Whilst World Rugby has guidelines related to age bandings and Unions have player pathways based on age, there has been some interest in age and weight bandings for Age Grade Rugby. The establishment of weight guidelines within individual Member Unions is a complicated issue and if developed should consider the physical and mental developmental stages and progress of each individual child detailed below.
While the practice of introducing weight restrictions at Age Grade Rugby is relatively unknown in many territories, a number of sports have had such restrictions in place for some time. Boxing, an individual sport, places weight restrictions at each of its age grade levels, ensuring that fighters are given the opportunity to fight against someone of comparable size, strength and development 8.
American Football, which is comparable to Rugby in the physicality required and the need for players of a range of sizes depending on position, has also had weight restrictions in place for under age players for some time. Within these gradings, there are minimum and maximum weights, with players falling outside this range being required to play at a grade lower or higher. In addition to this there is a mid-range weight which is used to dictate the positions that particular players are allowed to play in addition to dictating how much they can be involved in actively playing the ball. These grades are indicated by specific decals on their uniform 9.
Both boxing and American Football allow for growth in players over the season with specific figures put on how much weight they can gain while remaining eligible to play at their grade. Both sports (and others with weight grading) are cognisant of, and attempt to educate players, coaches and parents in the dangers of severe dieting and weight loss measures to attempt to come in under weight for their grade.
In Scottish schools Rugby (under the SRU) senior schools level is equivalent to Under 18’s and open to players aged 16 to 18. However, if a 15 year old player has a grip strength and weight above the set level then they are permitted to play senior Rugby at any position other than the front row. The levels set are the grip strength and height of an average 17 year old boy (given that most senior schools players are 17 years old) as detailed in a study by Backous et al (1990)12. Nutton et al (2012)13 looked at the suitability of these limits and also the current maturity levels of boys aged 12-18 within Scottish Under Age Rugby.
Currently a number of competition organisers under the New Zealand (NZRU) Rugby Union have weight cut-off criteria for age grades which require players over a given weight to move up an age grade to facilitate them playing with similar sized players. This has been done in these territories due to the concerns regarding the larger size of some children, especially from ethnic backgrounds where children tend to develop earlier, compared to the average for their age and the perceived injury risk to smaller children when playing with or against them. This practice is generally more common in areas where the playing population is large enough to allow this practice while providing playing opportunities to all players, irrespective of their size.
Taking the Canterbury (New Zealand) Metropolitan Rugby guidelines on weight restrictions they have restrictions in place from Under 8’s up to Under 13 with minimum and maximum weights being applicable to each age group. Any player outside of those limits must move to the grade above or below unless an exemption has been applied for and approved. In addition to weight grades, some competition organisers offer restricted weight competitions where only athletes with a weight within a given range can play.
Table 1 gives a comparison between the weight grading structures (in kg) for the Canterbury Metropolitan Rugby (CMR) and Indian Football Conference (IFC) (an American Football league based in Oklahoma) for equivalent age grades.
The restricted weight for the IFC is used to distinguish between positions that players can play. These positions relate to those where physical stature and strength are paramount and also where the potential for being tackled by bigger players exists.
All codes investigated allow for a certain amount of weight gain throughout the season and also have procedures for applying for exemptions to the weight guidelines. In addition, they are cognisant of, and attempt to educate players, coaches and parents in the dangers of severe dieting and weight loss measures to attempt to come in under weight for their grade.
Another consideration when creating weight restrictions is the age at which players begin to develop and use the more physically demanding aspects of Rugby such as tackling, rucking, mauling and scrummaging. With different Unions introducing these aspects (or parts of them) into age grade Rugby at different times it is important to reflect these developments when assessing the presumed risks in allowing relatively more physically developed children to play with their peer group.
For example, while some countries such as the NZRU introduce tackling rucking, mauling from Under 8’s others, such as Rugby Canada don’t introduce these concepts until Under 11’s in the case of tackling and Under 13s in rucking and mauling. Contested scrummaging on the other hand is introduced by USARugby from Under 9’s while NZRU wait until Under 12’s to introduce contested scrimmaging and U14’s for lineout lifting.
While Rugby does not have the same specificity at positions and involvement in play as American Football does, similar restrictions could be placed on players in relation to whether they play in a position where they are exposed to a higher risk of injury. This practice may, however, restrict a player from finding the position which best suits them, a result best achieved by allowing players to try out different positions as they learn the game.
There are a number of issues to be taken into consideration when adopting weight guidelines in any sport which are related to the physical, cognitive and psychosocial development of the player in question.
One measure of the physical developmental stage of a player is Peak Height Velocity (PHV). Typically, this stage of growth occurs for females between 12 and 13 years (but this can vary between 10 and 15 years of age) and for males between 13 and 14 years of age (this can, in reality, occur between 11 and 15 years of age). While the maturity events that take place during the adolescent growth spurt occur in sequence, the timing of these events is highly variable among individuals.
The sequence of growth stage spurts starts with stature (PHV) and is followed with body mass and then by strength. Menarche (onset of menstruation) in girls always follows the increase in body mass stage.
