Antonio J. Figueiredo, Carlos E. Goncalves, Manuel J. Coelho E Silva, and Robert M. Malina

The Big Idea

The customary belief about youth and sports is that the youngsters who drop out of youth sports are developmentally disadvantaged somehow when compared to those who succeed over time.  But a question immediately arises:  What is meant by developmental disadvantage?

The big idea of this research study is to help remove some of the mystery behind what kinds of differences between youngsters are or are not relatively predictive of longer term success in sport in general, and in soccer in particular.


  • For the most part, more research attention is given to figuring out why children in youth sports discontinue play than why they persist.
  • In this study the effort is to discover the elements of youth sport persistence over attrition.
  • There is relative agreement among coaches about what biological and behavioral characteristics make for a successful soccer player.
  • These characteristics include such things as body physique, body composition, speed and power, motivation, attention, elemental skills, and so on.
  • But potential interactions between training environments and individual differences in growth, maturation, function, and skill are relatively unknown.
  • So these researchers collected baseline data on two different soccer playing male age groups (aged 11-12 and 13-14) on five teams and followed-up two years later to find out who discontinued the sport, who continued but remained within the same club level play, and who moved up to a higher level of play.
  • Their findings showed that elite players were older chronologically and skeletally, larger in body size, and performed better in functional capacities and three skill tests (of four) than club players or drop-outs.
  • The study is therefore helpful in pointing to more specific differences between youth sport persistence and discontinuation.

The Research

In this study, the authors attempt to dig deeper into the nature of progression or regression in youth sport participation. In particular, they systematically explore inter-individual variation in growth, maturation, functional capacities, and sport-specific skills.

What they believe to be true is inter-individual differences such as physical growth, biological maturation, and behavioural development—not to mention social interactions through puberty and adolescence—are the warp and woof of persistence.  In other words, all the routine markers of potential elite players in soccer—player size, physique, overall physiology, speed, agility, power, sport-specific skills related to ball control, passing, and shooting, perceptual-cognitive skills, psychological leanings in motivation, coping, and attention, and sport IQ—all change over time as youngsters grow.

They argue that what is needed is a better understanding and possibly a profile of the unique inter-individual development of youth who have entirely withdrawn from a sport and of youth who persisted into club sport or go through to the elite levels of competition.  So their study followed youth players of soccer over a two-year period.  They focused on gathering baseline data on 159 males aged 11.0-14.9 from five soccer clubs in the Portuguese midlands.  The data included:  physical growth and biological maturity; functional capacities; soccer-specific skills; and goal orientation.

What did they do?

First off, the study was conducted between 2003 and 2005.  In 2003 players were divided into two groups: 1) 87 players born between 1991 and 1992 were labeled infantiles; 2) 72 players born in 1989 and 1990 were called initiates.  The competitive season for the five teams was nine months long; three 90-minute training sessions per week; one game per week.

The baseline samples included appropriately designed measures for skeletal age, anthropometry, functional aerobic and agility tests, soccer skill tests (ball control, dribbling speed, shooting accuracy, and passing), and task and ego orientation.  Training history was gathered, as well as coach-judgements on the potential for each player.

In 2005 the players were contacted again to determine their current status in the sport.  The 159 players fell into three classifications:

  • Drop-out: 36 players discontinued soccer, some of whom played other sports.
  • Club: 90 players continued to practice and play at the same club.
  • Elite: 33 players were selected for the regional team or by elite clubs.

What did they learn?

Maybe the clearest way to report the findings from this study is to simply list the results of the comparative changes over the two years of the study:

  • Elite players at follow-up were larger in body size and performed better in functional capacities at baseline than both age groups.
  • Elite players also performed better in some, but not all, skills tests.
  • At baseline, the three groups of players did not differ in skeletal maturity or chronological age. But elite players at age 13-14 were older both chronologically and skeletally.
  • Functional capacities and skills did not differ consistently by maturity groups.
  • Baseline task and ego orientation scores did not differ significantly among drop-outs and club and elite players.
  • In a questionnaire follow-up with 22 of the drop-outs from both age groups, reasons for dropping out included:
    • Training took up too much time
    • Not enough playing time
    • Lack of enjoyment in training
    • Lack of recognition for effort
    • Changing interests, including attraction to other sports

Overall, the authors of this study demonstrate that the progressive selection process in youth soccer can be better informed by understanding the interactions among physical growth and biological maturity status, functional capacity, and sport-specific skills.  Interestingly, task and ego orientation does not seem related to the decision to drop out, or persisting at the same level or moving up.

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