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Athletic development blog

Head of Athletic Development & Health, Mr Wall, shares the latest in sports science related to youth sporting development at St Helen and St Katharine

Why is there an athletic development and health focus at
St Helen and St Katharine?

From a large focus to small, from supporting the needs of the human beings with physical activity, sleep, nutrition, lifestyle, to individuals with their personal aims in sport performance or general health, athletic development encompasses multiple aspects which are intricately interlinked to support each individual’s development. This first blog will focus on the needs of a school environment and specifically the growth and maturation of the teenage students within it.

What are the needs of the school?

At St Helen and St Katharine we have over 700 students from Year 5 to Upper Sixth (9–18 years old) all on their own developmental journey physically, mentally and socially. Young girls have their own specific considerations at various timepoints within their growth and maturation. Generally, the onset of puberty is between the ages of 10 and 14, with peak growth rates at around 12 years old, however the timing and amplitude of growth is a highly individualised. Puberty can be a challenging time for teenagers, marked by the prominent physical changes which in turn influence girls’ self-perceptions. It is the changes in self-perceptions, for example perceptions of competence in sports or physical activity that are associated with the distinct decrease in physical activity around the time of puberty for girls.

Therefore, the role of athletic development in our school setting is to provide students with the opportunity to develop their skills and nurture their actual physical competence during these challenging times. Athletic development can be an alternate avenue for girls to continue to progress and build confidence while experiencing the developmental changes of maturation. The research is indicative of such an ethos – young people who maintained participation in athletic activities showed more indicators of positive development into young adulthood (eg continued physical activity, better general health and fewer depressive symptoms). The importance of understanding, supporting and encouraging positive attitudes to the topics of health and wellbeing, physical activity, PE and sport through these time periods is critical.

Injury risk is another consequence of the developmental changes that are experienced during puberty that requires careful consideration. Longer limbs and increasing body mass as a result of growth make it harder for teenage girls to navigate their ever-changing environments. Rapid growth rates make it much harder to coordinate heavier and longer limbs either in their everyday environment or in a high skill environment such as sport. This period of time, generally referred to as ‘adolescent awkwardness’, is highly challenging and unsurprisingly injury risk spikes dramatically around this time. An injury at this sensitive time could be damming for continued participation in physical activity. Research has shown that in change of direction and landing movements that are very typical in sports such as netball and football, women are 4–6 times more likely to suffer from an ACL injury than males. The reasons are multifactorial around differences in physiology and anthropometrics but when adding adolescent awkwardness into the mix, special attention needs to be paid to these time periods of growth and maturation.

Taking a holistic approach to the development of young people is where athletic development and health comes into the school environment: acting as a facilitator to create frameworks for progression in developing physical competence and engagement for all students at various stages of their lives. The primary aim is understanding their development and supporting them through school to cultivate lifelong positive attitudes to health, wellbeing and physical activity.


June 2022

Why being the best junior athlete might not translate to adult success

Considerations for current high-level and average younger athletes from the latest research

The sporting world’s obsession with finding the next “insert sporting superstar of your choice” highlights the assumption commonly made that being good at a young age transfers to senior success. The success stories of Wayne Rooney or Tiger Woods being hyper-specialised and dominant from a young age are attention grabbing, but is that the ideal route, or are they the exceptions? 

The latest research from the Sports Medicine journal suggest that predictors of junior and senior elite performance are in fact, in many cases, the opposite. The study reviewed over 9,000 athletes (male and female) from across the globe. 67% were from team sports, 24% from centimetre-gram-second (CGS) sports - such as athletics, rowing, and weightlifting - and the remainder from combat, artistic and other sports. The athletes were tiered as either:

  1. World class: athletes who placed in the top ten at major international championships

  2. National class: athletes who were part of a national squad and/or placed in a top ten at a national championships and/or played in the highest national league

  3. Regional class: athletes competing below national standard but above county

  4. Below: athletes competing at a local or county level

So, what did they find?

For junior success, the findings suggested that these athletes achieved key milestones earlier, started the sport at a younger age, undertook more main sport practice and less practice in other sports.

In contrast for senior success, athletes had later milestone achievement, started the sport later and took part in other sports to a greater extent. In senior athletes, the amount of main sport practice was less of a predictor of success than in the junior age groups (in part because at the senior level everyone has high levels of practice), and the amount of early main-sport practice was not related to senior success.

At the very top-end, compared with their national-class counterparts, senior world-class athletes engaged in more childhood/ adolescent coach-led practice in sports other than their main sport.

What were the other takeaways from the study?

  • Childhood/ adolescent multi-sport engagement is associated with reduced risks of later overuse injuries and burnout.

  • Practice and competition experiences in various sports increase the odds that athletes find the sport that best matches their talent and preferences.

  • Varied learning experiences (tasks, situations, methodologies) may expand the potential for future long-term learning, ie their learning capital.

