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A parent guide to child growth and development in sport

In this guide we discuss the key considerations relating to children’s growth and development that may influence their sport experience. 

This guide was adapted from work by Sport Parent EU. It is published with their permission. 

In this guide, parents will be introduced to key concepts relating to child growth and development and how it relates to sport, including: 

Children’s (athletic) development is driven by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. The genes a child is born with, the way in which they are raised, the experiences they have, and the environment they are exposed to will all impact on development. Consequently, not all children will develop in the same way and at the same time. Instead, children’s development is often unpredictable, occurring at different times and in different ways. At one moment a child may develop rapidly while at another moment the child may progress slowly or even drop back. With this in mind, it is important that you remember that your child will develop in their own way and find their own path both within and beyond sport. Understanding your child as an individual and focusing on their personal development will enable them to progress in sport and enjoy their experience. 

As well as growth and development impacting on children’s sporting experiences, participation in sport can also impact on children’s development. For instance, sport can foster a child’s motor skills, and support their physical, psycho-social, and cognitive development. However, sport participation only yields such positive effects when sport is offered in such a way that it matches with children’s developmental level or stage. By understanding how your child develops, you will be better positioned to support and guide your child’s sporting experience. 

What is development and why is it important to understand in sport? 

Development is a process that occurs throughout a lifespan. It is the process of change that occurs as a consequence of both maturation and experience. It is important to understand child growth and development in relation to sport because children will develop at different rates, which will impact on their sporting ability, as well as their ability to understand coach instructions and interact with teammates. 

As a parent, it can be useful to distinguish two key terms when considering how your child will grow and develop. These terms are: 

Maturation: Aspects of development that are primarily under genetic control, which are relatively uninfluenced by the environment. 

Development: The process of change in functioning that occurs as a consequence of maturation and experience. 

Development occurs across different areas: 

Physical and motor skills: Growth and changes of the body such as the ability to use muscles; gross motor skills are movements related to large muscles, while fine motor skills are movements involving small muscle groups. 

Cognitive: Ability to learn, think, and solve problems 

Psycho-social: Ability to interact with others, including helping themselves and self-control. 

Development is a process that occurs throughout a lifespan and will vary between children, consequently it can be useful to distinguish between: 

Chronological age: Age of your child based on year of birth. 

Developmental age: Your child’s age based on a combination of maturation and experience. 

Why is this important in relation to sport? 

Your child’s current level of development, in the different areas, will impact on their physical ability, their understanding of coach instructions, and their interactions with teammates, among others. As a parent, it is important to avoid comparing your child’s sporting ability to other children who may be at a different developmental age. It is also important to seek our sporting opportunities that are delivered in a developmentally appropriate way for your child. 

How will my child physically develop? 

Physical development occurs in a dynamic and non-linear fashion, whereby children and adolescents will grow quickly, slowly, nor not noticing much change. Differences in physical development due to maturation can often explain why certain children may appear more (or less) dominant within a sporting environment. 

For parents it is important to know that: 

  • Physical development occurs in a dynamic and non-linear fashion, whereby children and adolescents will grow quickly, slowly, or not noticing much change. 
  • Growth occurs relatively consistently throughout childhood, but adolescence is a time where young people experience much more noticeable changes due to the onset of puberty. 
  • The adolescent growth spurt represents a time when young people experience large and rapid changes in height, with the most rapid growth rates (termed peak height velocity – see figure below) occurring on average at age 12 in girls and 14 in males. 
  • Approximately 6-18 months after peak height velocity, young people will experience their largest change in weight as muscle is developed due to their heightened hormonal levels. 
  • Parents should remember “children are first stretched before they are filled out”. 
  • Adolescent awkwardness – This period involves adolescents experiencing a temporary breakdown in coordination as a result of getting used to moving with longer limbs. This might last for 6 months but should settle once the individual gets used toe their new size.  

Chronological age refers to the time from birth, while biological maturation refers to the progress towards a fully mature state. Importantly, parents should remember that biological maturation can vary dramatically between a group of young people in terms of timing (when it starts), tempo (how quickly someone matures) and magnitude (the amount of change). Differences in physical development due to maturation can often explain why certain children may appear more (or less) dominant within sport. 

Figure 1. Growth Rate v Chronological Age of males, showing Peak Height Velocity. Note, the average female Peak Height Velocity is age 12. 

How will my child cognitively develop? 

Cognitive development refers to changes in learning, thinking, and remembering. It is the development of mental activities such as acquiring knowledge and problem solving and it changes substantially throughout childhood and adolescence. 

Development of the skills outlined above occurs through physical interaction with the environment. This is particularly key from birth to the age of approximately 2 years. 

Between the ages of 2 and 6 years 
Children’s abilities to think about how symbols might represent something, such as words representing objects, increases. Language development means the child can follow simple instructions to help them solve problems. Language use is important – passive sentences and double negatives are not understood at this age. The use of simple instructions is key. Children are easily distracted; they can’t focus on more than one thing at a time. Children under 4 years of age also struggle to see a problem from another person’s perspective. 

Between the ages of 7 and 11 years 
Children can increasingly think through problems, before acting on them. Children start to be able to mentally reverse their actions, understand numbers and proportions, and realise appearances can be deceptive. 

