives you an advantage, not only do you get taller sooner, for which the benefits to sport are clear, you also gain more muscle mass.

More muscle means more strength, helping you to run faster, jump higher and generally be more athletic.

What’s more, you’re physically tougher. So, when you run into someone, or someone else runs into you, you’re more likely to come out on top.       

This advantage affects youth sport in several ways.

Firstly, early developing athletes know they’re bigger and stronger and so gravitate towards sports in which success is more likely.

In rugby, for example, there’s no doubt that the ‘big boys’ dominate the game early.

Once you’re in the team, more opportunities to play, learn, and get feedback from quality coaches (think representative level sport) keeps you there.

However, from a performance or enjoyment point of view, success as a twelve-year-old doesn’t necessarily mean it will continue long-term.

Regardless, we’re seeing more and more sports, such as netball and basketball, following the model set by rugby.

Secondly, different maturity levels attract different meaning. Because the early developer is more successful at the youth level, coaches tend to have a bias towards them.

Take team selection as an example, in a world where winning has become the ‘holy grail’ for so many, the early developer has been recognised as an effective way to get there.     

The problem with developing early  

Relying on your physical attributes too heavily during your youth can come at the peril of your long-term success.

In netball, for example, taller, stronger players can hustle their opponents around, becoming less dependent on technical and tactical skills to move the ball.

Bigger, muscular rugby players can run through their opponents, instead of around them.

However, sooner or later growth amongst youth athletes levels out and a physically dominated game doesn’t work so well when everybody’s the same size.

When you’re ‘naturally’ better than everyone else you don’t have to work as hard to make the team or stay on top.

If you miss a training or go at 80% instead of 100%, your efforts may not be reflected in the result on Saturday, reinforcing your mediocre work ethic.

What’s more, when there’s more than one early developer on the team, which happens a lot in premier grade youth sport, meticulous teamwork can be sidestepped, something you can’t get away with at the elite level.

Overall development is essential

In contrast to high-performance sport, success at the youth level can be the result of a single factor. In this case, an early developed athlete.

Therefore, we need to recognise that growth and development plays a significant role in youth sport and learn and adjust, accordingly. If we want to give our early developers the best chance of reaching their potential, we need to focus on developing their all-round abilities.

To listen to how they do it in the English Premier League, click here.  

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