I’ve been a junior football coach for about five years now. And before that I produced coaching products for the FAW. I knew that young players often suffered problems due to growth spurts, but it’s not until you see the change in a young footballer before your very eyes that you realise what an effect the simple act of growing up can have on a player.
The player in question was pretty good very early. He stood out as a talented footballer in under 7 games and his skillful, left footed dribbling soon attracted attention. By the time he was nine years old he had been selected for Wrexham FC’s Development Centre in Bangor, and a year later he was accepted into the Bangor City Youth Academy.
As a 7-9 year old the thing that stood out was his balance. He moved beautifully down the wing and while I am in no way comparing his ability, the easiest way to imagine his play would be to think of Ryan Giggs. That’s the type of player he was, and he moved with a similar light-footed, well-balanced flow. While he wasn’t always the most effective player due to lack of physicality and power, he was one of the most skillful in an admittedly small catchment area.
Then about 12 months ago, he started saying that his heel hurt after training sessions on the astroturf. It was obviously a muscular complaint, but I didn’t pay too much attention. I thought it was his new astroturf shoes, and that he would get used to them. But then he received a new pair for Christmas and the problem got worse. We noticed that he just wasn’t covering the ground he used to on the flanks, and then he would limp home after a training session.
A visit to the GP was inconclusive, though Sever’s Disease was mentioned as a possibility. Quite simply, this happens when a child’s bones grow quicker than his tendons and muscles. The tendons become tight at they try to stretch to match the growth spurt. It is common amongst 10 year old children who play a lot of sport.
Bangor City noticed the problem, and sent him to an appointment with their club physio. During a two hour session, it was discovered that the player had a slight problem with flat feet. The new type of solid-based astroturf shoe wasn’t helping matters and orthopaedic inserts were recommended immediately. It was also recommended that he wore arch-supporting running shoes instead of normal trainers.
The player’s hamstrings and calf muscles were also very tight, and this is what was causing the heel pain. His bones were growing, and his muscles just weren’t keeping up. A series of stretching exercises were prescribed, along with a period of rest, which was duly taken during the Summer Holidays. No organised football for two months.
The player came back in the Autumn refreshed and with much reduced heel pain. We thought that everything would soon be back to normal. It was just a matter of time.
But he just isn’t the same player that he was before the problem developed. The tight muscles have restricted his movement, and he is very obviously running defensively. He is instinctively restricting his leg movement in order to protect himself from pain. Whether the pain would still be a problem if he ran more freely, or if this is now just a habit learnt from the period when it was, I couldn’t say. But whatever the issue, it’s changed the way he moves. He runs on his heels.
He’s still a good player. His touch is still there, and ironically, the inability to dribble and sprint past defenders like he used to has allowed his vision to develop. He is far more likely to play a killer through-ball than go on a mazy run. He has matured, and his passing and defensive game has come on. But he doesn’t move elegantly, and his stamina has dropped noticeably.
If you didn’t know him, you wouldn’t say he had a problem, you would just think he ran awkwardly and wasn’t very fit. But I’ve seen him play for the past 4 years, and the change is immense. Remember I said he moved like Ryan Giggs? Well now he looks more like Chris Waddle. He’s hunched over the ball and looks slightly uncomfortable in his own skin.
One of the tests the physio gave him was to stand on one leg with his eyes closed. He couldn’t do it. Apparently this is a common indicator that a child is going through growth spurts, and his balance and co-ordination is affected. I was told of a young goalkeeper with Liverpool Academy who simply started misjudging the flight of the ball. He had just gone through a period of rapid growth and his brain hadn’t adjusted to the length of his arms. Routine saves were being missed.
I didn’t think that good balance could be learned. But apparently it can. The physio recommended that our player brushes his teeth every morning and night standing on one foot. He suggested that this was a good way for all youth players to improve their balance, whether they have specific growth and co-ordination problems or not.
Our player is doing what he can. He does his stretches and he wears his inserts. He is working with an athletics coach to correct his running style. The hope is that once his muscles catch up with his bones that everything will be fine, and his balance will return.You hope that his coaches remain patient and make allowances for the huge changes that go on as a young boy develops. But how many good prospects have been discarded due to the effects of growth? How many prospects never attain their early promise?
Our young player is getting despondent. He keeps saying “it’s not fair that this is happening to me.” Unfortunately mate, it happens to all of us. It’s called growing up.