From 12 years of age 
Cognitive development comes close to adult levels as we see an increase in abstract and complex thinking and problem-solving. Children can think through hypothetical scenarios and become aware of complex concepts such as moral values, fairness, and justice. 

Parents should remember that “children and young people look at the world differently” – have patience, it takes time for children to acquire complex thinking and (self) control. 

How does cognitive development interact with physical and psycho-social development? 

As motor and social skills increase (for example walking and being able to play with other children), children enlarge their world. As a result, they learn to solve problems, think, reason, and store new information in a playful manner. The senses (hearing, seeing, feeling, smelling) and the social environment of the child also play an important role in cognitive development. Participation in physical activity and sport can positively influence cognitive development, especially in relation to (self)regulation abilities and readiness to learn.  

What about changes in the teenage brain? 

The teen years are often described as a time of ‘storm and stress’ as the brain develops into its final adult state. Teenagers can be impulsive and sensitive to reward. Try to avoid punishment and focus on positive coaching. 

How will my child develop psycho-socially? 

Psychosocial development refers to a child’s developing ability to interact in a social world. Psycho-social development occurs through a number of stages throughout our life, with children’s main relationships shifting from parents/caregivers and family members to neighbours, peers, and friends. 

There are many theories relating to psycho-social development, one of the main theories is Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. This theory proposes that your child will move through the following stages. All stages are age-related, not age-dependent: 

Infancy (0-18 mths) – the main relationship is with their mother (or primary caregiver) as they learn to trust that their basic needs will be met. 

Early childhood (2-4yrs) – the main relationship is with their parents and children begin to develop autonomy as they explore the world around them. 

Preschool age (4-5yrs) – the main relationship is with their family and children start to develop initiative, courage, and independence often through play and exploration. 

School age (6-12 yrs) – neighbours and other school children form the main relationships and children start to increase their self-awareness as well as their self-confidence. 

Adolescence (13-19yrs) – peers and role models are likely to influence adolescents the most and children at this stage are likely to be pre-occupied with how they appear to others. 

Three further stages of early adulthood (20-39yrs), adulthood (40-64yrs), and maturity (65yrs+) complete this theory. 

Read here for a more comprehensive discussion on Erikson’s Stages of Psycho-Social Development 

Adolescence: Heightened emotions and a focus on peers 

Concerns about physical changes can be a source of sensitivity and heightened emotions. Hormones also affect moods and general emotional responses. 

Difficulties in handling stress (demands of school, peer pressure) can lead to mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety disorders. 

In order to establish greater independence adolescents must orient themselves toward their peers. Positive peer relationships are very important and should be stimulated by parents and coaches. 

How does psycho-social development interaction with physical and cognitive development? 

Psychosocial development is related to development in other areas, such as cognition and physical development. Young people need to learn independent thinking, decision-making, and problem-solving skills from their parents and other caring adults (such as coaches and trainers), so they can apply these skills within their peer network. The sport environment can offer a beneficial environment in this regard, providing opportunities for your child to develop both through individual and group activities. 

How can I support my child’s development in and through sport? 

Understand that your child is not a mini-adult, rather an individual who is cognitively, physically, and socially developing. Children cannot do everything adults can do so ensuring sport opportunities are developmentally appropriate is critical. 

Parents are in a position to encourage children to engage in physical activity from a young age. Through enthusiasm for movement and sport you can support all aspects of your child’s development. 

There is a limit to what you can realistically hope to influence in relation to your child’s sport development as it is influenced both by genetic, experiential, and environmental factors. Rather, as a parent, it is important that you understand that development is a dynamic, complex, and non-linear process. At times your child may seem more capable than others, but they may simply be further through the developmental process or vice versa. Consequently, rather than focusing on how your child is doing compared to other children, it is more valuable if you focus on your individual child’s progress and support them to enjoy their experience, as this will keep them motivated to play and improve. 

Some key principles for supporting your child’s development: 

  • Prioritise the development of basic motor/physical skills at an early age. 
  • Understand the basics of development and recognise how your child’s developmental age may be impacting (positively or negatively) on their sporting performance. 
  • Focus on your child’s progress, paying particular attention to long-term development rather than short-term improvements. 
  • Role model the types of behaviours you would like to see from your child as you will largely shape their psycho-social development. 
  • As a parent, also pay attention to the way coaches operate and train to see if they are accounting for development. For instance: 
    • Does the coach create a positive and safe climate? How does he/she communicate? Is it appropriate for your child’s cognitive development?  
    • Does the coach take the physical and cognitive development of young people into account? For example, do the chosen exercises match the age group he/ she trains; no rigid one size fits all approach? 
    • Does the coach pay attention to the emotions or psychological state of the young people? Does he/she have an interest in them?  
    • Does the coach keep track of developmental and performance markers to guide planning and inform practice? 

Read more:

Brown, K. A., Patel, D. R., & Darmawan, D. (2017) Participation in sports in relation to adolescent growth and development 

You might also like:

How much is too much when it comes to youth sport? – A guide to understanding specialisation, playing multiple sports, and training load

A practical guide for monitoring athlete training and competition load

References: 

[1] Based on: Lloyd, R.S. et al. (2014). Chronological age vs. biological maturation: implications for exercise programming in youth. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(5), 1454-1464 

[2] Based on: Steinberg, L. (2008) A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk-taking. Developmental Review, 28, 78–106. 

Image Source: Canva

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