Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (College of Health Sciences)

Schools and Centres

Health Sciences

First Supervisor

Dr Christopher Joyce

Second Supervisor

Dr Luke Hopper


Traditional player development pathways share a common goal, to identify and accelerate the development of talented adolescent players for senior competition. Players who gain selection into development programs gain greater access to experienced coaches, training facilities, support staff and competition. However, despite such advantages, research has shown that few players who gain initial selection into development pathways progress into professional senior competition. A major factor which potentially contributes to poor player retention in development pathways is the initial misidentification of talented athletes due to variations in biological maturity.

Earlier maturing individuals have been shown to be at a physical advantage over their later maturing counterparts in traditional talent identification testing measures. While inconclusive, some research has also indicated that more mature individuals also demonstrate technical skill advantages. It is currently unknown if coaches’ perceptions of skill and potential favour earlier biologically maturing adolescent players. Performance advantages experienced by earlier maturing adolescent players likely results in selection advantages in highly competitive player development pathways, such as the Australian Football League’s Talent Pathway (AFL TP). The broad aim of this thesis was to examine the impact of maturational variation on player performance and selection in the Under 16 (U16) stage of the AFL TP.

Chapter two of this thesis investigated the developmental efficiency of the AFL TP by examining retrospective pathway involvement of players drafted into professional teams between the 2006-2012 seasons. A secondary analysis was conducted to examine the relative age of players selected into each stage of the AFL TP (U16, U18 and Draft). The results from chapter two revealed that only 27.7% of players drafted to professional teams had participated in the initial U16 stage of the AFL TP. Further, only half of the professionally selected players had any involvement in either underage level of the AFL TP. Birth distributions at every pathway stage was biased towards relatively older players however, relatively older players were also more likely to be de-selected as the pathway progressed. Results of this study demonstrate that variations in relative age between players in the AFL TP are likely to impact on pathway efficiency and long-term development outcomes.

The results of chapter two demonstrated that selection into the AFL TP may be biased by advantages associated with the relative age of the athletes and a potential effect of maturational variation. In Australian football, maturational variation in age matched players has been shown to impact on anthropometric and physical performance measures however, the effects of maturational variation on technical skill has yet to be explored. Further, the effects of maturational variation on coaches’ perceptions of skill and potential is unknown. Chapter three investigated the inter-rater reliability and validity of two technical skill assessments commonly used by the AFL. Results from this study led to the conclusion that the AFL’s skill tests were appropriate for use in subsequent studies within this thesis.

The results of chapter four highlight that earlier maturing U16 Australian footballers are significant taller and heavier than their later maturing counterparts. Earlier maturing players also possessed greater vertical jump and sprint capacities. Interestingly, no difference was found between maturational groups and performance in technical skill tests. Chapter four and five also explored the links between maturational variation and coaches’ perceptions of skill and long-term potential. The results of the analyses in chapter four demonstrate that earlier maturing individuals are perceived to possess better marking and ball winning abilities, as well as superior overall technical skills. Chapter five highlighted that coaches’ perceptions of later maturing players were significantly lower than earlier maturing individuals, with 72% of the later maturing individuals perceived by coaches to not progress further than adolescent competition. Thus, the findings of chapter four and five suggest

that because of physical advantages and favourable coaches’ perceptions, earlier maturing Australian footballers are likely to be at a selection advantage at the U16 level of the AFL TP.

Chapter six sought to compare biological maturation, anthropometric, physical and technical skill measures between talent identified and non-talent identified junior Australian footballers at the U16 stage of the AFL TP. Twenty-five talent identified (selected into the U16 stage of the AFL TP), and twenty-five non-talent identified players (non-selected) were examined. Results demonstrated that talent identified players were more mature than their non-talent identified counterparts. Further, talent identified players were also taller, performed better in dynamic vertical jump tests and scored higher in the AFL’s handball test. Predictive modelling correctly identified 84% of the talent identified and 76% of the non-talent identified players and included the measures of standing height, dynamic vertical jump off the non-dominant foot and handball test performance. The results of chapter six further highlight the problem maturational variation presents to talent identification in adolescent Australian football, as the key discriminators of height and jumping measures have been shown in chapter four to be influenced by biological maturity.

In conclusion, this thesis highlights the poor developmental efficiency of the AFL TP which may in-part be attributed to the selection of more mature adolescent athletes in early stages of the pathway. Results from chapters four and five demonstrate that as well as being at a physical advantage, coaches also perceived earlier maturing adolescent Australian footballers to possess superior technical skills and greater long-term potential. Methods to minimise the impact of maturational variation and promote greater developmental efficiencies in the AFL TP, such as the mandatory inclusion of maturational assessments and other performance tests unaffected by maturational variation, are discussed in the concluding chapter of this thesis.