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Growth and development of Male

gymnasts, swimmers, soccer and
tennis players: A longitudinal study

Article in Annals of Human Biology September 1995

DOI: 10.1080/03014469500004072 Source: PubMed


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Nicola Maffulli Michael A Preece

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ANNALS OF HUMAN BIOLOGY, 1995, VOL. 22, NO. 5, 3 8 1 - 3 9 4

Growth and development of male gymnasts, swimmers, soccer and

tennis players: a longitudinal study


?University of London, UK
:~University of Aberdeen, UK
Received 15 December 1994; revised 20 May 1995
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Summary. l~lite adult athletes are known to have physical and physiological
characteristics specifically suited to their sport. However, it is not clear whether the
observed adult differences arise because of training or whether the sport selects the
individual with the appropriate characteristics. The purpose of this prospective study was
to compare and contrast the physical development of young athletes (8-19 years), and in so
doing provide a possible response to this question. Development of anthropometric
characteristics and sexual maturation were assessed in a group of 232 male athletes for three
consecutive years. Parental heights were used to predict target heights. The subjects were a
randomly selected group of young British athletes, from four sports: soccer, gymnastics,
swimming and tennis. Using a linked longitudinal cohort study design (age cohorts 8, 10,
12, 14 and 16 years) it was possible to estimate a consecutive ll-year development pattern,
For personal use only.

over the 3-year testing period. The adjusted mean (ANCOVA) height, accounting for age
and pubertal status, of male swimmers (161.6_+0.6cm) was found to be significantly
greater (p <0.01) than gymnasts (150.7 + 0"8 cm) and soccer players (158.7 _+0.6 cm), and
their adjusted mean body mass (51.3 +_0-6 kg) significantly greater (/7 < 0"01) than the other
groups. When testicular volumes were compared, it was found that swimmers had
significantly larger volumes than gymnasts and tennis players from 14 to 16 years of age
(p <0.05). Gymnasts' growth curve of testis size was characteristic of late maturers, the
swimmers' curve was characteristic of early maturers. As all the young athletes started
training prior to puberty the observed late sexual maturation of gymnasts and early
maturation of swimmers suggests some form of sports-specific selection. Training did not
appear to have affected these young athletes' growth and development; rather their
continued success in sport appeared to be related to inherited traits.

1. Introduction
Interest in the effect that intensive training at an early age has on a child's growth
and development has a long history. At the beginning of this century D'arcy
Thompson (1917) suggested that exercise was a direct stimulus to growth. However,
more recent publications suggest that intensive training has little, if any effect, on a
child's growth (Malina 1994a). Although it has been suggested that the effects of
exercise on somatic growth p e r se become important only if a child's level of activity
falls below a biologically essential threshold (Cooper 1994), differences in physique
between young athletes probably reflect selection at a relatively young age for the size
demands of a specific sport.
I~lite adult athletes have physical and physiological characteristics specifically
suited to their sport. However, it is not clear whether the observed adult differences
arise because of training or whether the sport selects the individual with the
appropriate characteristics. Tanner (1964), studying the physique of Olympic athletes,
concluded that athletes were born and made, suggesting that the required body
structure for each sport had to be present at birth and that the required training then
had to be undertaken in order to achieve sporting success. Although early studies
suggested that exercise increased the rate of growth, in particular stature (Thompson
1917, Adams 1938), these results have been disputed (Tanner 1962). More recently it

0301-4460/95 $10-00 1995 Taylor & Francis Ltd.

