Why bio-banding may unlock the full potential of more young GAA players
By John Harrington
Last month the Clare and Limerick U-14 hurling academy teams broke new ground by playing each another in bio-banded challenge matches.
Bio-banding is defined as grouping players based off physical maturation as opposed to chronological age, and is something that the Clare GAA Academy has experimented with for the past 18 months.
Headed up by Rob Mulcahy who oversees the long-term athletic development for Clare GAA from U-14 to U-20, Clare GAA have collected and utilised growth and maturation date on players to find out who the early, on-time, and late developers in their panels are so they could design coaching programmes that were developmentally appropriate for them.
They bio-banded the players using the Khamis-Roche method which calculates what the player’s fully grown height is likely to be, based on their height, weight, date of birth and the heights of their parents.
This then allowed Clare GAA to categorise the players based on what percentage of their adult size they currently are and band them into three five-per cent bands – those who were 85 to 90 per cent matured, those who were 90 to 95 per cent matured, and those who were 95 per cent plus matured.
Clare Academy coaches then worked with the players in games, contact, and isolated skills situations in these bio-banded groups for a block of the season and saw many benefits from doing so.
“The rationale for us doing this is that that it gives the coach the opportunity to view players through a different lens,” Rob Mulcahy told GAA.ie.
“They got to see players without the element of physicality because where the more mature players were more dominant you wouldn't have gotten to see the lesser mature guys as much.
“The more mature guys who were used to being able to exert a physical dominance are now in a situation where they're challenged.
“They're playing against guys of a similar size to them and there's an element of them having to engage in a different decision-making process. They have to figure out the game and think about solving problems they didn't have to before.
“The smaller guys aren't hindered by the fact they're not as mature yet. They have a bit more freedom, more time on the ball, they can express themselves a little bit more.
“I suppose it gets rid of the mismatches in a sense, it puts everyone on a very level playing field.
“Now, there's lots of disadvantages as well advantages to bio-banding, and that's why we use a meshed approach with the Clare GAA Academies because there are advantages to playing chronological games as well.”
When you think about it, bio-banding underage players does make a lot of sense.
Knowing where players are on the physical maturation scale should help to design appropriate coaching sessions that don’t put excessive stress on their bodies, which is the key to injury mitigation.
And in terms of skill acquisition, the benefits are obvious too for the early and late developers alike.
Quite often the early developers rely too much on their physical strength in matches and you can understand why. If they’re capable of running through tackles in straight lines then it makes sense to do so in a match situation.
But as this player grows older and his peers catch up with him in terms of physical maturation, he finds strength alone is no longer enough and because he never developed a broader range of skills he has now been left behind.
Anyone who has played hurling or Gaelic football can tell of you of former team-mates who seemed set for inter-county stardom when they lorded games at U-14 but then failed to even make the grade as a senior club hurler as an adult.
For late developers, the benefits of bio-banding are just as apparent. They’ll gain confidence from playing against players of their own size and will also develop elements of their game it perhaps wasn’t previously practical to utilise.
For example, if you’re a few inches shorter than most other hurler on the pitch it makes a lot more sense to try to tap a high ball down to the ground with your hurley than catch it cleanly, and so at a crucial developmental age you don’t work on a core skill of the game as much as you should.
Late developers often find themselves on the periphery of matches positionally as well as literally, because they’re often played in the corner-forward or corner-back positions.
Whereas if they play in bio-banded matches they get the opportunity to play centrally where they’ll have more ball contacts and develop a broader game awareness.
The big take away from those recent bio-banded challenge matches between the Clare and Limerick academies was that both the early and late developers were being challenged in different ways than they normally would in chronological matches.
The early developers were now playing against opponents who were just as big as them, so they couldn’t run through them and instead had to rely more on skill in a variety of situations.
The late developers couldn’t wait on the fringes of the action for breaking ball anymore, many of them were now playing in positions where there was an onus to win clean primary possession so this pushed them out of their comfort zone.
There was an obvious contrast between the two games. The speed and skill-level of the game played between the late developers was significantly higher the early developers game, which broke down into rucks for possession a lot more.
Mulcahy believes that injury prevention and skill acquisition aren’t the only good reasons to consider having an element of bio-banding in county development squads, there are benefits too when it comes to talent identification and player retention.
Quite often when coaches select players at U-14 and U-15 level they put a premium on those early developers who are capable of dominating games physically.
That might lead to a successful U-14 team, but you’re potentially ignoring late developers who could have a higher ceiling.
By using the Khamis-Roche method, Clare GAA are now informing their decision-making process with a multitude of factors to refine this talent identification process on what players to introduce to their county teams at a young age with data that can predict how they’ll look when they’re fully physically mature.
