While watching their kids play sports, some parents get frustrated when they see other kids who are stronger, faster, or more skilled. They worry something is “wrong” with their child, when it’s often something very simple: the other kids are just more mature physically.
Stages of growth and maturation
Kids go through different stages of growth and maturation as they pass from childhood to adulthood. Often they enter and exit these stages at completely different times from each other. This is why it can be a mistake to measure kids against their peers.
Two 12-year-old girls, for example, aren’t necessarily the same. They can be in completely different stages of maturation and development even if they have the same birthdate. If one is a late maturer, she could have the body of a nine-year-old. If the other is an early maturer, she could have the body of a 15-year-old.
Can this difference in maturation affect kids’ performance in sport and physical activity? Absolutely. This is why it is important for parents and coaches to not only understand stages of growth and maturation, as well as the concept of early, average, and late maturation, but to provide opportunities for kids to play, develop and get better.
Puberty is generally associated with the onset of the growth spurt, usually sometime between ages 11 and 13 years in girls, 12 and 14 years in boys. Early pubertal changes actually start a couple of years earlier, but the changes are less visible. The two or three years prior to puberty are known as prepuberty.
During prepuberty, pubertal hormones haven’t hit yet, so kids can’t even begin developing the kind of physical strength and aerobic endurance that we start to see in most teenagers. Generally speaking, they can’t be as fast either, since speed relies a lot on muscle strength and lung capacity that they don’t have yet.
In prepuberty, children are clearly still children, and it’s not reasonable to expect them to perform like pubertal athletes or adults.
When the pubertal growth spurt happens, kids have started the physical transformation towards becoming adults. A surge of new hormones is driving rapid growth of bone, muscle, and stature. With this growth comes increased strength and stamina (assuming these same kids are reasonably active).
At the same time, this rapid growth often leads to short-term losses in physical coordination. Some kids may struggle to learn how to control their longer limbs. It’s important that parents and coaches understand this, so they can offer encouragement and reassurances through this awkward period.
The length of the pubertal growth spurt varies between kids, just like its onset. Some kids complete most of their growth in as little as two years, while others may take five years. By the end of this process, they basically have “adult” bodies and they are now postpubertal teens.
Even still, the appearance of adulthood is mostly an illusion. In postpuberty, a lot of social, emotional, and cognitive development still needs to happen. Even physical structures such as bone are still a few years away from reaching full maturation. Most of these remaining developments are invisible to the eye.
Early, average, and late maturers
It’s clear that some kids start to grow and mature much earlier than others, and some may start very late. The example above of two 12-year-old girls being biologically nine and 15 is not uncommon.
At the same time, there will be other 12-year-old girls in their age cohort who are biologically 12 and 13. They are the average maturers.
This is why—when watching kids in sport and activity—parents need to be careful about comparing their children with others. Unless the kids are known to be in the exact same stage of biological growth and maturation, any comparison is almost meaningless.
Every child will also grow and mature at different rates and to different degrees. The child who is smaller, weaker, and slower now may eventually become the biggest, strongest, and fastest in their age group in late puberty.
The lesson for parents: avoid hasty judgements about your child and be patient as they grow and mature. If you want them to develop great ability in their sport or activity, focus instead on getting them into quality programs with good coaching, and support them as good sport parents.
Read more about child development:
- Why some kids struggle on the monkey bars
- If you’re raising a child athlete, think long-term
- Relative age and developmental age: Is your child getting shortchanged?