382 A . D . G . Baxter-Jones et al.

has been suggested that the apparent early acceleration in stature observed in some
sports is probably related to early sexual maturation rather than to intensity of
training (Malina, Meleski and Shoup 1982, Mirwald, Bailey, Cameron and Rasmussen
1981). The reverse is true for sports such as gymnastics and diving where the
prepubertal physique gives a performance advantage. Many young athletes have
marked advancements i n sexual maturity (Malina 1994a) reflecting the performance
advantages associated with early maturation (Beunen I989, Baxter-Jones and Helms
It should be emphasized that regular physical training is only one of many factors
that may affect the growing child, and that it is difficult to define the precise influence
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that training programmes have on growth. An additional problem is that athletes and
non-athletes are commonly compared in order to make inferences about the effects of
physical training on growth and development. Any differences found are attributed to
physical training despite the fact that young athletes are likely to have been selected as
much for body size as for skill (Beunen 1989).
Although increases in strength and endurance are an established feature of growth
and development (Malina 1983) and of training (Ekblom 1969, 1971, Eriksson 1972,
Saltin and Rowell 1980), knowledge of the independent effects of physical training on
growth are still limited (Maffulli and Helms 1988). In part this is because the majority
of studies in this area have been cross-sectional in design, making the conduct of
prospective longitudinal studies necessary to further clarify the nature versus nurture
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debate (Malina 1994b). The present study describes the results of a longitudinal study
of growth and development of male athletes from four sports.

2. Methods
2.1. Subjects
A random sample of young athletes was drawn from within a 320-mile radius of
London, the study base. Ethical consent for the study was given by the joint Hospital
for Sick Children/Institute of Child Health ethical committee. Lists of intensively
training athletes were obtained from the British Lawn Tennis Association, the English
Football Association, the British Amateur Gymnastic Association and the British
Amateur Swimming Association. Once selected, the athlete's parents were contacted
with an outline of the study's proposals. All subjects accepted into the study were
required to provide written informed parental consent and a firm commitment to
participate. The criteria for inclusion were that all athletes were being intensively
trained (thresholds provided by each sport's governing body) and/or that they had
performance success at national level in the past or were expected to achieve it in the
future (Rowley i993). To avoid any systematic or personal bias a random selection
procedure was performed to select subject by sport, birth year and gender. Scrutiny of
the lists of eligible children revealed that in most cases there was a surplus over the
planned group sizes. Where children declined to take part in the project, this surplus
was used to reselect more candidates to balance the group.
In total 453 subjects were recruited, 231 males and 222 females. The present paper
presents data from the male subjects only. Data of female subjects' sexual
development have been published elsewhere (Baxter-Jones, Helms, Baines-Preece and
Preece 1994). Age distribution of the sample in year 1 is illustrated in table 1. Initial
measurements commenced in February 1988. At the end of the second year (January
1990), 201 out of the original 231 subjects (87%) were still involved in the study. By
the end of the study (December i990), 143 subjects remained (62O7o). Those subjects
Growth and development o f male athletes 383

Table 1. Distribution of subjects by birth year and sport.

Birth year Soccer Gymnastics Swimming Tennis
1971 12 7 10 12
1973 25 10 14 15
1975 28 10 15 18
1977 -- 6 15 19
1979 -- 5 -- 10
Totals 65 38 54 74 = 231
Subjects were measured for three consecutiveyears starting in 1988, when those born in 1979 were 9
years old.
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who retired from their sport, or who were not considered to be intensively training,
were not invited back for reassessment. This was due to financial constraints imposed
by the funding body, a common problem often associated with longitudinal studies
(Rutenfranz 1986).

2.2. Study design

The study used a linked longitudinal design similar to that used by other growth
studies (Kemper 1985, Mirwald and Bailey 1986). Measurements were taken annually
for three consecutive years from 1988 to 1990. Five age cohorts were used in order to
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include prepubertal, pubertal and postpubertal children over an age range o f 8-19
years. During the course of the study the composition of these clusters remained the
same. As there were overlaps in ages between the clusters it was possible to estimate a
consecutive ll-year development pattern over the much shorter period of 3 years (Bell

2.3. Measures
The age of the subject was recorded to the nearest 0.01 year by subtracting the
decimal year of the subject's date of birth from the decimal year of the day of the test
(Tanner and Whitehouse 1983). Since the subjects were not selected by age, but by year
of birth, their age varied by up to 11 months at each visit. To create standardized age
groups, subjects were classified into age groups at the time of measurement. A
14-year-old boy was defined as a boy tested within the age range 13-49-14.50 years.
This criterion was used throughout the testing, within the cohorts, over the 3 years.
Although subjects returned each year, they were not measured at exactly the same
time each year. However, intervals between measurements were never less than 12
months or greater than 15 months.
Anthropometry was conducted in accordance with the guidelines provided by
Tanner and Whitehouse (1983). Subjects were fully accustomed to the experimental
procedures prior to measurement sessions. Subjects were measured wearing a pair o f
shorts only. Measurements were carried out by two of the authors (N. M. and
J. C. B. P.), who were trained in the Growth Clinic at the Hospital for Sick Children,
London, UK. Both inter- and intra-tester variability and reliability were such that the
results for each measurement were reproduced within 0-57o of the initial value in at
least 85070 o f cases (Maffulli 1991).
Stature was measured to the nearest millimetre with a Harpenden stadiometer
(Holtain Ltd, Crosswell, UK). For accuracy the measurement was performed twice
and the results averaged (Cameron 1978). The standard deviation o f the differences
384 A . D . G . Baxter-Jones et al.

