The role of maturation in Talent Identification in Football

Coaches that are involved in talent identification (TID) or any other selection process in youth football have had experienced the problem of deciding/accounting if and how age and maturation affected their selection.

What does that mean?

There are two major problems that are connected.

1) Cut-off days for selection
As it is in many clubs (or even further in national teams), two-year-bands (U19, U17, U15 etc.) are used to group players. In a club setting, every second year the players (born in the same year) are in a favorable position, as they are in the “older” age group. However, with regards to the World Cup Cycles, a player that is born in the “younger” year of a World Cup Cycle will always remain in that group. Imaging a player that is born on the 31st of December (of the younger year) needs to compete against a player that is born on 1st of January (of the older year). As a result, two years of development are between them, and here I don’t necessarily mean only physical (which was shown to increase with age (1-3 - see references below), but also psychological, and technical and tactical. How is the younger player able to compete with the older? Probably he is not, except he is an early mature and the older player is a late maturer. This basically brings us to the second problem: Maturation.

2) Maturation
Generally, maturation refers to qualitative changes of the player’s body, such as the change of cartilage to bones or the appearance of pubic hair or menstruation (4). The major difference to growth is, that growth is linked to observable changes in quantity - measureable changes in height, weight and fat percentage (5). Maturation is a major player influence physiological attributes of players and therefore also physical capacities such as anaerobic endurance, power, speed etc.

As a result, older and/or more mature players often have the advantage of being bigger, stronger and faster, might therefore be more successful, which results in greater motivation and commitment. On the contraire, younger and/or less mature players were seen as less talented (6) and were seen to drop out due to low perceived competence and lack of success (7, 8).

Overall these processes may result in an uneven birth-date distribution in the selection process, which is commonly known as “relative age effect” (RAE). The RAE effect is common in youth football and present in (more or less) every country (5, 9-14).

As I stated earlier, age and/or maturation might influence selection. It was furthermore seen that early maturers were more represented in selected teams than normal or late maturers (15-17).

However, the RAE diminishes with age (12) showing less presence (18) in senior football.

The affect of maturation on physical, physiological and technical ability in youth football players

Having stated the influence of age and or maturation on physiological changes in performances above, it seems warrant to account for maturational status in the talent identification process to ensure “equality” (19, 20). Greater maturity was related to greater body size, explosive performance (jumping and sprinting) (19, 21) and endurance performance (in 13-16 year olds).

Maturation (and years in football) was also shown to effect technical skills (ball control, passing, dribbling, shooting) of youth footballers (20).

However, it seems that maturity seemed to have a larger contribution to physiological performance compared to technical abilities. (20).


Controlling for maturity to predict future success?

If assessed, it is possible to statistically control for maturity status of players and it was seen that elite and/or sub-elite players were (still) found to be leaner (19, 22), faster (19), more agile (19), more powerful (19, 22) and had greater aerobic power (19) compared to non-elite players in various age groups.
Interestingly, height and mass were still seen as important factors, but also physiological characteristics, between players that attained professional level compared to those remaining amateur (1). Furthermore, aerobic endurance between the age of 14-18 was shown to discriminate between future professional players and non-professional players (23), especially at a later stage in the players development (16+). However, prediction future success through physical (height and mass) and physiological parameter (endurance, speed etc) was also deemed impossible (1, 19, 23) when analyzing the data differently, showing that continuous monitoring (not only for physical and physiological performances, but also cognitive-perceptive abilities (24, 25)) seems vital in the youth developing process.
Of the technical abilities, it seems that (especially) dribbling were seen as a sensitive measurement to detect future professional players (9, 19), from as early as 14 years of age (26).


How to assess maturation

There are multiple ways to assess maturation, such as:

x-rays can be used to determine late vs. on-time vs. early maturers = substract chronological age from skeletal age. A positive score shows an early mature, a negative score shows a later mature (15)

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has been used on a FIFA level to check for “real” age of youth footballers (27, 28)

Tanner stages, categorized stages of pubic hair (and breast development for girls) that were shown consistent with skeletal maturation by Tanner (29).

Self-assessment was used to determined skeletal maturity. Girls and boys were asked to rate themselves with regards to pictures of different Tanner stages (30-32).

Hormonal assessment through blood or saliva analysis, as acceleration and level of strength and power was related to circulating androgen (such as testosterone) and insulin like growth factor (22).

