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Research could help identify future tennis stars and avoid injuries

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The Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) is working with scientists at the University of Bath to help ensure promising young tennis players are not overlooked.

In a study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences, the team says that focusing on young players´ physical maturity rather than their chronological age could help develop future tennis champions and also help players avoid injuries.

The researchers note that individual differences in growth and maturity during adolescence can give a performance advantage to those that mature early because they tend to be taller, quicker, bigger and stronger than their late maturing peers. As a consequence, later maturing players are often overlooked in the elite tennis selection process.

Dr Sean Cumming, senior lecturer in health at the University of Bath, commented: “Tennis is a sport that favours youth who are taller and mature earlier than their peers. Our data show that this selection bias impacts girls from the age of 10 and boys from the age of 12.

“Every extra inch in height of a player increases the velocity of their serve by five per cent. At the elite level, it is quite common to find junior players, especially adolescent boys, who are six foot or greater in height.

“The challenge for those working with young tennis players is to look beyond differences in maturity, and recognise those players who may have the greatest potential for success as an adult. While early maturing boys and girls have initial advantages, the pressure to win can lead them to play to their physical strengths at the expense of their technical development.

“In contrast, talented, yet late maturing players might be excluded or overlooked by talent spotters on the basis of physical characteristics that are not fully realised until adulthood.”

New statistical methods developed by the research team — which includes mathematicians from Bath´s Institute for Mathematical Innovation — will allow practitioners to better assess and account for individual differences in biological maturity and help ensure players are evaluated on the basis of their physical development, and not just their chronological age, the university said.

Gill Myburgh, a strength and conditioning coach at the LTA and part-time PhD student at Bath, explained: “Being able to more accurately assess and account for individual differences in growth and maturity, is really important when assessing talent. It also helps us design and implement more effective and developmentally appropriate training programmes.

“Growth spurts can increase the risk of injuries, so monitoring players´ growth trajectories and adjusting their training programmes accordingly is vital in getting the best out of all players, and could be key in spotting and nurturing the next UK tennis star.”

Myburgh also highlighted the potential benefits in matching players by maturity status, rather than age, in training and competition. This process, known as bio-banding, is also being considered in a number of other sports.

“Having early maturers occasionally train with and compete against players who are older but of similar maturity level stretches them as they can no longer rely on their physical advantages,” she said.

“Bio-banding also provides late maturing players with more opportunity to use their skills and demonstrate their true potential.”