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The case for and against bio-banding | Coaching Youth (age 13-18) | ConnectedCoaches

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The case for and against bio-banding

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The headlines will have you believe that the practice of grouping young players together according to their physical maturity, rather than their age, is an open-and-shut case. What is the case is that there are two sides to every story, as this article aims to impress on coaches.

  • Bio-banding can benefit the long-term development of late developers, as teenagers physically mature at different rates – most noticeable between the ages of 12 and 15.
  • For those who experience an early hormonal surge, it can often trigger a virtuous circle of opportunities.
  • But potential (long-term development) should trump performance (short-term development) when it comes to nurturing talent.
  • Bio-banding may meet the physical needs of some players, but what about the psycho-social and emotional needs of individuals. Shouldn’t youngsters be encouraged to find solutions to the obstacles they regularly encounter; not removed from the learning environment?
  • An experienced coach will carefully plan every individual’s development pathway through regular contact and monitoring.

Bio-banding is not a term that is bandied around all that often. Not even in sports coaching conversations.

If you are unfamiliar with the word, you could be forgiven for thinking it has something to do with the latest laundry detergent to hit the market, or a surgical process involving gastric bands. Let’s put that misnomer to bed right away.

It is, in fact, the idea that maturation age should be the barometer for deciding sports teams, rather than chronological age.

And although it may not be a hot topic of discussion like firm favourites Relative Age Effect (RAE) – its close relation – emotional intelligence, Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) or growth mindset, the passion it inspires in its advocates is anything but lukewarm.

For bio-banding devotees, the idea that youngsters who play team sports should be grouped based on their physiological development rather than age is a no-brainer.

My gripe is that you generally only hear one side of the story. A quick Google search underlines the point, throwing up these eye-catching headlines:

  • Bio-banding will create better leaders and people
  • Bio-banding: How scientists can support skinny kids to turn out to be sporting superstars
  • Bio-banding is football’s big idea for developing young talent
  • Why I’m advocating bio-banding for rugby
  • How bio-banding aims to stop bigger children running the show.

Bio-banding, it seems at first glance, should be implemented in every secondary school forthwith. According to the pro lobby, the national coaching philosophy at grass-roots level is in need of a radical overhaul, and bio-banding represents the perfect fix.

It all sounds too good to be true. Call me a cynic, but if it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

Little and large

The key ‘selling point’ is that bio-banding benefits the long-term development of late developers and gives them their chance to shine during adolescence.

The long and the short of it is, teenagers mature at different rates. This is manifestly obvious if you stand on the sidelines of any court, track or pitch to watch adolescents play sport.

My 13-year-old son plays rugby and football for his school and local club. When he lines up alongside his teammates, I am reminded of those Russian matryoshka dolls. You know, the wooden ornaments that decrease in size as you unstack them and which adorned the mantelpiece of nearly every house in the 1980s.

The mishmash of heights and weights is a constant source of astonishment among parents.

There are players who bestride the pitch like a colossus, frightening and fierce, and those who you struggle to see when they turn sideways: toothpicks versus pick-up trucks; Incredible Hulks versus Inspector Gadgets. Mismatches are commonplace.

The difference in physical maturity between players is at its most noticeable between the ages of 12 and 15.

It is common sense, is it not, for coaches and PE teachers to want to level the playing field so those late developers are given a chance to shine, not shy away?

The last thing anybody wants is for children to be so scared of PE at school that they drop out of sport altogether, psychologically scarred from the time they were poleaxed by a 15-stone rampaging prop forward.

The argument goes that, in the current survival of the fittest (or rather strongest, fastest and heaviest) system, those who hit puberty first have an unfair leg-up. The domino effect kicks in, whereby they receive more attention and encouragement from PE teachers and club coaches, are given more game time, and have a better chance of catching the eye of scouts and being selected for talent pathways, where they then benefit from access to better coaching and training facilities.

In sport development terms, an early hormonal surge can often trigger a virtuous circle of opportunities.

Those who are a couple of years younger biologically than their teammates can sometimes be passed over – out of sight, out of mind – until they catch up.

Having been deprived of the trappings afforded their fast-tracked counterparts, many find it too wide a gap to bridge.

The case for the defence

Physical characteristics aren’t the only drawback. The late developers find themselves at a psychological disadvantage too. Going face-to-face with a guy, or girl, two years biologically older than you can be intimidating at best, horrifying at worst, and can shake a player’s confidence and self-belief.

Banding individuals appropriate to their physical maturity will allow them the freedom to bloom mentally as well as technically.