Peak height velocity (PHV) is described as a marked increase in height and more or less linked to the adolescent growth spurt. Gender specific prediction equations were used to determine age from PHV (33). Furthermore, the equation were then used to distinguish between pre- vs. mid- vs. post-PHV participants (34).

Predicted adult height was also used to assess maturity (35, 36). The maturity status of players can be expressed as a z-score (37)and then interpreted to estimate maturity status: on time (z-score between -1.0 and +1.0); late (z-score below -1.0)and early (z-score greater than +1.0) (36). This might be very interesting for goalkeeping coaches, as the equation actually provide the predicted adult height of the player.



With regards to the cut-off days and possible affects to the RAE, we would like to refer to a nice paper by Meylan et al. (5) who listed possible solutions.

Talent identification must take individual maturation into account and therefore physical, physiological and technical (as well as psychological/mental) characteristics needs to be monitored consistently in developing footballers.  On-time and late maturers who are described as “talented” need to be able to stay within an elite academy (longer) in order to catch-up physically (14). It is even thought that in combination with their most-likely overcompensating of other areas (greater perseverance and motivation)(38) it seems more probable to have a future professional players.

If used properly (and in combination with maturation) physical, physiological and technical (as well as psychological/metal) monitoring offers a possibility to reduce errors in identifying the “wrong talents”. However, it is still debated if it predicts future success in professional football.



1. Le Gall, F., Carling, C., Williams, M., and Reilly, T. Anthropometric and fitness characteristics of

international, professional and amateur male graduate soccer players from an elite youth academy. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. 2008.

2. Figueiredo, A.J., Goncalves, C.E., Coelho, E.S.M.J., and Malina, R.M. Youth soccer players, 11-14

years: maturity, size, function, skill and goal orientation. Ann Hum Biol. 36(1): 60-73. 2009.

3. Gil, S., Ruiz, F., Irazusta, A., Gil, J., and Irazusta, J. Selection of young soccer players in terms of

anthropometric and physiological factors. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. 47(1): 25-32. 2007.

4. Malina, R.M., Bouchard, C., and Bar-Or, O., Growth, maturation, and physical activity. Champaign, IL:

Human Kinetics, 2004.

5. Meylan, C., Cronin, J., Oliver, J., and Hughes, M. Talent identification in Soccer: The role of maturity

status on physical, physiological and technical characteristics. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching. 5(4): 571-592. 2010.

6. Helsen, W.F., Starkes, J.L., and van Winckel, J. The influence of relative age on success and dropout in

male soccer players. American Journal of Human Biology. 10(6): 791-798. 1998.

7. Figueiredo, A.J., Goncalves, C.E., Coelho, E.S.M.J., and Malina, R.M. Characteristics of youth soccer

players who drop out, persist or move up. Journal of Sports Sciences. 27(9): 883-891. 2009.

8. Musch, J. Unequal competition as an impediment to personal development: A review of the relative age

effect in sport. Developmental Review. 21(2): 147-167. 2001.

9. Hirose, N. Relationships among birth-month distribution, skeletal age and anthropometric characteristics

in adolescent elite soccer players. J Sports Sci. 27(11): 1159-1166. 2009.

10. Brewer, J., Balsom, P., and Davis, J. Seasonal birth distribution amongst european soccer players.

Sports Exercise and Injury. 1(1): 154-157. 1995.

11. Helsen, W.F., van Winckel, J., and Williams, A.M. The relative age effect in youth soccer across

Europe. J Sports Sci. 23(6): 629-636. 2005.

12. Mujika, I., et al. The relative age effect in a professional football club setting. Journal of Sports

Sciences. 27(11): 1153.1158. 2009.

13. Simmons, C. & Paull, G.C. Season-of-birth bias in association football. J Sports Sci. 19(9): 677-86.


14. Carling, C., le Gall, F., Reilly, T., and Williams, A.M. Do anthropometric and fitness characteristics vary

according to birth date distribution in elite youth academy soccer players? Scand J Med Sci Sports. 19(1): 3-9. 2009.

15. Malina, R.M., et al. Height, mass and skeletal maturity of elite Portuguese soccer players aged 11-16

years. J Sports Sci. 18(9): 685-93. 2000.

16. Chibane, S., Hautier, C., Gaudino, C., Massarelli, R., and Momouni, N. Influence of age, maturity and

body dimensions on selection of under-17 Algerian soccer players. 2009.

