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Are they the best or are they simply the biggest? Fitzgerald’s research is helping Kerry to identify young talent

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by Adam Moynihan

Fascinating academic research by former Kerry captain Fionn Fitzgerald is helping Kerry GAA to more accurately identify senior stars of the future.

Fitzgerald, a lecturer at MTU Kerry in Tralee, is currently undertaking a PhD on the topic of the maturation effect in underage sports. He has found that although players in Kerry’s development squads might be the same age and play at the same age group, some of them get their growth spurts earlier than others. These early maturing players can, in effect, be much older than their peers from a biological standpoint.

In simple terms, Fitzgerald has examined the advantages early maturing players have over their teammates, and the effects this can have on all of the players within the system.

“We knew that age was an issue,” Fitzgerald explains. “We had explored this before in football and Gaelic games and we found a huge age bias (e.g. players born in January have an advantage over players born later in the year).

“But we also suspected that early maturing players were getting a lot more opportunities and were dominating sport. We then went about investigating if that is, in fact, the case.”

In short, that is precisely the case. The Dr Crokes man discovered that out of roughly 180 players in Kerry’s development squads, only one was categorised as 'late maturing'. The rest were either 'on-time' or 'early maturing'. The stark figures clearly indicate that coaches had been selecting players based on performance – which at underage level can often correlate with physical attributes - rather than potential.

“Scouts and coaches in all sports have been picking for winning, even at that level. That kind of narrowmindedness is magnifying the maturation effect. We have found that when we worked with the development squad coaches for over a year – and in fairness they really supported the work and bought into it – they got a greater understanding of the subject, and they kept more players in the system.

“They were less likely to dismiss a player as being ‘not up to it’ or ‘too small’. They were trying to keep an open mind.

“It's just very hard to make a conclusive call on a 14-year-old. This maturation aspect is not everything but it’s one huge factor that clearly clouds coaches’ opinions.

“You normally see more of a level playing field at minor than you would at U14. But the problem is that some players have already dropped out by then. And the players who were the main men, playing in central positions all along, they’re probably struggling because everyone else has caught up with them physically.”

BIOLOGICAL AGE

Instead of just going by chronological age, i.e. the player’s age according to their date of birth, Fitzgerald and his peers also use a metric called biological age. This involves measuring the player’s height and weight, as well as the height and weight of their parents. This data is then used to predict where the player is in terms of their physical development and where they will end up as an adult.

Being able to pinpoint when a player might be in the middle of a growth spurt is also helpful when it comes to injury prevention; players are more susceptible to injury during this period of their lives.

Some of the physical differences between players who were born in the same year are incredible.

“We found players at U14 level who were at 100% of their adult height. In other words, they looked very physically developed, because they were, but they weren’t growing anymore. Then we had players who were 85% of their adult height, so they had a huge development ahead of them.

"We had one player who was 40kg and another was 95kg - at the same age group. You’re into a ‘men versus boys’ scenario."

“We found that in some of the squads there was five or six years of a difference in some of the players, biologically speaking. That’s a huge gap. Biological age is probably a more accurate age to rate players on than their chronological age. Your date of birth means nothing really at that point of your life.

“So, who’s actually benefitting from the age groupings?” he asks. “Is it the early maturing players or the late maturing players? Ultimately, it seems to be neither of them.”

BIO-BANDING

One alternative to the traditional age groupings is a practice called bio-banding. This entails arranging players based on their biological age, so that early maturing players are placed with early maturing players and so on. The method has been embraced by clubs in the Premier League and New Zealand Rugby amongst others. Under Fitzgerald’s guidance, Kerry GAA have also implemented it in their development squads, albeit as an “adjunct tool” rather than as standard practice.

“I learned everything I know about bio-banding from the Premier League,” the Killarney native says. “The likes of Paudie Roche over at Arsenal and people at Southampton and Bournemouth gave me an insight into how clubs do it over there. They might have one week every month where they do bio-banding.

“What we did with Kerry was we trained away normally for a while and we tracked their maturation. Then we matched players in training, and then later in games, based on their maturity. We had Kerry South and Kerry North development squads and there were two different teams: an early maturing team and an on-time maturing team.

“They played in training and small sided games against each other, and then they played a full 15-a-side game."

The results of this experiment were informative to say the least.

“The early maturing guys who would normally be able to go through the centre and use their physical strength, they struggled an awful lot. From a skill execution point of view, they found it difficult because they were all at the same physical level. The team play wasn’t as good or as cohesive because they’re used to playing more individually.

“On the other hand, the on-time maturing players, they found it brilliant. Normally they might be playing in the corner, not getting much ball, and when they do get the ball they can’t take on their man because he’s bigger than they are. The skill levels were quite high in this game with a lot more interplay.

“The coaches also found that this game was relatively noisy because these players normally don’t take up leadership roles, maybe because they have less of an impact due to their size. They were suddenly talking more so it seemed to have a positive effect on their confidence.

“Both sets of players found it to be a positive experience. The early maturing players found it to be a big step-up in standard and the pace of the game was fast. They got exposed to a different challenge, a more appropriate one.

“The coaches loved it because they saw players in a different light. They saw players who they thought were excelling, struggle when they were put into a mature-appropriate environment. And they saw less mature players getting a chance to shine. It gave them a different slant on their players.

“Grouping players based on their age is flawed, but it’s not to say that we don’t do it either. It’s not practical at all to say, ‘let’s scrap the age groups’. But it is useful to coaches and parents to understand what really goes on.”

CROKE PARK

Fitzgerald’s work has attracted interest from the GAA at a national level. Croke Park have been in contact with a view to experimenting with bio-banding in other counties during the summer.