It is, advocates argue, a win-win situation, as it also succeeds in training the brain of those blessed with brawn.

The big ’uns will no longer be able to plough through bodies like they are flimsy mannequins, knocking them over like skittles, as they will have met their physical match. As such, they will begin to add finer skills to their repertoire, learning how to body feint, sidestep, dodge, weave and dribble.

Adding these new strings to their bow will in turn help evolve their decision-making skills, with their newfound finesse and game intelligence transforming them from one-dimensional to multi-dimensional players.

The defence rests, m’lud.

One size does not fit all

Every coach worth their salt would agree that potential (long-term development) should trump performance (short-term development) when it comes to nurturing talent.

And while bio-banding aligns itself perfectly with that philosophy, there are some grey areas that need closer inspection.

While the process would certainly meet the physical needs of some players, what about the psycho-social and emotional needs of individuals?

Some players will grow in the challenging space inherent in the traditional model. Not all will struggle.

Youngsters are adept at problem-solving, given the opportunity. Through a process of guided discovery, they should be encouraged to find solutions to the obstacles they regularly encounter; not removed from the learning environment.

For example, they might recognise they cannot compete 50-50 in a tackle with a strapping centre back, but learn through experience that they can dispossess their physically superior opponent by timing their interceptions with precision, providing them with a massive confidence boost.

An experienced coach will judge every individual’s development trajectory through regular contact and monitoring.

They will know who thrives on physical contests and who doesn’t. They will be able to spot those who possess the resilience and character to bounce back from disappointment, who look for ways to gain an advantage even when the odds are against them, and whose thirst for learning far outstrips their nervousness at facing a few opposition players bigger than themselves.

For players with the correct mindset, having to bide their time in what is effectively a ‘B’ team could stunt their growth emotionally.

Think of it as an iceberg. We sort the bit we see, but we don’t necessarily benefit the aspects under the surface. 

And what about those who have enjoyed an easy ride because of their size? They may be bursting with self-esteem, but low on resilience. What happens when their mental resolve is tested for the first time on the talent pathway, when they are on the receiving end of a few crunching hits or tackles themselves?

You can see why a blanket approach may not be as effective as it first appears and why carefully planned athletic development pathways may be a sensible compromise. 

Advocates can’t dodge these bullets

To claim that bio-banding works for everyone then is simply not true.

There are other concerns against a carte blanche approach to implementing bio-banding that the ‘Remain’ camp will be keen to highlight:

  • Contact sports help toughen youngsters up, they will argue. Players should be prepared to work hard to improve their technique through repetition and practice. What message does it send out to children if players are simply taken out of the firing line? The onus should be on the coach to teach players the correct technique for how to tackle or ride a tackle so they develop their confidence to challenge for the ball.
  • Bio-banding prioritises physical development, but in a number of sports, this is not a limiting factor. 
  • Getting strong doesn’t mean having to pile on the pounds. You could incorporate a tailored strength and conditioning programme for players.
  • What happens when late bloomers reach full maturation? The physical part of their game will be underdeveloped, having only pitted themselves against players of equal size for several years.
  • Does it really matter if some children aren’t making a big impact in matches at such a young age? The over-emphasis on winning and being the best skews the debate.
  • Bio-banding is open to misuse. As stated, sport at every level is a results-driven business (a separate debate in itself), and teenagers are impressionable. Players could starve themselves, or be persuaded to by an amoral coach, so they can ‘star’ at a lower level.
  • Planning a timetable that fits in with the rest of the curriculum, where year groups train together at the same time, on the same days, would be a logistical nightmare for teachers.
  • Grouping according to weight rather than age would take children away from their friends, and their enjoyment would suffer – and having fun should be the number one motivation for playing sport.

Case closed, Your Honour!

Or is it more a case of a hung jury?

Having presented both sides of the argument, I am intrigued to know where ConnectedCoaches members stand.

Are you for or against bio-banding, or maybe the solution is an individualised approach to player development, where the player, parent and coach make an informed joint decision based on what development plan is best for that particular child?

It seems a sensible approach would be to consider bio-banding as one more useful tool in the coach’s tool kit.

If you only have a hammer, everything is a nail, so coaches need a comprehensive range of tools at their disposal to deal with every scenario – combined with the knowledge of how to use them, and an understanding of which tool is appropriate in which circumstances.

Used wisely, bio-banding can help to develop leadership, responsibility and decision-making. Overused or misused, it can stunt the development of the same attributes.

Please do leave a comment and share your views.

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