17. Hirose, N. & Hirano, A. The bias towards biological maturation through the talent selection in Japanese

elite youth soccer players. Int J Sport Health Sci. 10: 30-38. 2012.

18. Vaeyens, R., Philippaerts, R.M., and Malina, R.M. The relative age effect in soccer: A match-related

perspective. Journal of Sports Sciences. 23(7): 747-756. 2005.

19. Vaeyens, R., et al. A multidisciplinary selection model for youth soccer: the Ghent Youth Soccer

Project. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 40(11): 928-934. 2006.

20. Malina, R.M., et al. Maturity-associated variation in sport-specific skills of youth soccer players aged

13-15 years. J Sports Sci. 23(5): 515-522. 2005.

21. Figueiredo, A.J., Coelho, E.S.M.J., Cumming, S.P., and Malina, R.M. Size and maturity mismatch in

youth soccer players 11- to 14-years-old. Pediatr Exerc Sci. 22(4): 596-612. 2010.

22. Hansen, L., Bangsbo, J., Twisk, J., and Klausen, K. Development of muscle strength in relation to

training level and testosterone in young male soccer players. J Appl Physiol. 87(3): 1141-1147. 1999.

23. Roescher, C.R., Elferink-Gemser, M.T., Huijgen, B.C., and Visscher, C. Soccer endurance development

in professionals. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 31(3): 174-179. 2010.

24. Ward, P. & Williams, A.M. Perceptual and cognitive skill development in soccer: The multidimensional

nature of expert performance. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology. 25(1): 93-111. 2003.

25. Vaeyens, R., Lenoir, M., Williams, A.M., Mazyn, L., and Philippaerts, R.M. The effects of task

constraints on visual search behavior and decision-making skill in youth soccer players. J Sport Exerc Psychol. 29(2): 147-169. 2007.

26. Huijgen, B.C., Elferink-Gemser, M.T., Post, W.J., and Visscher, C. Soccer skill development in

professionals. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 30(8): 585-591. 2009.

27. Dvorak, J., George, J., Junge, A., and Hodler, J. Age determination by magnetic resonance imaging of

the wrist in adolescent male football players. Br J Sports Med. 41(1): 45-52. 2007.

28. Dvorak, J., George, J., Junge, A., and Hodler, J. Application of MRI of the wrist for age determination in

international U-17 soccer competitions. Br J Sports Med. 41(8): 497-500. 2007.

29. Tanner, J., Growth at adolescence. 2nd ed. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific, 1962.

30. Jones, M.A., Hitchen, P.J., and Straton, G. The importance of considering biological maturity when

assessing physical fitness measures in girls and boys aged 10 to 16 years. Annals of Human Biology. 27(1): 57-65. 2000.

31. Matsudo, S.M. & Matsudo, V.K. Self-assessment and physician assessment of sexual maturation in

brazilian boys and girls: Concordance and reproducibility. American Journal of Human Biology. 6: 451-455. 1994.

32. Schmitz, K., et al. A Validation Study of Early Adolescents’ Pubertal Self-Assessments. Journal of Early

Adolescence. 24(4): 357-384. 2004.

33. Mirwald, R.L., Baxter-Jones, A.D., Bailey, D.A., and Beunen, G.P. An assessment of maturity from

anthropometric measurements. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 34(4): 689-694. 2002.

34. Rumpf, M.C., Cronin, J.B., Oliver, J.L., and Hughes, M. Effect of different training methods on running

sprint times in male youth. Pediatric Exercise Science. 24(2): 170-186. 2012.

35. Eaton, W.O. & Yu, A.P. Are sex differences in child motor activity level a function of sex differences in

maturational status? Child Dev. 60(4): 1005-11. 1989.

36. Malina, R.M., Dompier, T.P., Powell, J.W., Barron, M.J., and Moore, M.T. Validation of a noninvasive

maturity estimate relative to skeletal age in youth football players. Clin J Sport Med. 17(5): 362-368. 2007.

37. Thomas, J.R., Nelson, J.K., and Silverman, S.J., Research Methods in Physical Activity. Champaign:

Human Kinetics, 2005.

38. Bartmus, U., Neumann, E., and de Maree, H. The talent problem in sports. International Journal of

Sports Medicine. 8: 415-416. 1987.


The Training Manager -