It probably is buried in a box in your parents’ basement, but try to remember your soccer or football or track team picture from when you were in eighth grade. Tragically but predictably, most of your peers who were chubby in third grade are nowhere to be seen in the photo. But still it was a pretty motley crew. Some of you weren’t even up to the armpits of your taller teammates. Some guys were shaving. Others had little boys’ voices. Half the girls had reached menarche. Another third were still waiting impatiently for a breast bud.
The precocious and the late bloomers, you were all on the team. But it was pretty clear that those who had matured first generally were the more talented and successful athletes. By the time you were juniors in high school, many of those who matured late had quit the sport or been cut from the team, unable to catch up. Others may have been forced to give up the sport by their parents, who were concerned about the risk of injury when bodies of disparate size collide. A few of the early bloomers may have become depressed, older adolescents who had failed to match the hype and expectations that came when they were a head taller than their grade school teammates.
These natural consequences of biological variation are not small potatoes for the fragile egos of adolescents and preadolescents. The lead article in the November 2018 Pediatrics offers a partial solution for the issue of sports participation in a population with widely discrepant states of maturity (“Biobanding: A New Paradigm for Youth Sports and Training,”). The authors describe a system they call biobanding, in which “the percentage of predicted adult stature attained at the time of observation as the indicator of maturity status” is used to create groups or bands of participants with similar levels of maturity. They argue that this method is easy to use and report and that has been used with some success in Great Britain.
At first blush, biobanding sounds appealing, particularly for large communities. However, as someone who grew up in and practiced in a small town, I’m not sure how successfully it could be scaled down. There have been years when I could easily have disqualified a third of the high school football team were I to take into consideration the size and maturity of the competition they would be facing. But I didn’t. The fading interest in football in Maine has prompted some schools to consider moving to less-than-11-player competition or even to flag football. To some extent, the problem is taking care of itself.
How much tinkering should we be doing with something that is arguably a distorted natural selection process? With thoughtfully crafted rules, diligent supervision, and officiating, most of the issues of safety that one might attribute to discrepancies in maturity can be minimized. There always will be children who become discouraged and quit when they see the handwriting on the wall that reads “those who mature early win.” I’m certainly not wild about parents holding their children out of school to give them a jump on their peers. It can spiral out of control.
A more appealing solution is to do a better job of advertising the many successful late bloomers in professional sports ... and making sure that late-blooming children are given an abundance of active and competitive (if they wish) alternatives to sports dominated by their early maturing peers.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at.