Bigger, Faster, Stronger: Child Prodigy or Early Developer?


As a young kid I played just about every sport under the sun. Looking back on my younger years, I hardly spent any time in class during intermediate school because of it.

I was lucky and lots of opportunities in sport came my way and I tried and take up every single one of them.

Most of my time at secondary school was spent playing three sports: soccer, cricket and athletics. I loved them all and, as it turned out, I was pretty good at a couple of them.

Success came my way often and I enjoyed every minute of it while I could.

But why? Why did I do so well as a young athlete?

As you would expect, it’s a complicated answer. However, as it turned out, I had the advantage of one important factor: I was an ‘early developer’. To put it simply, as a 12 year old I could fit into the same pair of basketball shoes as a 17 year old.

So what, you ask? Let me explain.

The Early Developer vs. The Late Developer

Have you ever noticed a young athlete who has shot up in height in a relatively short period of time? It’s quite incredible how quickly this can happen.

All young athletes go through an accelerated period of growth during their development. On average, it happens a year or so earlier for girls compared to boys (Figure 1 below).

Crucially, growth periods can occur at completely different times for different individuals. This is particularly evident across ethnic groups.

AD-Mish-3 (Large)So what does this mean for sporting performance?

In New Zealand, the teams you are selected into and the people you compete against at youth level are determined by age (apart from rugby, which is categorised by weight).

I’d finished my accelerated growth phase by the time I was 13 and throughout intermediate and into my early secondary school years I was competing against athletes who could have been up to 2 years behind me in biological development.

During adolescence, there are hormones circulating around your body that regulate growth change. Therefore, you get taller and heavier and your heart and lungs get bigger, which allows you to pump more oxygen around your body to go harder for longer.

Consequently, in sports where height, size and fitness matter (which is the majority at the youth level), the early developer gets an advantage.

So, what does this all mean for the early developing athlete in their mid-to-late teens when everyone else catches up?

I’d love to hear what you think in the comments below?