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Friday, 29 June 2018 14:09

The Science of Developing Talent

Written by  Justin Durandt

Scientific research shows that children of the same age develop (mature) at vastly different rates. There are early developers, who have a physical advantage and there are late developers, who have the same potential but only develop at a later age.


A knowledge of the maturational differences (development rates)is essential for coaches and parents. This knowledge will help them to implement the types of structures required to ensure children are not only managed according to their current performance but in relation to their future potential. In this article, we will look at some of the latest research related to understanding these maturational differences and how they should affect the way we parent and coach.

Peak height velocity refers to the period during adolescence at which children are growing at their fastest (shown in Figure 1). Children grow on average 6 cm a year and gain 2.3 kg per year until they reach their growth spurt (Malina, 2004). The start of the growth spurt and adolescence is around 9 to 10 years for girls and 11 to 12 years for boys. On average, the fastest growing period for girls (average growth of 10cm) is at 12 years of age and for boys (average growth of 12cm) at 14 years of age. These are only average growth markers as a high level of variation exists among individuals.



Figure 1: Rate of growth and stature in males and females (adapted and redrawn from Lloyd & Oliver, 2013)

Early maturers refers to children whose maturational ages are at least one year greater than their chronological ages (Vealey & Chase, 2015). Early maturing boys are usually taller, heavier and have more muscle mass compared to their peers. This physical advantage allows these boys to outperform their peers in specific youth sports activities (Malina, 2004). The prevalence of early maturing males in specific sports is not only as a result of superior physical and functional capacity but also as a result of receiving preferential treatment. This preferential treatment results in more opportunities for competition, specialised coaching, and access to training resources (Howard et al., 2016; Torres-Unda et al., 2016).

Average maturers refers to children whose maturational age is within one year of their chronological age. Late maturers refers to children whose maturational ages are at least one year less than their chronological ages. While earlier maturers have a physical and functional advantage in adolescence, the late maturers catch up and often surpass their early maturing counterparts in adulthood (Pearson, Naughton & Torode, 2006). Talented yet late maturing boys may therefore be overlooked (Till et al., 2013). This problem has been highlighted in rugby union where size, speed and strength are considered important factors contributing to performance in the game (Howard et al., 2016). There is research thatsuggests that motor performance in late maturing boys continued to improve from 18-30 years of age, whereas early and average maturers showed little change or a decline (Lefevre et al., 1990). A recent study followed 55 division 1 (14 year old) Serbian soccer players until they were 22 years old to determine what percentage of players made it to an elite level (Ostojic & Castagna, 2014). At the age of 14, they were all assessed to determine their maturity levels. Forty eight percent of the players originally selected in the group of 55 were early maturers and only 20 percent were classified as late maturers. After eight years 33% of these players made it to elite level. Sixty percent of the players were late maturers and only 12% were early maturers. This research highlights the challenge for coaches and administrators dealing with talent identification and development in children and adolescents. Coaches need to realise that the player (age 10-16) in their “B” or “C” teams have as much potential as the players in the A team. The only difference in potential may be related to their maturation rates. A very talented player may be a late developer and is therefore neglected and falls out of the system or sport.

In addition to the maturational differences, players may also be disadvantaged or advantaged by the month of their birth. The relative age effect (RAE) is a phenomenon in sport where older children are over represented in a team compared to slightly younger children within the same chronological age group. The RAE has been shown in individual and team sports at both a professional and amateur level (e.g. soccer, basketball, cricket, rugby, tennis, volleyball and swimming) (Cobley, Abraham & Baker, 2008; Gutierrez Diaz Del Campo et al., 2010; Lewis, Morgan & Cooper, 2015; Vealey & Chase, 2015; Grobler, Shaw & Coopoo, 2016; Torres-Unda et al., 2016). It does not occur in every sport; studies on pre-professional dancers and Olympic taekwondo athletes found no relative age effect(van Rossum, 2006; Albuquerque et al., 2012). The RAE is attributed to maturational differences related to age, where the older athletes are more developed than the younger athletes, providing them with a competitive advantage. This competitive advantage usually starts at an early age, positioning the older athletes for initial talent selection and prioritised development. This process, where older, more physically mature athletes receive more chances for selection, has been called “survival of the fittest” (Christensen, Pedersen & Position, 2008). In contrast, those athletes who are born later in the year (4th quarter players) are often less physically mature, resulting in a greater chance of deselection (dropping out of the player pathway). These players are forced to find alternative means of re-engaging with the player pathway and those who successfully navigate this experience are proposed to develop resilience. This process of re-emergence has been called “evolution of the fittest” (Christensen, Pedersen & Position, 2008; Hardy et al., 2016). It has also been suggested that the level of competition in a sport determines early selection policies, possibly increasing the chances of observing the RAE (Jones, Lawrence & Hardy, 2018). Coaches and parents need to acknowledge the fact that maturation rates and the RAE play a major role in the performance of junior athletes (10-16 years of age).

How should our knowledge of the RAE and maturation rates affect the way we structure youth sport? Here are some application tips:

  • Start off allowing children to sample a number of different sports from a young age (start from 5 years old). This allows them to develop fundamental movement and sports skills.
  • Don’t specialise (select to play one sport before the age of 13) tooearly. You will usually not be able to accurately identify which sport best suits a player before they are in high school as the physical attributes which determine their performance only become evident in high school.
  • Don’t overemphasise competition and winning in primary school (there is nothing wrong with competition, but it can become destructive if overemphasised). Try and keep as many players in the sport for as long as possible.
  • In primary school, try when possible to rotate positions and roles so that players get maximum exposure to a diverse amount of skills and experiences.
  • Make sure your “B” and “C” team coaches in primary school are as good as your“A” team coaches. The “B” and “C” team players are often late maturers with as much or more potential.



Justin Durandt(MSc (Med) Exercise Science)

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Manager Education Hub



Sports Science Institute of South Africa

Justin Durandt is currently the manager of the Education Hub at the Sport Science Institute of South Africa. Justin has had the privilege of being the conditioning specialist for the South African national Cricket, Soccer, Hockey and Olympic team. In 2013 he served on the national high perfromance advisory for the South African Confederation and Olympic committee (SASCOC).Justin has consulted to a number of federations on Talent Identification and Development. Justin has a Masters in talent identification and developmentfrom UCT. His research interests include talent identification, development and performance. He has published several sport specific papers related to cricket, soccer, rugby and Hockey.