soccer science and youth development football

Joshua Smith MSc. (High-Performance Director)

AmaZulu Football Club, South African Superleague

ISSPF Article

Legendary football manager & one of the best ever examples of integrating a youth development football structure, Sir Alex Ferguson once said, “The thing about young people is, if you give them an opportunity, not only do they seize it, they never let you down”. Known within the game for committing hours watching & getting to know each and every kid within the academy at Manchester United, and ensuring youth was given every opportunity to succeed in the game at the highest level was one of his greatest strengths.

The aim of any ‘centre for excellence’ or soccer ‘academy’ system is to assist in the development pathway of young players to maximise their potential not only in football, but education & life through provision of good standards and practice on and off the pitch with well-being and personal development at the centre of the process.


In recent times, the literature and research into youth academy best practice not only from an educational & technical developmental perspective but substantially from a physical & sport science perspective integrating many maturation studies. The amateur, semi-professional & professional game across many football associations have adopted modern & key developmental processes, principles and youth development strategies with the focus of maximising an Elite Player Performance Plan.

In order to begin to understand the processes involved within youth soccer, we must first understand what is meant by youth & athletic development.  

What is Athletic Development?

  • Athletic development is the progression of individuals or teams shown in a sporting or athletic scenario
  • Developed through stimulation & delivery of high-quality & continuous training over a period of time

Why is youth development important?

Youth development is important due to a myriad of factors. The fundamental process is that it enables the correct preparation of youth soccer athletes or footballers to rise to the various challenges faced through adolescence progressing into adult years attempting to reach & maximise their full potential. Youth development activities can be promoted through specific youth development strategies such as strength and conditioning programs taking maturation levels into consideration, age related games for understanding, as well as following FA coaching course guidelines & experiences that help youngster develop cognitive, social, ethical, emotional, & physical skills.

What is a Long Term Athletic Development Model?

  • It is the planned, systematic & progressive development of individual & team sport athletes across their maturation stages from youth to senior
  • It’s also referred to as the long-term athletic development or long-term player development (LTAD) model

With the U-17 Africa Cup of Nations around the corner there maybe no better time to discuss the importance of soccer science in football, specifically within youth development football.

I firmly believe that whilst important at a senior level, the space where sport science practitioners can make the biggest influence is at youth level. There is sometimes decidedly less glamour associated with youth football and often unfortunately less financial rewards for those working at the level as well; but this is where we can truly develop & have the biggest impact on the players enjoyment & development.

Too often has a subjective approach been applied to youth development – this is not said to undermine the importance of the “coaches’ eye”, but rather note that there are blind spots and soccer science can go a long way in improving that vision.

joao felix athletico madrid

Objective measures can provide coaching staff with several key insights into the state of development of youth soccer players, specifically when looking at growth and maturation.  Often youth players are selected based on their stature and grouped based on their chronological age, this does not consider biological age (early vs. late developers). Do our current set of youth coaches and heads of youth consider these when selecting and rejecting ‘development’ players? Are they aware of the role biological age plays in the state of a child’s overall development and the influence it has on physical performance?

For those of you who are not aware of what biological age and chronological age is, chronological age is the amount of time that has passed from your birth to the given date (years, months, days) and biological age is how old your body seems or how much your body has developed. It is incredibly important to track youth players growth and maturation to establish if they are an early or late developer. One such method of tracking growth and maturation is done through the prediction of final adult height using the Khamis Roche method – this allows us to estimate Peak Height Velocity (PHV) or when a major growth spurt begins and ends.

Why is this important?
From a football talent identification perspective by predicting whether a youth player is an early or late developer we gain insight as to why they might be perceived as superior or inferior on the field of play. This allows us to reduce selection bias, make an informed decision on talent selection and improve overall player development.

A study by Mann and van Ginnken (201) found that when scouts were allocated to three different groups (1. No age information; 2. Players date of births given; 3. And, players biological age given) the scouts in the first two groups selected the oldest players as the best players, but when given information around biological age, selection bias to choose the oldest players as the best players was reduced.