While the mass gain in boys following PHV is as a result of a decrease in fat and an increase in muscle mass, girls tend to experience an increase in body fat with relatively small increases in muscle tissue resulting in girls tending to have about two thirds of the muscle found in boys, and roughly twice the body fat.
This increase in mass for boys is an indication that an increase in strength is likely to occur but there is no guarantee that it will have already begun. This could mean that, although a player may be the same size as a player older than him he does not necessarily have an equivalent strength to the older player, placing him at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to participating in a physically demanding sport like Rugby.
As the age at which the adolescent growth spurt occurs varies, there will also be a variation in the readiness of being able to compete in sports events against peers. The significant differences in age that the growth spurt can occur at means that, in sports programs matched on age, a number of the competitors will be disadvantaged if they are late maturing.
Late maturing athletes are at a distinct disadvantage in physically demanding sports due to their smaller size in comparison to their cohort of team mates and opponents and are likely to experience less success in the years leading up to adolescent maturity. One solution is to direct late maturing athletes to less physically dependent sports (or sport variations such as Rugby Sevens which could be used to retain players within the sport) and/or delay their entry into a sport until they have reached a physical maturity that will allow them to compete with their peers.
Early maturing athletes have an advantage in sports where size, speed and physical strength play a major role in success. This is true until the athlete’s peers begin to catch up in physical maturity. While it is thought that heavier and stronger children playing against lighter and weaker peers creates an increased risk of injury to the smaller athletes, there is no empirical evidence to suggest that this is the case. There is a suggestion, however, that injuries such as fractures are more likely to occur during the period of PHV when there may be an imbalance between muscle strength and relative bone strength and that poor playing fields, inadequate protective equipment and insufficient supervision by instructors with limited knowledge may contribute to the incidence of injury1.
The large potential variation in physical development also means that consideration should be given to allowing smaller, lighter players the opportunity to play down an age grade to ensure they are playing at an appropriate level with similarly sized players.
As sport is a major part of the life of a large proportion of young people, it is only natural that it is seen as a factor in the mental development of young athletes.
Participation in sport peaks at around 12 years of age 1 so, it is at this age that the influence of sporting experience will have the greatest impact on an athlete’s mental development and also on the athlete’s perception of sport and their participation in it.
There are three psychological issues relevant to the guidelines for children’s participation in sport; these begin to develop between the ages of 8 and 12.
The following reasons for initial and continued participation in sport among young athletes (for children and adolescents participating in sport the pattern for both boys and girls were shown to be similar) have been proposed by researchers1,2:
It is only as the athletes get older that extrinsic incentives such as winning, trophies and playing at an elite level become primary motivational factors.
Factors given for the withdrawal from organised sport by young athletes include:
In relation to the issue of sport withdrawal, there are a number of misconceptions in relation to it2. While these notions are sometimes a reality, generally speaking research shows that they are not the rule:
Refers to an athlete’s ability to process information that allows them to perform the skills required of a specific sport or activity. This also includes an athlete’s ability to recognise others viewpoints and to adapt behaviour as well as display problem solving skills and how they perceive their own performance.
Research indicates that younger children (age 8-9) use adult feedback and evaluation to gauge performance while older children (10-14) rely more on feedback gained from peer group evaluation1,2,7.
Children do not develop a mature overall understanding of the notion of competition until they are approximately 12 years of age. As with physical maturation, the age at which this development begins and the length of time it takes varies from child to child.
Follows on from the cognitive factors affecting the readiness for children to participate at different levels of sport. Creating a competitive atmosphere that is inappropriate for the developmental stage of a child can create negative psychological effects. This can occur where the level of competition is mismanaged and inappropriate for the level of maturation of an athlete. A lack of both motivational and cognitive readiness within the young athlete and can also be linked to a lack of motivating factors to be involved in sport in the first place and lead to withdrawal from the sporting activity.
Typically within Rugby development pathways, the level of competition and the skills required develop as the child progresses through age grades, which goes some way to alleviating the potential for these harmful factors.
What these pathways can often disregard is the effect that parental pressure and continual peer group evaluation can create further stresses for the child. This is especially true of less cognitively developed children playing with more developed children as can be the case when a child is forced to play at a higher age grade due to physical factors rather than choosing to do so as a way of fulfilling a greater need for competition or development of ability.
Taking all these factors on board, it is accepted that the current method of separating youth sports into gradings based on age is a method that is generally the most efficient means of performing what can be a complex task. While, the method of determining the categorisation of age groups can have its own issues (one example is the Relative Age Effect11), the above factors need to be considered when finding a solution to grading the minority of children who don’t fit within the general rule of age. This cannot so easily be achieved through a single solution that is expected to cover all circumstances but rather through consideration for the physical and mental development of the individual child in question.
It is important when creating weight guidelines for Age Grade Rugby to take into account the recommended guidelines in relation to children playing Age Grade Rugby outside of their age group (maximum recommended two years), in addition it is important to ensure that the player in question is playing at a level that allows them to gain enjoyment from the game through ensuring they are capable of playing and understanding the game at the level prescribed as well as being allowed to play with their friends and with children of their own physical and mental age where possible1.