How Old is Your Child?

Where do our successful athletes come from? How do we ensure that we groom our young athletes to be successful both during their schooling years and thereafter? What do we do to ensure that we look after those talented young individuals playing school sport, club sport,provincial and above?

The answer, quite simply is that they come through our schooling and sporting systems. Do we know how to correctly and effectively manage these athletes? And what is our role as parents, coaches and therapists in ensuring that we do?

At the end of the day our unified goal should be to equip our children with the necessary skills to participate in sport and activities appropriate to their “age”. According to the IOC (international Olympic committee) the goal is clearly defined as the “[development of] healthy, capable and resilient young athletes, while attaining widespread, inclusive, sustainable and enjoyable participation and success for all levels of individual athletic achievement.”

So what does this mean for us?

Let’s look at the basics. There are a number of important factors to be considered in the decision making when it comes to these individuals. Firstly, as mentioned in our previous article “The Young Athlete” it is important to realize that children are NOT just small adults!

Let’s discuss this in a bit more detail. When assessing a child we need to take 3 important factors into consideration, namely:

  • Chronological age
  • Biological age
  • Emotional age


Chronological age:

This is the “textbook” aspect of a child’s age. The measure of this is the child’s age-specific milestones, meaning what we would expect a child to do by the time they reach a certain age, not taking into account any environmental factors.


Biological age:

This is the process of maturation, the child’s skeletal age and the secondary sex characteristics. Factors like puberty and physical development come into play.


Emotional age:
This is the child’s ability and readiness to cope with physical demands, specific to the activity.

This “recipe” approach is however not as simple to apply as it may seem as each child is a constantly changing base and we need to take into consideration the demands of normal physical growth, biological maturation and behavioural development, and their interactions. The child may be achieving the expected level in one age category but may be lagging in another.

My personal realization of the importance of these factors came through working closely with the students at Northcliff High School this year. When looking at a school environment we realize that the “classification” of the children is purely based on their chronological age. This carries through in their participation in sport, where once again they are chronologically grouped.

This leads us to ask the question as to whether this is an acceptable measure of the child’s readiness to participate in a specific activity? The answer, quite simply, is no. Take an under 16 boys rugby team as an example. Within this team we will have a mixed assortment of physiques and emotional maturity levels. Some have reached puberty and experienced a (sometimes seemingly overnight) growth spurt, others seem to “lag” behind in their growth as seen in the graph below.


Very important to note is the fact that this growth does not equate to strength. This is actually a point at which the child’s body is at greatest risk of injury. Ligaments and muscles, required for stability, are under huge strain at this stage as they are trying to keep up with the skeletal growth, happening at a far greater rate.

There may be some incredibly emotionally mature boys, and some that are far more vulnerable and “fragile.” A great deal of this stems from the child’s environment and may also be affected by their support system both at home and at school.

Northcliff High School is a school dedicated to constant growth. They are willing to implement new ideas and strategies as advised by professionals in each individual field. This creates a dynamic environment in which the children are the priority and are nurtured to obtain their individual potential. This provides a platform from which the staff do their best to ensure that children are managed based on their involvement in sport, albeit one sport on many levels, or many different sports.

It is important to micro-manage certain children within the system. These include those who are playing school, club and sometimes even provincial or national sports. We need to ensure that we are aware of the demands placed on these individuals on each level and are therefore not over-loading the athlete physically or emotionally.

Ideally, communication channels should exist between the management of each team, however this is often very difficult to achieve. At the very least coaches at school level should be made aware of the athlete’s schedule outside of the school environment and possibly even adapt their pre-set training plan accordingly. Contrary to popular belief this would most likely improve the athlete’s performance, not have a negative impact.

By looking after these athletes at school level we will be far more likely to produce a successful athlete further down the line. Enforcing the correct training programs as well as (very importantly) their recovery protocols will reduce the risk of injury and prevent negative sentiments towards the sport.


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Dee Walsh BSc Physiotherapy (US)

Dee qualified from the University of Stellenbosch in 2013 and completed her community service year at St. Appolinaris Hospital in Creighton, rural Kwa-Zulu Natal. Dee is passionate about sport and worked closely with Durbanville Rugby Club in the Western Cape throughout her studies as well as assisting at the ABSA Cape Epic in 2013 and 2015.

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