between measurements was 0-17cm, giving a standard error of measurement of

0.12cm. The mean arithmetical difference for standing height was 0"03 cm.
Parental heights were used to calculate target height using the traditional formula
for assessing final height, defined as: target height= [(mother's height (cm)
+ 13 cm)+ father height (cm)]/2 (Tanner 1989), where 13 cm represents the average
height difference between the sexes (Tanner, Goldstein and Whitehouse 1970).
Body mass was measured to the nearest 100g on a Soehnle electronic scale
(Soehnle, Bonn, Germany). Triceps, biceps, subscapular and suprailiac skinfolds were
measured bilaterally using a Harpenden skinfold calliper (Holtain Ltd, Crosswell,
UK). Although growth and development evoke changes in body composition that
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affect the conceptual basis for estimating fatness and leanness in children (Lohman
1989), prediction of percentage fat from skinfold thicknesses has been found to be an
acceptable method for the assessment of body composition in childhood and
adolescence (Deurenberg, Pieters and Hautvast 1990). Percentage body fat was
estimated from skinfold thicknesses using the equations developed by Slaughter,
Lohman, Boileau, Horswill, Stillman, van Loan and Bemben (1988), which take into
account differences due to sex, race, and pubertal status.
External sexual maturity was visually assessed using the indices developed by
Tanner (1962). Stages of genitalia development were recorded using a standard rating
of 1 to 5 (Tanner 1989). The size of testes was determined by comparing them, by
manual palpation, with standard models of increasing size (the Prader orchidometer)
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(Zachmann, Prader, Kind, Haflinger and Budliger 1974). Results were expressed as a
mean volume of the two testes.
For all variables descriptive statistics (means and standard errors) were calculated.
Significant differences were tested for multiple groups by one-way analysis of variance
(ANOVA). A Scheff6 multiple-comparison procedure for groups of unequal size
distinguished differences between groups (Snedecor and Cochran 1980). All analyses
were performed with the Statistical Analysis System Program (SAS Institute 1987) and
a p < 0.05 value was considered significant.

3. Results
When compared to standard growth charts (Tanner and Whitehouse 1983) male

gymnasts were below average height at all ages (figure 1). In contrast, male swimmers

190- ,. ...................... ~_ 97th

1~ ~
180 - .""'"'"
175- ..." e ~ ; ~ ~ 50th
170- .."" ~ "'" T
EO 1 6 5 -
..'"" T ........................ 3rd
.~ 160- ,"'""" T .:~ ......
155 -

~ lSO . . . . . . . . . .
(fJ 145-
" L.'""


Figure 1.
125 -

; 1o 1, ,'~ ;3 li 1; ,~ 1~ 1, 1;
AGE, years

Developments of stature in athletes from four sports compared with standard growth centiles
(interrupted lines). Means and standard errors (SE) are shown at each age. Standard data are taken
from height centiles of British children compiledby Tanner and Whitehouse (1983).
Growth and development of male athletes 385

Table 2. Predicted target heights from parental data by sport.

