fitness training and fitness assessment in junior sport

What is the value of fitness training and fitness assessment in Junior Football?

This was an interesting topic to be asked to present on at the 2014 AFL National Coaching Conference. I once worked in a secondary school that fitness tested all students in Years 8-12 twice a year and reported those results to parents. It took up a of of time each semester. Having been "in the game" for 26 years, I am aware that the idea of fitness testing students, as a form of standardised national testing in PE, periodically surfaces in Australia and each time is quickly opposed by the peak professional body for Health&PE in Australia, the Australian Council for Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (ACHPER). The  ACHPER SA Branch has a position statement questioning the value and validity of fitness testing in school PE which is a useful read, but does fitness training and assessment have any value in community sport settings like junior Australian football clubs?

My understanding of the skill acquisition literature and physical activity literature is that the best thing coaches can do for junior players is maximise their time "with the ball". Stated very generally, confidence in one's competence is a good predictor of one's choice to be active and choice to participate once one reaches adolescence. I believe a better framing is to talk about physical activity accumulation rather than fitness. This directs coaches (and PE teachers) to practice structures that decrease waiting times for "turns" and to maximise time spent active at practice. It also directs coaches to encourage players to continue their game development away from formal practice sessions through "pick up games" in the park, the backyard or on the street, or as Professor Damien Farrow illustrated in his conference session, through coach developed practice cards that players can take with them to direct informal practice outside of club practice sessions.

Designing practice to maximise physical activity accumulation serves the added benefit of conditioning the mind to "stay engaged in the game" for longer periods in contrast to traditional practice activities involving players waiting for a turn to run off the line: in these activities players minds are able to switch off football to other distractions while they wait to re-engage with the next turn. They are not being taught to sustain a game active mind during these body and mind breaks typical of "skill and drill" practice sessions (and here, the same might be said of the historically common drill based PE practice).

Prioritise putting a ball in junior players’ hands over fitness training and assessment
Llyod, Colley & Trebley's (2010) suggested to identify children with low physical fitness and promote positive health behaviours such as encouraging children to be active. Fitness training junior players (and students in primary PE), however, is compromised by the natural variation in biological development evident in any age group. Simply being born earlier in the year provides a benefit of greater exposure to deliberate play and practice and informal play. However, physical growth, biological maturation and behavioural development are complex and interacting contributors to physical fitness in children (Llyod, Colley & Trembley, 2010). As the diagram below from Bob Pangrazzi shows, in a group of 8 year old players skeletal growth may range from 5 years through to 11 years of age.

Added to this natural diversity of growth and development in any pre-adolescent activity setting, and therefore large functional capacity variability, is that the many pre-adolescent children (and approximately 20% of adults) are non-responders (Vo2 max) to "fitness training" (Payne & Morrow, 2003; Timmons, Knudson, Rankinen, 2010). 

So while there are undoubted health effects and growth and development advantages in encouraging children to accumulate the recommended minimum of 60 minutes or more of moderate intensity physical activity everyday, is there any real benefit in incorporating fitness training activities during children's sport practice given the biological variability and physiological nature of children, especially if it comes at the expense of players spending time engaging "with the ball?". This is a pertinent question given suggestions that today's children and youth are less movement capable than previous generations (see the Active Healthy Kids Global Alliance Report Cards for the "state of play" of motor development in your country)

Game-based practice can be used specifically for conditioning players for team sport participation 
With adolescents and adults, an alternative is to use game-based conditioning. There is a lot of evidence from Association football (soccer) research to suggest that game-based training can provide aerobic, agility, speed and acceleration conditioning comparable to traditional fitness training activities (a nice summary is found at Small Sided Games for Football ). The benefit for junior and youth football of game-based training used for the purpose of conditioning is the potential for conditioning training, tactical training and movement skill training combined into one activity that works with children and youths motivations to play. Rick Charlesworth called these games Designer Games (for more information on the idea of Designer Games, see the article in this publication )

