Ask the Expert: Dr Sean Cumming (University of Bath)

Dr Sean Cumming is one of the most active researchers in the area of growth and maturation in the contexts of sport and exercise. He is a Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Sciences at the University of Bath and has worked in research and consultancy roles for a number of governing bodies and professional clubs. These include the Premier League, Football Association, Lawn Tennis Association and Bath Rugby.

 

Sean pictured with Robert (Bob) Malina, Alan Rogol and James Bunce at a US Soccer Biobanded Tournament

1) What has led you into the study of youth sport?

As a researcher, my interest in youth sports started when I was studying for my master’s degree in sport and exercise psychology at the University of Exeter. Professors Stuart Biddle and Ken Fox, who ran the programme at the time, had conducted a lot of research on children’s participation and motivation in youth sports. I found this work very interesting and relevant to my experiences as an athlete.  From then, I decided that this was an area of research that I wanted to spend more time working in.

2) What has been your biggest influence in terms of your research in youth sport?

I have had the great fortune to work with, and learn from, a number of exceptional scholars and practitioners throughout my career. My interest in the subject of growth and maturation was, however, a direct result of my interactions with Professor Robert Malina. As a graduate research assistant at the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University I worked under the direction of Professor Malina. Bob is incredibly knowledgeable on the subject of growth and maturation and encouraged me to consider how individual differences in growth and maturation impact children behaviours and experiences in the context of sport and exercise. He also encouraged me to consider these processes from a biocultural perspective; recognising the importance of psychological and social factors in determining how growth and maturation impacts children’s involvement in sport and exercise.

3) What is your particular area of interest?

My primary area of interest is how individual differences in growth and maturation impact children’s development and experiences in the context of sport and exercise. The timing of puberty in youth is something that has important implications in terms of the adoption and maintenance of health behaviours and in the identification and development of young athletes.  It has been shown to directly and indirectly impact a multitude of processes and outcomes including athlete selection and performance, the design, implementation and effectiveness of training programmes, and injury risk.  Understanding these processes and how sport can be structured to optimise the development of both early and late developers is a particular interest of mine.

4) How do you think this particular area applies to youth athletes? 

The timing of puberty is something that is largely determined my genetic factors (i.e., mum and dad) and has important implications for physical, psychological and behavioural development.  Although we are unable to alter the ages at which children enter puberty, we can adjust the training and/or competition environment to accommodate for differences in pubertal timing.  Much of my that I do involves educating clubs, coaches, practitioners, and parents on why it is important to consider growth and maturation and establishing systems that allow clubs and organisations to better assess and monitor differences in the growth and maturity of their athletes.

Through these systems these organisations are better able to identify those youth who are advanced or delayed in maturation, evaluate and group players according to both chronological and biological age, and predict and recognise when athletes are going through periods of development when they may be more or less susceptible to injury (i.e., the growth spurt).  Using this information, the practitioners in the various clubs and organisations that I have been working with have devised a range of innovative strategies to accommodate for differences in maturity in relation to both training and competition.  Working with these organisations and practitioners to develop, implement and evaluate these strategies has been a great learning experience and very rewarding.

5) What is the best piece of advice you’ve received

I have received a lot of sage advice over my career, however, a quote that James Bunce shared with the coaching and sports science staff prior to the Premier League’s inaugural bio-banded tournament really resonated with me.  In this event, the clubs grouped player by maturation, rather than age, seeking to determine the potential benefits and/or costs of limiting maturity associated variance in size and athleticism during competition.  The hope was that by grouping players in this format, it might encourage a more technical and less physically oriented style of play, and present new challenges for both early and late developers….

Image result for it is not the critic who counts

It is through taking risk, trialling new strategies and asking novel questions that we advance our understanding of a particular subject and/or develop new solution to complex problems.  To do this requires an openness to new perspectives and a readiness to fail. If a particular concept of strategy succeeds then that is great; if it doesn’t, well that is equally good as you can then return to the drawing board. I was really impressed by the willingness of the coaches and sports scientists to trial a new strategy and considers its potential merits. What the Premier League and the participating clubs achieved  on that day was a first in the study of growth and maturation in sport, and its consequences are still being felt.