Gymnastics Swimming Tennis Soccer $

No. of subjects 35 54 74 64
Father's height (cm) 175,0+_4.7 177.8+_5.4 178.9_+5.9 176.0+-5.5 <0.001
Mother's height (cm) 161-5_+6.5 165.4_+5-6 165.7_+5.4 162-9-+5.6 <0.001
Target heightt (cm) 174-8_+4.3 178-1_+4-1 178.8+_4.7 176.0_+4.1 <0.001
Values are means + standard deviations;
-~Subjects' target height predicted from parental heights (Tanner 1989);
$One-way analysis of variance.
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were tall for their age, with mean heights well above the 50th centile, a pattern that
was also seen in tennis players. Soccer players were close to average height from 12 to
18 years of age. At 10 years of age tennis players (140-8 + 1-2cm) were significantly
taller (p <0.01) than gymnasts (130.9 + 1.9cm). From 11 to 19 years there were no
significant differences between the heights of swimmers and tennis players. In general
soccer players were similar in height to swimmers at all ages.
Data on parental heights were collected from 229 subjects (997o of the sample) and
are summarized in table 2. On examining the differences between group means
significant F-ratios were obtained for all measures ( p < 0 . 0 0 1 ) . Subsequent
comparisons between groups (Scheff6 analysis) revealed that fathers of tennis players
For personal use only.

were significantly taller than the fathers of gymnasts (p <0.05) and soccer players
(p < 0.05). No significant differences were found between the mean heights of fathers
of tennis players and swimmers (17 > 0.05). The mothers of gymnasts were significantly
shorter than the mothers of tennis players and swimmers (p < 0.05). However, no
significant differences were found between them and the mothers of soccer players
(p < 0.05). Significant differences were found between the sports in predicted target
heights (p <0.001); subsequent multiple-comparison analysis showed that gymnasts'
target heights were significantly lower than those of tennis players and swimmers
(p <0.05).
Male gymnasts showed a pattern in body mass development similar to that seen
with stature (figure 2), with an initial lower than average body mass at 10 years of age,
26.9 kg compared to 30.1 kg (Tanner and Whitehouse 1983). By 16 years o f age mean

.............. T 97th
8o- .......... !/i
75- .-'"" ~"

0')- ..'"" ~_ 50th

>,- 50" ,.'" .............. 3rd

(~ 45- ..,,.....'"""'" .L ., ............

35- ~ " ,.-'/....'~"~ .."" ~ Gyrate

30- .,.."~~'~ ~ ....'" Swimming
25- ;~------zr~ .......... Tennis
i i i i
8 9 10 lll ll2 13 ll4 15 1~6 17 $8 ll9 20
AGE, years

Figure 2. Development of body mass of athletes (mean_-!-SE) from four sports compared to standard
growth centiles (interrupted lines) (Tanner and Whitehouse 1983).
386 A . D . G . Baxter-Jones et al.



0 10 Soccer 1 z
Swimming l L
Q. Tennis
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5" i i i t I i i i i i i i
8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

AGE, years

Figure 3. Development of percentage body fat of athletes (mean_+ SE), from four sports, estimated
from skinfold measures (Slaughter et al. 1988).

body mass of gymnasts (58-0 + 2.4 kg) was close to that predicted for this age. Up to
the age of 15 years the mean body masses for the three other sports were close to the
50th centile. However, after this age there was an increase in body mass, so that at 19
years all sports, with the exception of gymnastics, were well above the 50th centile. In
the oldest age groups, swimmers approached the 97th centile. Comparisons between
For personal use only.

the sporting groups showed that swimmers were significantly heavier than gymnasts at
all ages. Figure 3 shows the development of percentage body fat. At 10 years of age
gymnasts had significantly less body fat than tennis players (F1,16,p < 0.01). However,
from 11 to 13 years no significant F-ratios were found between the sports. At 14 years
of age swimmers had significantly less body fat than tennis players (p < 0"05). At 17
years of age gymnasts had significantly lower values than tennis and soccer players
(p < 0.05).
The mean chronological age in each genitalia development stage is shown in table
3. Pubertal changes began to appear (genitalia stage 2) between 9-9 and 15.4 years
(mean= 12.5 +0.08 years) and full maturity began to be attained (genitalia stage 4)
between 11.6 and 18.4 years of age (mean= 14.5 +0.11 years). One-way analysis of
variance (ANOVA) found significant differences in age between the sports at genitalia
stages 2, 3 and 4 (p <0.05). Subsequent secondary analysis revealed that gymnasts
reached genitalia stage 2 at a significantly later mean age than tennis players and
swimmers (p < 0.05). At genitalia stage 4 gymnasts' mean chronological age was still
significantly older, by nearly a year, than the other sports (p <0.05).