  • Collectively, the findings suggest that a childhood/ adolescent investment pattern that is relatively resource-preserving (time, the athlete’s body, health), cost-reducing (opportunity costs, future potential, especially learning capital), and risk-buffering (injury, burnout, distributing “risk capital” to various sports) is associated with gradual initial progress, but sustainable long-term efficiency of practice and performance development. 

What can we make from all this?

For a current higher ability child, aim to keep value on multi-sport practice without adding in excessive volume that could lead to burnout/ overuse/ injury. Have a long-term view on engaging with sports and their achievements along the way through school, university and beyond.

For a current average ability child, the unknown potential might be in their favour… Growth and maturation have a big impact on abilities through adolescence, but knowing that success can come later is potentially huge for motivation. So, value multi-sport practice and sampling to find the right sport and trust over the long-term that anything is possible!

For those wishing to read the study, the paper is available on open access: Barth, M., Güllich, A., Macnamara, B.N. et al. Predictors of Junior Versus Senior Elite Performance are Opposite: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Participation Patterns. Sports Med 52, 1399–1416 (2022)


February 2022

Sports nutrition for the youth athlete: setting the table

Following the first sports nutrition talk to students and parents on the 25 January, Mr Wall shares the key aims and takeaways of sports nutrition for the youth athlete.

One of the main concepts I try to get across to our student athletes from a nutritional standpoint is that the requirements for their training and sport schedules are way above the typical guidelines for the “average” person. And I put an emphasis on student athletes. Especially at St Helen’s, students can be doing sport every day between school teams, external sports clubs and pathways, sometimes multiple in a day. These physical endeavours are a mix of sports training, strength and conditioning work and matches that all need nutritional support. The level of performance and volume of sport that they can sustain alongside their academic work is truly amazing, so having the mindset to view themselves as young athletes is important.

Our key aims for sports nutrition are to provide student-athletes with the knowledge and strategies to:

  • Maximise performance on competition days and in training sessions

  • Maximise training adaptations from each training session

  • Recover effectively session to session, day to day and week to week

  • Maintain a healthy immune system and reduce the risk of injury

When considering the youth part of being a young athlete, there are special considerations that need to be made. Adolescence is a phase of significant physical development: students are growing at a rapid rate and maturing towards their adult bodies. This period is also defined by hormonal changes and fluctuations. Considering the youth part of being a young athlete, alongside their body’s general energetic needs and then the sporting demands on top is crucial to their health and wellbeing.

When thinking practically about supporting a student athlete, one of my first focuses is to look at what a typical training week looks like. How much training do they have each day? How intense are those sessions? Plotting this information out across a week is a simple place to start looking at where demands are high and where to put particular focus on meals or snacks. People can be habitual, especially with food, but by viewing each day individually you can match the energy demands accordingly to optimise our key aims from above. 

Fuelling the body to match sport and training demands is key to supporting all three parts of our young athlete nutrition triangle. Athletes (particularly female athletes) that have high training volumes or don’t match their energy intake with their training demands can be at risk of falling into a situation of having low energy availability, where there isn’t enough energy left over after sport and activity for basic biological functions. Sustained low energy availability can become a clinical syndrome called RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport), where the body enters an ‘energy saving mode’ and is unable to perform all its functions, resulting in a range of health and performance consequences. Young athletes eating enough to support their body is crucial.

At the core of it all, understanding some basics of nutrition, training demands and eating to support those demands go a long way to setting up for success. Food is also about enjoyment and sharing social experiences, a core part of our day. Nutrition should underpin health and well-being; if this is in place, then performance can flourish. 

Thoughts from the students:

"I found this talk really helpful to improve my approach before and around matches to maximise energy levels and recovery" – Sarah (U6D), Lacrosse 1st Captain

"This talk really raised my awareness of how much more energy you need as a young athlete in comparison to the average person, and why that is the case" – Amelie (U6D), Sports Scholar

"I thought the female-specific information around energy intake, RED-S and micronutrients was really valuable to know for our health, which will help our sport too" – Lottie (U6D), Sports Captain 

If you’re a parent or student that wishes to watch a recording of the talk, please email Mr Wall. Future talks will go into more depth around sport-specific examples, scenarios and contemporary advice in the world of nutrition. 

Head of Athletic Development and Health, Mr Wall


October 2021

Supporting girls in sport

“True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.” Brené Brown

On 22 September the sport scholars and Lower Sixth A-level PE students had a fantastic day at the Sport in Her Shoes Conference held at Sherborne Girls’ school in association with The Well HQ. The event was one of the first of its kind to have a whole day devoted to talking about the developing female athlete.

The talk started with a shocking example of how the world around us has often been built without women in mind. For example, in a car crash, women are 47% more likely to be seriously injured, and 17% more likely to die, simply because crash test modelling, and subsequently the cars themselves, have been developed with male-proportioned crash test dummies. Also, in sport science, a review of 5,261 sport and exercise science publications found only 6% of the studies solely focused on women.