The bio-banding strategy is by no means a fully finished or validated concept, but it represents an important first step in learning how to better consider growth and maturation in youth sport. Most importantly, it has raised a broader awareness of the subject and encouraged other sports to reconsider how they assess, monitor and accommodate for developmental differences in young athletes.

6) What advice would you give to researchers and coaches working with youth athletes? 

From a research perspective, I would encourage future scholars pursue a line of research that is of inherent interest, and to not solely focus on where the funding is. If the questions are interesting enough the money should take care of itself. Those who prioritise the latter, may tick the professional boxes ,but often end up with projects and data that they have limited knowledge of and/or interest in. Choose a subject that you are passionate about identify those challenges or questions that remain unanswered, try to do something that nobody else is doing. Know your limitations, take the opportunity to turn your weaknesses into strengths, read and work with people outside of your area, be nice, and don’t take yourself too seriously.  Treat your students and peers as equals, and take the opportunity to learn as much from them as they can learn from you.

For those coaching young children, I would recommend that they educate themselves on the basic of child development (both physical and psychological). Training and competition should be designed and implemented with the developmental needs to the child taken into consideration, and behaviours and practices should be adjusted accordingly.  Consider sport as an educational pastime and recognise that the likelihood that you will coach children who grow up to be heathy, pro-active and pro-social citizens is infinitesimally greater than the odds that you will coach an athlete to a professional or elite level.  Keep abreast of the scientific literature and read with a critical eye. Be wary of academics that shout the loudest, have an opinion and answer for everything, or claim to be paragons of the scientific method. Invariably, they don’t, and they aren’t.

7) Can you recommend any particular resources for youth sport coaches?

In terms of growth and maturation the go to book in our field is Growth, Maturation and Physical Activity written by Professors Robert Malina, Claude Bouchard, and Oded-bar-Or. This is a very comprehensive text provides excellent explanation of these process, the mechanisms that underlie them, and their relevance in the context of sport and exercise.  From a psychological perspective, there are some great presentations on the teenage/adolescent brain that can be viewed online.

Professor Sarah Jaynes Blakemore’s recent book Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain also comes highly recommended.  Another book worth considering is Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters by Joan Ryan, which considers issues surrounding growth and development in the context of elite level gymnastics and figures skating.

For those interested in some of the work we have been doing surrounding the subject of bio-banding I would recommend you read some of our papers on the subject that have been published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal, Journal of Sports Science, and, most recently, Pediatrics.  US Soccer also created a number of videos that give an introduction to and insight as the potential benefits of bio-banding.

From a practitioner’s perspective I cannot recommend Dr Rhodri Lloyd and Jon Oliver’s book  Strength and Conditioning for Young Athletes more highly. Rhodri and Jon are incredibly knowledgeable on the subjects training and strength and conditioning and athlete development, and are, in my opinion, doing some of the most exciting and innovative work in the field today.

In terms of online resources I highly recommend Dr Joe Eisenmann website. There are very few practitioners and scholars who know the subject of growth and maturity as well as Joey, and his ability to apply this knowledge across both domains is, in my opinion, unmatched.

I also highly recommend Rob Pacey’s Strength of Science website which has many excellent podcasts with leading practitioners, coaches, and scholars.  I was lucky enough to be invited to do an interview with Rob and it can be found here.

Pacey Performance Podcast #147 – Sean Cumming

8) Where can people find out more about you and your work? (Social media links, websites etc.)

I’m not on twitter (for my own sanity) but I do host a research project page on our work on Growth and Maturation on Research Gate. Here you can read about our research, keep updated on the various projects and studies that we are involved in. You can also gain access to a range of resources related to our work (i.e. papers, articles, and media). I try to update the site reasonably regularly and it has proved to be an effective platform for sharing our work and insights.

https://www.researchgate.net/project/Growth-and-Maturation-in-Sport-and-Exercise

A huge thankyou to Dr Sean Cumming for his generosity with his time and expertise, as well as a special thanks personally for his help and support with the research I’ve been involved in with Scottish Rugby. For more great content like this, follow us on Facebook!

Are you a grassroots youth sport coach or PE teacher who wants to improve the athleticism of your athletes?? Check out our Fundamental series athletic development programs here.

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