Table 3. Mean chronological age at each stage of genitalia development.

Gymnastics Swimming Tennis Soccer ~

No. of subjects 18 18 40 20
Stage 2 13.5+_0.2 12.6_+0.2 12.7_+0-2 13.3_+0-1 <0.01
No. of subjects 5 10 13 13
Stage 3 15.3_+0.6 13"3 _ + 0 . 2 13.3_+0-3 14.1_+0'2 <0.01
No. of subjects 12 23 27 28
Stage 4 15.6_+0"4 14.7_+0.2 14.8_+0.2 14.7_+0.2 <0.05
Values are means-+ standard errors;
tOne-way analysis of variance.
Growth and development of male athletes 387

26- ."""""" ....... .~............. 90th

E 21
..: Y 50th

~ l O t h
f/ /IYY
-J 11-
.,': ."" Gymnastlce
ff) .-: ." Swimming
p- 6- .." / Soccer
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t t i i
10 1'1 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19
AGE, years

Figure 4. Development of testis size of athletes (mean_+SE) from four sports compared with standard
centiles (interrupted lines) from healthy males (Tanner 1989).

Figure 4 shows the development of testicular volume in the four sports compared
to standard growth centiles (Tanner 1989). All the data fell within the normal
predicted range for healthy children. On examining differences between groups, non-
significant F-ratios were obtained between 9 and 13 years of age (ANOVA, p < 0-05).
For personal use only.

However, at 14 years of age there were significant differences (/9<0.05) and

subsequent comparisons between groups revealed that swimmers' mean testicular
volumes were significantly greater than those of soccer players (p < 0-05). By 15 years
of age both swimmers (mean = 18-9 _+0-7 ml) and soccer players (mean = 16.7 +_0-9 ml)
had significantly greater volumes than gymnasts (mean = 11.6 +_l" 5 ml) and the 50th
centile (15.0ml). Gymnasts' mean testicular volume at 16 years of age was over 4-5 ml,
smaller than the reference mean of 19ml. In comparison no significant differences
(p >0"05) were found between the other sports, all of whom had larger volumes than
the mean reference value. Gymnasts therefore matured at a later-than-predicted age;
significantly later (/9<0-05) than the other three sports. However, by 19 years no
significant differences were found between the sports mean testicular volumes, all of
which were greater than the 50th centile (figure 4).

4. Discussion
The data presented suggest that regular training was not affecting attained stature,
testicular volume or genitalia development. However, interpretation is confounded by
the fact that subjects' initial participation ages ranged between 6"3 and 7.6 years
(Rowley 1992), suggesting that training effects could have occurred prior to the
investigation. Swimmers' and gymnasts' growth curves of stature and testicular
development were characteristic of early and late maturers, respectively. Added to the
fact that predicted target heights were significantly different between sports, this would
seem to imply that training was not affecting growth. It seems more likely that athletes
with the appropriate body size were self-selecting themselves into the appropriate
Although earlier studies have suggested that stature is affected by regular training
(Schwartz, Britten and Thompson 1928, Milicer and Denisiuk 1964, Ekblom 1971,
Delmas 1982, Bouix, Brun, Fedou, Raynaud, Kerdelhue, Lenoir and Orsetti 1994)
none of these studies took sexual maturation into account. The increase in stature
388 A . D . G . Baxter-Jones et al.