That narrative is slowly changing. Differences are starting to be highlighted and, at the elite level at least, an encouraging example is the US Open now offering equal prize money to men and women competitors. But on an everyday level the statistics don’t make for good reading. Only 10% of girls aged 13-16 achieve the recommended levels of physical activity and 64% of girls will quit playing sport by the end of puberty.

This is where the expert speakers from The Well HQ came in, breaking down taboos and highlighting aspects that need to be considered to ensure that we improve all female experiences in sport - including better shared understanding of puberty, periods, pelvic floors, the physiology of the menstrual cycle, changing bodies, sanitary products, sports bras, injury risks, RED-S and clothing options, for example.

Feeling inspired, we wanted to share our top tips from the event and hope that we can continue this conversation in school. Your teachers want to know how to help you so that you don’t feel like your body is a barrier to you taking part in, enjoying and benefiting from sport at all levels.

  • Break the taboo around the subject. Although some of the topics mentioned above might be considered sensitive, they are nothing to be secretive or embarrassed about
  • Understand what your menstrual cycle is and track it. There are likely patterns to how you feel so either keep a diary or you could use an app such as Fitr Women, Clue or Flo to keep track. These can help you to anticipate and understand your period/symptoms and how to build positive habit loops, which in turn help to manage your symptoms
  • Everyone will have a different experience and range of symptoms around their period, but severe symptoms aren’t normal, so if you have concerns please speak to your doctor
  • You can exercise on your period. Your body can still perform to a high level but it’s the symptoms that could be holding you back, so the trick is to proactively manage them if possible. Also, movement releases endorphins which will help how you feel
  • Unleash the power of food. Eat regularly every 3-4 hours, eat around training and match your intake to your sport training volume and intensity. Avoid processed food, high sugar and caffeine as your body needs good nutrients and anti-inflammatory foods to support you
  • You can inadvertently affect your cycle by not eating enough to support the amount of exercise you do (RED-S Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport), so plan ahead and maximise your food intake
  • Get a good sports bra that fits you and makes you feel comfortable and supported doing sport. 73% of girls avoid exercise or have concerns around their breasts, but your body shouldn't be holding you back. Here's an example website to help source a good sports bra Sports bra finder 
  • Build up your strength and work on your single leg exercises. Girls are up to six times more likely to suffer a non-contact anterior cruciate ligament injury (ACL) than their male peers
  • The female mindset – it’s okay to be emotional as it helps us to process a variety of life events and it’s all shaped by our biology and our hormones

Sport scholars, Lower Sixth  A-level PE, Mr Wall and Miss Walters


March 2021

Implementing strategies to achieve this and potential future directions.

Physical literacy

Although the term literacy simply refers to the ability to read and write, an expanded view of this term includes components of knowledge, understanding, and thinking. The same goes for physical literacy, it is about moving proficiently in a variety of physical activities with confidence, competence and enthusiasm. This requires knowledge, understanding and thinking, not just the act of doing. Therefore developing physical literacy or competence is at the core of everything we do at St Helen's. This is mainly based around our Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS) which we will come onto later in the blog.

Neuroplasticity

Having students from age 9–18 means that we have to be aware of the impacts of puberty and maturation as discussed in the previous blog. Another consideration of this period of time is neuroplasticity and its potential impact on motor skill development. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain's capacity to adapt and reorganise as we experience and learn different tasks. Every time a skill is performed our brain refines and reinforces that motor pathway, regardless of whether it was performed correctly or incorrectly. Our brain and spinal cord contain grey matter (GM) which is responsible for the motor control and sensory perception in our body. Studies indicate that there is an increase GM density during childhood, followed by a loss of GM density after puberty. Essentially this means that the more and better-quality movement (physical literacy development) achieved before puberty the higher the enhanced potential.

Fundamental Movement Skills

As such, rather than have one separate 'class' of athletic development, developing physical literacy is a core principle throughout. By developing athletic development themes throughout our curricular and sporting programme, it reinforces the importance of developing the underpinning skills to compliment sporting skills. As an example, the warm-up is a fantastic opportunity to develop physical skills before the main activity, much like a musician would warm-up with some scales or chords; reinforcing and developing some underpinning movements to the main sport is key. For example, in netball there is a huge emphasis on single-leg strength and stability, acceleration and deceleration, and landing skills to perform well in the sport. The warm-up should focus on developing the movement skills and physical qualities that underpin these aspects at the appropriate level for the group.

The main component of our physical literacy development is our Fundamental Movement Skills. These are the global movements and locomotion skills of: Squat – Hinge – Lunge – Push – Pull – Brace – Rotate – Jump – Land – Rebound – Accelerate – Decelerate – Change of Direction. More locomotive and manipulative skills like rolling, crawling, throwing and catching could be included too but this is the simplified version.

These FMS are in all our PE lessons at all age groups as either a core focus or in the physical underpinning section. Our Year 7, 8 and 9 FMS units of work have replaced the HRE (Health Related Education) modules to instill the development of physical literacy as early as possible and continue through the main stages of puberty.