“It’s not like we’re replacing the chronological age groupings but maybe once a month squads might do bio-banded training sessions or games. Or they might play bio-banded matches once or twice a year to give the players a different challenge.

“It's an appropriate tool to magnify the effect of maturation. A couple of counties who are starting to embed practices around growth maturation might look at playing some challenge games against one another to scale it up a little bit. Rather than it just being done in Kerry, maybe they’ll get to play another county. Cork is another county where we got a lot of our maturation data last year.”

Over the course of his research, Fitzgerald, who recently launched a new youth athletic development programme called the Kaipara Academy, has seen a similar trend across the board.

“We found the same thing in GAA development squads, in Irish soccer and at Premier League clubs: their talent systems are dominated by early maturing players. In Kerry, there was only one late maturing player out of 180 in the whole system. And that particular player was Messi-like. In other words, if you’re late maturing, you have to be something special.

“That’s the issue with the effect of maturation. Potentially there are players who may be less skilful but their physical prowess is skewing their performance. Equally there might be players who have lots of potential but because they won’t mature physically until later, they get overlooked.

“This is not just a problem at county level, it’s also a problem at grassroots level. More research needs to be done here but it’s quite notable everywhere you look.

“This year we will also be exploring maturation in female athletes. What happens around the growth spurt for males and females is quite different so we need to examine that and see if there's a correlation.”

When I put it to him that arming GAA coaches with all this information could radically change the type of player being produced at county level, Fitzgerald is unequivocal in his response:

“100%.”

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Kerry ladies must bounce back at home to Waterford

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All-Ireland Senior Championship Group 2

Kerry v Waterford

Saturday 3pm

Fitzgerald Stadium

The Kerry ladies will be looking to get back to winning ways against Waterford on Saturday following last weekend’s frustrating draw against Donegal in Ballybofey.

The Kingdom led with seconds remaining in treacherous conditions but a late Donegal free snatched a draw for the home side (Donegal 1-6 Kerry 0-9). It was a game that Kerry would have been expecting to win and the result puts a lot more pressure on them this weekend as they try to top the three-team group and earn a home quarter-final.

If they beat Waterford and Donegal do likewise next week, Kerry and Donegal will be level in first place on four points each. The top seed will then be decided by the head-to-head record between the teams. As Kerry v Donegal was a draw, the deciding factor will be whoever scored the most points in that draw. That would be good news for Kerry as they scored nine points to Donegal’s six.

When Kerry and Waterford last met (in this year’s Munster Championship), Kerry needed a late winner by Fiadhna Tangney to prevail by narrowest of margins (1-8 to 1-7). If Waterford beat Kerry and then lose to Donegal, Kerry would be eliminated from the championship.

The Kerry squad has been boosted by the return of Síofra O’Shea who came off the bench against Donegal following a lengthy period out with a knee injury.

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US-bound Kerry runner Lynch hopes to emulate Mageean magic

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by Adam Moynihan

Killarney middle distance runner Oisín Lynch is taking inspiration from newly crowned European 1500m champion Ciara Mageean as he gets set for the next stage of his career in the United States.

This week Lynch confirmed that he will be heading Stateside after accepting a scholarship at Adams State University in Colorado. The promising 800m and 1500m competitor caught the eye of coaches at the leading American college after representing Ireland in the Youth Olympics and also by winning two national titles in recent months.

Speaking to the Killarney Advertiser, the 18-year-old Killarney Valley AC athlete, who is currently doing his Leaving Cert at St Brendan’s College, says he one day hopes to emulate Mageean’s heroics on the international stage.

“The Irish are on the up at underage and at senior level,” Lynch notes. “We have been improving a lot in recent years. When you see Ciara Mageean winning the 1500m it just shows that it can be done by Irish people.

“Sometimes Irish athletes don’t really believe in themselves when they’re getting knocked out of championships by English or European athletes. Mageean winning that European title is definitely something to drive me on. It shows that I can actually do it.”

DREAM

For Lynch, moving to the United States is a hugely significant step, and one that he has dreamed about making since he was a child.

“It’s unbelievable. I always hoped I could earn a scholarship. I worked hard over the last few years, so it’s nice to see that work paying off.

“I had a few schools onto me but when Adams State got in touch, I sized it up and I knew it was a really good opportunity.

“The fact that the college is at 7,500 feet… That’s a crazy altitude. It’s double the height of Carrauntoohil. Altitude training has massive benefits for distance running and nowadays nearly every pro spends most of their year training at altitude. The chance to get that training for the next couple of years is great.

“And their athletics programme is unbelievable. Coach Damon Martin has been there for 40 years and he has coached 12 Olympians. Adams State is in the top 15 for distance in the country and the standard out there in America is very high.”

STRIDES

Killarney Valley AC have made enormous strides since building their new, state-of-the-art facility in 2020 and Lynch is a grateful beneficiary of that progress.

“I can’t thank the club enough. Going back a couple of years we were training on grass in parks. When you want to be a track runner, it’s just not the same. After a lot of hard work by a lot of good people, we managed to get a 200-metre track in Killarney. That’s massive for us and it’s all we need for training.

“The coaches down there are putting in the hard work, including my dad (Con), Tomás Griffin, Jean Courtney, Jerry Griffin, Bríd Stack, Alan Delaney… I could go on. It’s a great club and there are some good athletes coming through. It’s an exciting time for Killarney Valley.”

After Lynch completes his Leaving Cert, he will start preparing for life as a college athlete. He will study kinesiology in Colorado and on the track he hopes to keep on moving in the right direction. That means getting his times down (his current PBs are 1.50.59 over 800m and 3.51 over 1500m), representing Ireland, and hopefully winning a national title in America.

“Obviously I’ll take every step as it comes,” the ambitious Kerryman says, “but the Olympics is the main long-term target, hopefully in LA in 2028.”

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