Grouping young tennis players according to their physical maturity rather than their chronological age could help in developing future champions of the game, a new study suggests.
Boys and girls can vastly vary in their rates of growth and maturity during adolescence, researchers said.
Those that mature early are taller, quicker, bigger and stronger, giving them a significant advantage over their late maturing peers, they said.
This means that later maturing players are often overlooked in the elite tennis selection process.
“Tennis is a sport that favours youth who are taller and mature earlier than their peers. Our data show that this selection bias impacts girls from the age of 10 and boys from the age of 12,” said Sean Cumming from University of Bath in the UK.
“Every extra inch in height of a player increases the velocity of their serve by five per cent. At the elite level, it is quite common to find junior players, especially adolescent boys, who are six foot or greater in height,” said Cumming.
According to researchers, the challenge for those working with young tennis players is to look beyond differences in maturity, and recognise those players who may have the greatest potential for success as an adult.
While early maturing boys and girls have initial advantages, the pressure to win can lead them to play to their physical strengths at the expense of their technical development, researchers said.
“In contrast, talented, yet late maturing players might be excluded or overlooked by talent spotters on the basis of physical characteristics that are not fully realised until adulthood,” said Cumming.
Researchers are developing new statistical methods to allow practitioners to better assess and account for individual differences in biological maturity and help ensure players are evaluated on the basis of their physical development, and not just their chronological age.
“Being able to more accurately assess and account for individual differences in growth and maturity, is really important when assessing talent. It also helps us design and implement more effective and developmentally appropriate training programmes,” said Gill Myburgh from University of Bath.
“Growth spurts can increase the risk of injuries, so monitoring players’ growth trajectories and adjusting their training programmes accordingly is vital in getting the best out of all players,” he said.
Myburgh also sees potential benefits in periodically matching players by maturity status, rather than age, in training and competition.
The findings were published in the Journal of Sports Sciences.