In its never-ending quest to pursue and utilize innovative methods to ensure every player reaches their full potential in route to developing world class talent, U.S. soccer recently completed the world’s largest-ever soccer bio-banding event.
On the heels of U.S. soccer’s groundbreaking introduction of its bio-banding initiative in 2018, the 2020 event expanded from four to six clubs (including three MLS Academies) competing with two bands across the boys and the girls side. Each team played two 80-minute games that utilized Development Academy standards on Jan. 11-12 at the Silverlakes Sports Complex in Norco, Calif.
Real So Cal and the San Diego Surf fielded teams from both genders. LAFC and Pateadores provided competition on the boy’s side, while the LA Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes rounded out the field for the girls.
Bio-banding is a method by which players are grouped together based on their maturity and biological age rather than their birth year. During the fall of 2019, U.S. Soccer’s Youth National Team sport scientists visited each of the participating clubs. There they measured the height and weight of each player alongside the biological height of their parents. This information was put into an algorithm that calculates the biological and maturational age of each player, allowing coaches to construct their rosters accordingly.
By playing in groups based on biological age, the early developing players cannot rely solely on their physical advantages (speed and strength for example) to dominate the games the way they may be able to in a normal age-group match. “For these players, they’re finally exposed to players of similar maturity and physicality. said Dr. Sean Cumming, a growth and maturation expert. “Therefore, they have to find new ways to succeed. They actually have to play more of a technical, tactical game.”
By focusing on techniques and tactics, early developing boys and girls are able to make sure they continue to refine and enhance all facets of their game so that when the rest of their age group catches up to them physically, they don’t just fall by the wayside.
For late developing players, bio-banding is an important measure to make sure they are not squeezed out of the highest levels of the game. Bio-banded training and matches gives them more time on the ball. They have the ability to show that they are capable of commanding the game without bigger, faster and stronger players constantly precluding their involvement. Not only does this help the players to showcase their technical ability and the strides they are making in their development, but it allows coaches to evaluate players without being biased by their maturity level. “This takes away the perception that players who mature early are more talented,” Cumming said. “It helps to identify and cultivate the best players irrespective of their maturity status.”
For late developers who often end up playing with younger age group players in bio-banded games, they are offered the challenge of becoming a leader and mentor that is often precluded when they play in their normal age group.
In addition to adding more teams, January’s bio-banding event had a big educational component to it with specific and tailored sessions for players, parents and coaches. “If people are going to better understand this, the education is really key,” explained Tom Hicks, U.S. Soccer’s Senior Manager of High Performance Operations. “During this event, we’ve taken time to inject some really cool, fun and simple education to the players where the idea was getting them thinking about this concept, why they’re here, why this matters for them as players.”
For parents, workshops introduced the concept of bio-banding and what U.S. soccer is trying to accomplish. It was also emphasized that if a player is behind, it’s often okay. Each kid develops along their own timeline and sometimes needs alternative environments to grow, even within the same structure, to be successful. Trying to remove the taboo of a player “playing down” as negative and a player “playing up” as positive was a key message that the experts presenting were keen for everyone to takeaway with them.
“I like to see there’s involvement and thought behind the development of these kids and not just whatever is happening every Sunday in the game,” quipped Liliana Uribe Bruce, whose daughter plays for the San Diego Surf. “There’s a more international approach.”
The coaches have been in touch with the U.S. Soccer High Performance staff all through the buildup to the event and were given extra instruction over the course of the weekend. “The coaches have attended bio-banding introduction and education sessions,” said High Performance Director James Bunce. “We have sat down with every coach from all the Academies present today and yesterday to talk them through how this can help positively affect the everyday environment when they go back to the club and also providing them with an individual spreadsheet with all the data and analysis we have collected.”
In these sessions coaches not only learned how to read and analyze the datasets, but how they can use the information in order to make better individual decisions for their players based on their maturity levels.
“The coaches who are developing the players, we want to tell them that, ‘hey, the biggest gift that you can give a player is time,’” Hicks remarked. “If you give them time to develop, if you give them the opportunity to have an individual environment to succeed, then every player, whether they’re playing on a national team or in grassroots, will be in the best environment to develop.”
Perhaps the most exciting takeaways from the event came on the girl’s side where U.S. Soccer is still leading the World in research and innovation in this area. The Bio-banding research from the events is showing and confirming that girls are maturing at a much quicker rate than boys. “This means that if we are going to positively affect the biases around maturity we will have to take into account that this is happening even earlier for the girls, the impact of this is actually happening even before they reach the Academy level and thus any solutions and education need to reflect this timing” Hicks explained.
Furthermore, even though it was discovered that girls are maturing quicker than boys, the girls academies had far more late developers than on the boy’s side. “That’s something that we’re working with our expert group here and our expert panels across the world,” Bunce said. “We are used to seeing youth sport rosters dominated by early maturing players so to see the complete opposite on the girls program is fascinating and also begs a lot of questions that we will continue to dig deeper to find the answers for.”
Even though this pioneering research by U.S. Soccer is producing fascinating results and bio-banding presents excellent opportunities for both players and coaches alike, Bunce and Hicks stress that bio-banded training sessions and matches are just one component of a holistic approach to player development.
Whether or not clubs continue to do bio-banding games, isn't the takeaway from this weekend,” Hicks concluded. “what we're hoping is that in the club environments coaches begin to look at players in a slightly different way. Maybe not release a player for being too small at under-13 and give them that opportunity to grow and make the physical gains that are going to naturally come anyway.” Our full focus within the High Performance Department is to provide education and support to ensure every player reaches their full potential and we believe that helping coaches and parents understand growth, maturation and development timings can certainly help this.