From a player development perspective, we can identify whether a player is an early or late developer and tailor their training experience to ensure continued development – for example early developers could be shifted up an age category so their physical prowess does not become a crutch they rely on to perform and then requires them to develop technically and tactically; whilst late maturing children can compensate for physical shortcomings by focusing on their technical capabilities (Unnithan et al., 2012).

Knowing when players are entering or completing a growth spurt will also allow for better load management and reduce injuries encountered by young players. Bult, Barendrecht and Tak (2018) found that “young soccer players were more prone to injuries during the 6 months after PHV”, whilst van der Sluis and colleague (2013) found that “Adolescent growth spurt seems to result in increased vulnerability for traumatic injuries. Afterwards athletes seem to be susceptible to overuse injuries.”

    There is more to youth football than meets the eye of a coach or scout – where a child is on their growth and maturation journey plays a key role in their development and ultimately their chances of making it as a professional. Soccer coaching & a more in-depth football science understanding alongside various youth development activities involved within this phase of player development plays a fundamental part in this, and one can only hope that the various football associations or soccer federations at the upcoming U-17 Africa Cup of Nations have recognized this and are not only selecting teams for now, but teams that will grow and develop to realize their maximum potential. It will be interesting to see how many of these youngsters will be competing at senior national level over the next few years.

    To summarize Towlson et al., (2020) recommend the following when trying to maximise the LTAD process in sport:

    1. Estimates of players’ maturity status should be taken every 3–4 months during an annual season, with a focus on players approaching and during peak height velocity.
    2. Key stakeholders should be educated about maturation and peak height velocity.
    3. Clear lines of communication should be established with key stakeholders to identify the volume of weekly physical activity each child is engaged in.
    4. Key stakeholders should be aware of the increased risk of injuries owing to inappropriate training loads across peak height velocity.

    Based on the interest of this article, we fully understand how all coaches of across a range of levels within the game need their best youth soccer players to achieve their potential and develop throughout their youth age groups. As a result, ISSPF want to provide you with the tools to maximise best practice for the young developing youth soccer player – and watch them develop across their athletic journey. The online sport science courses provided by ISSPF have been developed through experts in the relevant youth development areas encompassing key focus areas of football science.  

    Within this online football science course you will be given the opportunity to attain an accredited ‘Certificate in Youth Soccer Athletic Development (LTAD)’ which will help you in developing youth soccer players, whilst further providing an understanding of how these enhancements can benefit you and your role within your own unique sporting environment.

    This specific performance & football coaching course brings together expert individuals working across some of the world’s leading clubs & organisations with a soccer science viewpoint and justification, aiding your understanding of where the football conditioning, nutrition, psychology & physiology of the developing soccer player can be developed in combination with specific sport science training principles & techniques.

    To find out more regarding this course and many others, follow the link below:


      Bult, H., Barendrecht, M. and Tak, I., 2018. Injury Risk and Injury Burden Are Related to Age Group and Peak Height Velocity Among Talented Male Youth Soccer Players. Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, 6(12), p.232596711881104.

      Mann, D. and van Ginneken, P., 2016. Age-ordered shirt numbering reduces the selection bias associated with the relative age effect. Journal of Sports Sciences, 35(8), pp.784-790.

      Towlson, C., Salter, J., Ade, J., Enright, K., Harper, L., Page, R. and Malone, J., 2020. Maturity-associated considerations for training load, injury risk, and physical performance in youth soccer: One size does not fit all. Journal of Sport and Health Science,.

      Unnithan, V., White, J., Georgiou, A., Iga, J. and Drust, B., 2012. Talent identification in youth soccer. Journal of Sports Sciences, 30(15), pp.1719-1726.

      van der Sluis, A., Elferink-Gemser, M., Coelho-e-Silva, M., Nijboer, J., Brink, M. and Visscher, C., 2013. Sport Injuries Aligned to Peak Height Velocity in Talented Pubertal Soccer Players. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 35(04), pp.351-355