Fitness is a broad concept – it refers to a set of attributes that people have or achieve relating to their ability to perform physical activity for a particular purpose

Generally, when I hear coaches (and PE teachers) talking about fitness training they are referring to endurance or what is sometimes called aerobic fitness: for example, the players struggled to participate in the practice as they lacked "fitness". Fitness is, however, attributed to a combination of components -for example, Speed, Acceleration, Agility, Power, Strength, Aerobic Endurance. Genetics also plays a large factor in performance capability in these components (for more on this, see this interesting blog How much Does Genetics Really Affect Your Fitness? that summarises the research in this area).
Who will get to the ball first?
Games like Australian football are generally played in 1-to-30m running efforts to contest possession of the ball. Who will get to the ball first - the player with the highest speed, acceleration or aerobic endurance? Who is most likely to break away from the contest - the player with the highest speed, acceleration or aerobic endurance? Who is more likely to be able to stand their ground in a marking contest - the player with the highest speed, acceleration, core strength or aerobic endurance?
There are a lot of factors that come into play when considering a young players fitness - genetics, position that the player is suited to, chronological age, biological age, experience, how active the young person is outside of football are just a few. Again we see that it is very difficult to generalise the training of young players "fitness".

What about Fitness Testing?
I am not an advocate of fitness testing junior and youth footballers (or for that matter, PE classes) for many of the same reasons fitness training may be largely irrelevant for players at junior and youth level.

- Wide variations in biological age at the same chronological age
- Age differences of as little as 3 months impact performance scores
- Some people are non-responders to training
- Coaches not trained in the protocols of tests mean the test measurements lack validity and reliability
- Percentile based evaluative feedback fitness tests (or criterion referenced tests) confound the issue of relative fitness by failing to take maturation into account (Harris & Cale, 2006)
- Children and youth often view these tests in a negative manner. They dislike fitness testing, find it competitive or boring, and often are not motivated and prepared to participate in the various tests and this carries over into future physical activity (Silverman, Keating & Phillips, 2008).
 - The appropriateness of some fitness tests for use with children is questionable as the tests were developed for adults (eg. the Multistage Fitness Test was developed for use with elite, adult populations) and a child’s metabolic, cardiopulmonary, thermoregulatory, and perceptual responses to exercise are different from those of adults
I do believe that in PE there may be some merit in using fitness testing to stimulate understanding of sport conditioning principles with adolescents and to teach about fitness concepts associated with education about movement and the associated students achievement outcomes of the curriculum. In this scenario, fitness assessments would be used as stimulus material and formatively to assist education and not used as summative assessment.

At the conference, we demonstrated how closed and open drills and carefully designed small-sided games can be used for the purpose of conditioning players while practicing movement skills and game-based decision making. Day 2 Keynote, Darren Burgess demonstrated how the manipulation of game constraints, such as the size of the small-sided games playing space, can be used for a different conditioning effect. He also emphasised warming up with the ball at all levels of game development. A persistent theme across the conference was "get the children playing games".

In Conclusion
Informed by the extant literature, I believe it is much better to focus on teaching young players the game and to focus on physical activity accumulation during practice through the use of practice task design that maximises individual activity. This includes an emphasis on game-based training that incorporates different types of small-sided games. There is also value in coaches encouraging physical activity outside of formal practice times to help children and youth to achieve the health benefits that derive from accumulated physical activity. There is also evidence of the value of this "backyard" game play in the long term development of playing talent as young people engaged in this type of play accumulate additional game-like practice volume typical of the background profile of elite performers. Therefore - The best thing coaches (and PE teachers) of junior and youth players can do is to put a ball in their players hands and facilitate play.


  1. Very well written. Keep up the good work!

    Wonderful post! Youve made some very astute observations and I am thankful for the the effort you have put into your writing. Its clear that you know what you are talking about. I am looking forward to reading more of your sites content.
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  2. Fitness is essential for adults as well as kids . Holiday clubs can bridge this gap between physical activity and studies and prove to be useful for fitness.


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