“It's an incredible difficult process to identify player at 13 because there are so many factors at play and performance alone does not correlate to future success," says Mulcahy. "There needs to be emphasis given to a holistic approach to selection. Now you're putting a new lens on what you're looking at when you're trying to identify players and make more informed decision. You’re not discounting anyone but you’re giving the opportunity to players who were previously over-looked.
“This is the first year that we collected all the data during the selection process itself, so we had 150 players that we had data on.
“Then we made some informed decisions about who we were picking, and we selected a large amount of lesser mature players than we previously would have because we had a bit more information now to inform that decision.
“The ultimate hope there is that they'll stay in the system and more players will transition through the system. I worked with Clare senior teams for six years and you see a lot of guys that come into the senior team that never played any part in the underage system.
“For one reason or another they weren't identified or picked. That could be a multiple of reasons, but a lot of the players would say I was smaller at underage or wasn't as dominant. They were hindered by the fact they were less physically mature players.
“We have guys now who are 100 per cent fully grown at 14 and they're 5' 9'' for example. That's not a slight against anyone, but they are 5' 9'' and dominating at that age against kids who are 87% physically matured and a lot smaller but could eventually grow to 6' 3'' and will have an advantage in three or four years’ time. That being said, height isn’t everything. But, at a younger age, the size and the physical strength someone possesses gives them a marked advantage so you're just trying to collate as much information as possible to make those decisions.”
Mulcahy is currently undertaking a PhD in UL on Talent Identification, Detection, and Player transition and one of the papers he is writing has looked at how hurlers who represented Clare in the Tony Forristal (U-14) tournament from 1984 to 2016 fared.
How many years they played on development squads, how many of them progressed to playing inter-county minor, U-20, and senior, how many matches they played for the Clare seniors if they made it that far, and how many played senior club hurling.
It’s obviously not an exact science because there are multiple factors at play, but you can see how bio-banding and maturation profiling could lead to better player retention through the elite player pathway.
Both the early and late developers should develop more well-rounded skill-sets, and you’re also able to make more informed decisions on what players to bring into a county Academy in the first place.
Only a small number of players will ever graduate onto a county senior team regardless, but Mulcahy’s hope is that the club game in a county could benefit a lot from this approach.
“Is it possible to identify more players, keep them in the system for longer so they'll have a better impact for their clubs at senior level? That's the real goal,” he says.
“We want to recruit as many players as possible, keep high retention rates all the way through. Some guys will make it through to senior inter-county, but for the guys who don't, can we help as many as possible of them become senior club players and in that way improve our club championships?”
If you’re reading this article and have decided by now that you’re a bio-banding convert, then a word of caution.
Clare GAA put a huge effort into first collating the relevant data before applying it in a practical sense, and there’s still no definitive agreement on the optimal use of bio-banding.
“We can't get away from the fact that they play competitive chronological games, they don't play bio-banded games, so they'll all be playing against players of different sizes,” says Mulcahy.
“We do a lot of things positively for their development by banding them. But we also do a lot of things positively by not banding them as well.
“I've asked this question of some top academics and there's no definitive approach here in terms of how much you should do, but there's definitely a consensus that you should be doing some sort of meshed approach.
“I’d be hesitant about clubs just going straight into this or doing something like this. You need someone driving it that has a good understanding about growth maturation and what's appropriate.
“The next step on from this, and we've tried a bit of this, is bio-banding up and down age-grades. We trialled it a couple of times last year where if you had a 14-year-old that's very physically developed but also very intelligent on the pitch and very emotionally mature, then we move him up to the U-15 group.
“We also had a guy last year we felt would benefit from coming down to U-15 from U-16 so we discussed that too. That would obviously change the whole fabric of the squads. So, do you work off a big squad of 14 to 16 year olds or is it still broken into three age-grades?
“I have broken our U-14 and U-15 groups down into those who are least mature and those who are more mature biologically if you look at their physical development.
“You have six years of difference between your most mature and least mature in terms of physical development, but there's only one year in age difference between them. You've got men and boys on the same team and that’s something that you potentially need to consider.”
Clare have led the way in terms of bio-banding their development squads, but other counties are also going down the same path.
The recent challenge game against Limerick was a trial run for a bio-banded county academy hurling tournament this summer that will include a number of other teams.
It’s an evolving approach to player development that the GAA are very interested in trialling on a larger scale.
Those with an interest should contact the Association’s National Player Development Lead, Jack Cooney, at email@example.com.
For more insight into how Clare GAA are using bio-banding in their Academy, watch this video - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHLXoMyJieQ