Banding Children in Sport, is there another way?


There is almost no more debated issue within grass roots sports than should children be banded on perceived ability:

We have just been debating the developmental pathway of one of our longest standing members as he comes to the end of his trial period at a top professional club.  All too often we hear statements such as, to be the best you must be playing with the best or against the best, well we would like to suggest that is not necessarily the case.  The player in question, and we have quite a few stories like this, was met as a ten year old playing for a division 5 team and not able to get a place in the starting team.  This was quickly reversed within our equal playing time belief and he started to get as much playing time as anyone else.  With the addition of this playing time he followed quite a quick developmental path.  Despite lots of attention from all manner of teams including pro scouts he remained in the lower leagues playing with his friends up until 15 years old.  At this stage decided to take the step up into the top league and accepted the advances of the pro clubs and has been with a number of academies and invited to trial with U19’s England Futsal. There are always stories of exceptions to the rule but what we are finding with our maturing children is that those who have either remained in or had exposure to mixed ability groups have remained playing longer and are now excelling in the sport.

We have thrown this question out to a whole host of experts in the field and all seem to agree that there is little evidence that banding on ability has any significant long term effect on performance one quote stays with me and I often use it:

“banding in participation sport is the biggest issue facing us today, who knows how much real potential is lost to this, perhaps the real potential is lost”

The problem is often who is providing the talent identification and what is being identified?  As we have stated before on more than one occasion if massively funded and researched talent identification systems by the most successful professional clubs in the world have very little success identifying & nurturing talent then how on earth can we expect participation coaches to be able to do it and if this is the case why are they trying?   



They are trying because the system within which they operate provides an environment where the adults often feel that they are judged by win loss ratios.  In league systems that create a Darwinian survival of the fittest culture where the most ‘gifted’ children are harvested through a ruthless trial system and the weakest cast out.  Recently the FA have tried to resolve this issue by implementing a non-competition rule, but this has just been side stepped by the adults and to be frank nothing has changed.  Because this system exists managers and coaches feel that they must keep up with Jones’ otherwise their teams spend week after week getting thrashed thus even the most forward thinking coaches end up being pulled into the trap of banding their team in order to prevent embarrassing and motivation sapping double figure defeats.  Often they justify getting rid of the weaker child as it being best for their development, they develop best at their own level,  really I thought they just wanted to be with their pals and have fun. If we are to believe the statistics most children will have quit sports by their late teens so what are we developing them for anyway? Surely we should look at devising a new system that meets the needs of the children and promotes participation first and foremost so that the pool of real talent can be increased and let the professionals select from this talent pool when the time is right and certainly not pre-puberty or in some cases only just post toddling!!!!!.

It is interesting to understand what is being identified, it is usually the more tangible attributes such as a child’s speed, their shot power, their stamina, their ability to cover large areas of the pitch all of these are usually linked to their physical maturation and then masqueraded as talent.  This is then used as predictor of a future development path and performance, how many ask the questions of how much exposure have they already had to practice, do they have siblings they play with, when is their birthday and so on?  Just because they are the most effective player today will not predict whether they will continue to be so when the less mature children catch up which inevitably they will. The crux, however, is will we keep these less physically mature players in the game as they have already been discarded by the current system that promotes banding at the youngest ages.

Below is an excerpt from some work by Mark O Sullivan which supports our beliefs:

“Assessment of talent at a single or narrow point in time is a flawed approach”- Mark Upton:

Many current methods of focusing on early indicators of talent are very static and linear approaches. They ignore the fact that development is individual and that differences in performance can be explained by differences in maturation. Coaches that judge early talent evaluate and focus on the contemporary level of performance where physical characteristics are fundamental factors in the talent identification process. This brings to the surface three fundamental problems that need to be addressed with early talent ID.

    1    Coaches gamble on the wrong players- (misuse of resources)

    2    Miss out on those with more long term potential

    3    Environment problem (development of a non-inclusive environment. No clear pathway back in to the system)

It is this last point that I would like to address, I have lost count of the number of parents that have contacted us with concerns that their child (as young as 5) has been told to find another sport, or is not a footballer.  Interestingly when placed in a safe to fail non banded environment with time these children have thrived and have developed just as well as their early matured peers.

The next answer we often given is ‘its been like this for ages, why change it” looking at sport through rose tinted glasses and thinking everything is okay.  Well things are from okay, ‘in our day’ we had the opportunity to play in the streets all day, ride our bikes, play on building sites and all manner of other physical activities unfortunately these days have gone.  For some children their sporting or movement activities are limited to an hour or two of PE and after school adult led activities.  These adult let activities are now in competition with so many others such as the the   technology in the form of tablets, phones and games consoles.  If movement and sport is to compete it has to remain fun, engage and provide children with opportunities to play.  It must compete as the world is currently facing an obesity epidemic and for the first time in human history there are more overweight than underweight people.  Whilst some of this can be attributed to diet much can also be as a result of our sedentary lifestyle, which is supported by the drop out rate of children from sport.



There are many many research projects that clearly illustrate that one of the top reasons for playing sport is to be with or to make new friends.  Sport is a wonderful social tool and should be embraced but this tool is often overlooked in place of short term wins, trophies and titles.  In order to compete for these accolades children must be banded into teams of similar ability and often this means disbanding teams on annual basis as children develop in such non linear ways.  What is the social results of a child being pushed out of a team because his development has not kept pace with his friends, how does they feel now that he has to join a team where he doesn't know anyone?  Also let us not forget the parents as they have made bonds with the parents within the team too.  What are the psychological results the feelings of ‘i am not good enough’.  Now many will answer with it toughens them up, prepares them for life, this may be the case but do children already have enough pressures, targets and tests and shouldn't sport be a sanctuary away from this shouldn't it just be fun?

Is there another way and how can this be overcome?

We believe there is but it would need to be overcome through long term education.  Our organisation has recently run a pilot whereby a competitive league system was run with a number of caveats.  All children had to have equal playing time, there were no coaches coaching, there were no set positions, children were mixed ages and mixed ability and did not need to undergo a trial.  Parents were to congratulate but not to comment in anything other than a positive manner.  Can this be delivered en masse we re not sure but we are going to have a damn good try?  We know there is something much greater at stake than a league trophy we have the long term participation of children into adulthood in our hands and it is not a responsibility we are going to squander for short term gain.