For Parents, Science

The Problem with Age Groups in Youth Soccer

There are over 1 million registered soccer players in Canada.  Of those, over 80% are youth soccer players (between the ages of 5-17).  These numbers are a great example of how much the game as grown in this country over the past few decades, especially at the grass roots level.   One of the challenges that have accompanied this growth, however, is that the increased numbers of players have been organized and grouped according only to their chronological age (typically in Canada, this grouping is done based on the year in which the players are born).  On the surface, grouping players according to their chronological age or birth year seems fair – after all, this is the same way that the Canadian educational system groups its students.     Unfortunately, in both the youth sports / youth soccer systems, as well as in the educational system, grouping children based simply on the year and month in which they were born will not lead to optimal development, and many of these children will end up getting left behind.

There are two different “ages”, or methods, by which a child’s development can be determined.  The first, as mentioned above, is their chronological age (determined by their birth year); the second, and perhaps more important one, is their developmental age.   Developmental age can be determined by taking into account a variety of factors, including chronological age, gender, standing height, sitting height, and body mass.  A specific formula is then used, taking all of these factors into account, to determine the child’s age of Peak Height Velocity (or “PHV” for short).  A child’s age of Peak Height Velocity is defined as the age at which they will reach, or have reached, their maximum rate of growth.  On average, girls will reach their age of Peak Height Velocity between the ages 10-13, and boys will reach it between the ages of 12-15.     Reaching age of Peak Height Velocity typically occurs during the “growth spurt” that accompanies puberty, and thus, it coincides with increases in height but also in several other developmental characteristics, including increased production of anabolic hormones like testosterone and growth hormone, and accelerated development of the central nervous system, including the brain and spinal cord.  Thus, children who reach age of Peak Height Velocity earlier in their life will be at a significant advantage in sports including soccer, due to advanced physical, physiological, and cognitive development.

Simple examination of the average range in age in which boys and girls reach Peak Height Velocity (and thus the range of their actual developmental age) provides clear evidence of the problem with grouping young children together simply based on their chronological age.  For example, if the average age range for girls to reach Peak Height Velocity is 10-13, then there is a chance that any girls’ soccer team in any specific age category (U12, for instance) will be comprised of girls who have an actual developmental age of 10 and are playing, training and competing with girls who have an actual developmental age of 14.  This disparity in developmental age can present a significant problem to youth soccer coaches as well as their Club/Academy directors, one of whose main jobs is to identify talented players and place them in appropriate high performance programs.  There is likely no soccer coach in Canada who would accept forcing a 10 year-old girl to play for a team and compete in a league against 14 year-old girls, yet, if coaches in Canada do not know the actual developmental age of their players, this might actually already be occurring without their knowledge.

The best way for youth soccer coaches and Club/Academy directors to ensure parity between the developmental ages of their players is to simply assess and determine all of their players’ age of Peak Height Velocity.  Once all players in a given team or age category have had their age of Peak Height Velocity determined, specific decisions regarding specific players can be made based on their developmental age versus their chronological age.  For example, in the aforementioned girls’ U12 team, perhaps some players who are determined to be 2-3 years developmentally behind the average for their team could be moved to a younger aged team.  Conversely, if there are a few players who are 2-3 years developmentally ahead of the team average, they could be moved up to an older aged team.  Of course, there are several other factors for coaches to consider besides developmental age when making decisions about player identification and selection, including players’ technical ability, tactical awareness and knowledge of the game, and their psychological traits and personality.  If developmental age of players is ignored, especially in high performance environments, then there is a good chance that some talented players will be left behind simply because they reached their age or Peak Height Velocity later than the average for their team.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic.  Drop me a line here to get the conversation started.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s