It has been said that there are four ages of the developing athlete to consider when assessing someone’s future performance potential.
• Chronological Age
• Biological Age
• Relative Age
• Training Age
Up until the athlete is considered a ‘senior’, most sporting competitions and any associated selections are organised by distinct groupings of chronological age. In the British Youth Championship U13s, U14s, U15s, U16s, U17s and U18s are the selection ages of choice. This is quite probably due to the ease of using date of birth as the unit of measurement where chronological age can simply be tracked over time across mass numbers of participants. For the competition organisers, it helps in structuring and organising competition.
Another reason for the prevalent use of chronological age is the assumed association with sporting ability. It could be seen as unfair and inappropriate for a 15-year-old to compete against a 17-year-old. Yet when younger athletes are competing successfully in older age range competition, it is often assumed, they are an exciting future prospect. Yet there is evidence that early success does not translate to success at a senior level.
The rate of biological development varies wildly between individuals. This is especially pronounced between the ages of 9-17 years. In practical terms, two youth athletes who are the exact same chronological age may differ in biological age by up to five years. Those maturing early often enjoy significant naturally-occurring advantages over their later maturing peers. Quite often those maturing early have early success based on their biological difference and the core skills are neglected because of the success. This becomes apparent as the later maturing peer effectively catches up with a more developed “game” and those maturing early quite often drops out of the sport.
It is imperative that any selection decisions of athletes in their teenage years take into consideration the athletes’ biological age. It is also imperative that coaches recognise those maturing early and prepare their game for future performance based on the predicted required level.
The relative age effect (RAE) in sport namely that children born earlier in the selection year are more likely to be selected and/or perform better, than children born later within the same cohort.
The RAE is most often compared based on the quarter (Q) of the year that someone is born. One way of considering the RAE is based on the disproportionately greater quantity and quality of practice and competition opportunities, expert coaching and appropriate environments that Q1 and Q2 youths are likely to be exposed to, compared to those born in Q3 and Q4, especially in their early years.
Relatively younger and slower to mature children may never recover from their early setbacks and missed opportunities, with subsequent dropout rates in Q3 and Q4 born athletes. This is lost potential to talent programmes. The ‘underdog theory’, argues that if a relatively young or late maturing athlete survives the earlier formative challenges, they may reach a far higher level of peak adult performance.
It is common for coaches to discuss developing athletes as being “raw” or “highly skilled” and, in many cases, they’re indirectly referring to the quality and quantity of training that they have been access to date. This has been termed an athletes individual’s training age or training history
Quite often the athlete that has specialised in one sport may stand out as technically more accomplished in the early years, compared to the athlete that has good overall ability developed across a number of sports over a similar period.
The competencies required to excel in a variety of sports can be very similar, so athletes who have a greater training history in a variety of other sports (sampling) may well have more long-term future performance potential than others who have stuck solely with one sport (specialisation). This is often seen in both physical attributes and psycho-social behaviours, rather than the technical or tactical competence.
Reflective Questions. When assessing developing athletes for signs of future performance potential, are we giving enough:
1. Consideration as to whether they may have been ‘helped’ or ‘hindered’ simply by the time of year that they happened to have been born (RAE), and/or by their tempo of biological maturation?
2. Recognition to the context of the quantity and quality of practice and training that they have or have not been able to undertake to date?
3. Attention to their cognitive age, the experiences, and environments that they have been exposed to so far, and whether there is anything that we can do to give them a chance to develop the desired behaviours?
To give performance programme selection robustness, a number of variables should be taken into account over one in isolation, and other environmental factors (access to development/performance level coaching and sparring, family and social support, etc) should also be factored in.
So rather than what age they are and what is their ranking position level, selection to pathway programmes should look more at what development opportunities an athlete has had (or not).
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