Sean Van Staden
Columnist
4 minute read
7 Jun 2015
12:57 pm

Wits pioneering scientific youth development

Sean Van Staden

From snowy mountains in the Drakensberg to frozen seas in the Western Cape, there is one thing I can tell you about South Africans – we loathe the cold.

Sean van Staden

If a man had a choice between being ice-cold or forced to wear a Speedo on a sunny beach, he would muster up his strength and pride but always go sexy and go Speedo.

Over the past two weeks, we have been busy with our yearly mass testing of youth footballers. This will mark the third year that Wits Juniors Football Club has invested in conducting sports science testing for approximately 500 players. This would also make them the only club in South Africa who focus on tracking their athletes from a scientific perspective.

A couple of short years back, there was a huge uproar about youth football development in South Africa and the lack thereof. Wits Juniors management took a bold step and sprang from the starting blocks in doing things differently. If you think it’s only the football side who are changing their playing platform, then think again. Wits Centre for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine, led by Professor Demitri Constantinou and sports scientist Marc Booysen, are also on a journey to take Wits sport to another level. In a meeting I had with them, they utter these beautiful words that would give any scientist goosebumps: “When someone thinks Wits Sports, they will think sports science. The two will go hand-in-hand.”

Let me explain why assessments are so important, especially in a set-up like Wits Juniors. Young athletes are developing at all rates, shapes and sizes and in the pre-puberty stage it is important to know how far your child is advancing in comparison to his peers. Self-esteem and confidence play an important role in your child’s development. If your child is picked last for a team every time, how do you think he will start to react to playing sport? The sad truth is, he might start hating it and for many early bloomers, it might be no fault of their own.

Sport is played not by your exact age, but rather under an age group – under-10s for example. This could mean you could have a player who has just turned nine and a player who is almost turning 10. Eight months in youth terms is a big enough gap to give the older – but legal – player, an unfair advantage in speed, strength and power. This could be the reason why your child is sitting on the bench.

To any young athlete, having an eight-month physiological advantage will allow older players to get selected first, be picked for tougher, better teams, experience better competition and ultimately develop faster than a younger player in the same age group.

A simple way to explain this concept is to have a skilled under-16 who is almost turning 17 play for an under-15 team? Do you think he can make a big enough difference to influence a win?

The second most important reason why we assess, is to track an athlete’s performance year-on-year. Yes, we have the data to compare him to his peers, which is important, but it is more important to see if the athlete is progressing each year in all areas of physicality. One of the tests we perform is the broad jump. The athlete stands legs shoulder-width apart and jumps and lands as far as possible.

We measured the distance the athlete covers from the start to the heel. Broad jump tells us about the athlete’s leg strength and his ability to move his body mass around. A poor jump average would indicate poor leg strength which will mean a probability of slow reaction times, below-average speed, low endurance and a high risk of injury.

Athletes should grow naturally bigger, faster and stronger yearly without intervention.

What happens if you find out that your child has not progressed in the last year due to possible environmental factors such as living in a concrete urban jungle, no safe parks to play in and schools not offering physical training? Would you be concerned? You should be.

By knowing the facts through assessments each year, you as a parent can take the appropriate action or intervention plan in making sure your child has a sustainable and progressive yearly development.

Wits understands this philosophy and has implemented a system that gives parents the best opportunities in developing their children through sports science. Assessment and tracking are important and it’s about time you start asking the right questions. What is your club doing for your child’s sporting development and who is tracking your child’s year’s development progress? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Find me on Twitter @SeanVStaden.