observed in these studies was probably related to early maturation and the associated
growth spurt. When developmental age was taken into account Mirwald et al. (1981)
observed no difference in stature between highly active and inactive boys. The present
study has shown that, although gymnasts were short for their chronological age, they
also had late sexual development. It has been suggested that the intensity of the
physical activity in females can suppress reproductive function and thus influence
growth (Heath 1985, Theintz, Howald, Weiss and Sizonenko 1993). However, Bell
(1993), in a longitudinal study of growth of active and sedentary boys, found no
evidence to suggest that growth and development was greatly affected by either the
nature or the level of sporting activity.
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When interpreting the present data with reference to standard growth charts
(Tanner and Whitehouse 1983) it is important to be aware that these reference charts
are now nearly 30 years old (Tanner 1989). Over the past 100 years children have been
getting larger and attaining maturity more rapidly (Tanner 1989). New charts are
currently being produced (the Child Growth Foundation, 2 Mayfield Avenue, London
W4 1PW); these indicate that average height has increased by between 0.5 and 2 cm
from 5 to 17 years of age.
Swimmers' heights were above the reference chart's 50th centile (Tanner and
Whitehouse 1983) from 11 years of age, the earliest age group studied. In comparison
with the new charts their standing heights were still above the 50th centile of these new
charts. This observation is consistent with other reports (Malina 1994a, Sobolova,
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Seliger, Grussova, Machovcova and Zelenka 1971) which have found in general that
age-group swimmers have above-average age-predicted height. In general, young
swimmers have been shown to have either average or advanced skeletal age for their
chronological age (Malina 1994a). However, a study of the growth of competitive and
non-competitive adolescent swimmers concluded that measures of height and body
mass did not discriminate between the groups until late adolescence (Bloomfield,
Blanksby and Ackland 1990).
Although the stature of some male tennis players (from Italy, Finland and the
USA) has been found to be below the 50th centile, the results presented here agree
with those from studies of Czechoslovak players who were found to be taller and
heavier than a reference population (Malina 1994a). The stature of soccer players in
the present study approximated the reference mean, a trend consistent with data from
previous studies (Bell 1988, Mazzanti, Tassinari, Bergamaschi, Nanni and Magnani
1989, Kirkendall 1985, Pena Reyes, Cardenas-Barahona and Malina 1994).
Development of stature in gymnasts showed a different pattern; they were already
shorter than their average age-predicted height on entry into the study. This trend was
maintained throughout childhood and early adolescence. However, by 18 years of age
their heights were close to the 50th centile. This pattern of growth in stature is
characteristic of late sexual maturation (Tanner 1989), an observation that was backed
up by their apparent later development of testicular volume (figure 4). These results
are consistent with previous observations, which have found that on average gymnasts
are considerably shorter and lighter than reference populations (Bouchard and Malina
1977), have delayed skeletal ages relative to chronological ages (Keller and Frohner
1989) and have late development of secondary sex characteristics (Buckler and Brodie
The influence of parents' height on their children's adult height was accounted for
in the calculation of the subject's target heights (Tanner 1989). Analysis of mean
predicted target heights showed a difference of 3.3cm between swimmers and
Growth and development o f male athletes 389

gymnasts, while figure I shows the observed mean height differences at 19 years of age
to be 12.7cm. This discrepancy highlights the problems of interpreting predicted
target heights. It has been shown that it is not always possible to attain full growth
potential (Bramswig, Fasse, Holthoff, yon Lengerke, yon Petrykowki and Schellong
1990). In addition, it has been shown that late maturers tend to increase considerably
in stature even after 19 years of age (Beunen, Malina, Lefevre, Claessens, Renson,
Simons, Maes, Vanreusel and Lysens 1994).
In children, regular physical training generally results in an increase in lean body
mass and a corresponding decrease in body fat (Bailey and Mirwald 1988).
Interpretation of body composition changes during childhood is complicated because
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it is difficult to separate the effects of training from those associated with normal
growth. Although the relationship between skinfolds and body density is well
established, the use of formula converting density to percentage fat leads to an
overestimate of percentage fat (Lohman 1989). However, this limitation was
overcome by the use of new equations which took into account the effects of age and
sexual maturity on body density (Slaughter et al. 1988).
Body mass in swimmers, soccer players and tennis players were above the reference
mean, whilst percentage body fat values have been shown to be lower than those
observed in untrained children (Baxter-Jones 1995). The fact that we found body mass
in our athletes to be above the population mean probably reflects not only above-
average stature, but also increased muscle size. Although there is still much to be
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learnt about the mechanics of muscle growth, it has long been known that persistent
muscle use causes hypertrophy. Fournier, Ricci, Taylor, Fergusson, Montpetit and
Chairman (1982), in a study of adolescent boys, observed muscle hypertrophy
following endurance training. Although no strong evidence exists to suggest that
training can affect muscle fibre type distribution, the relative area of muscle fibres may
change in response to exercise (Erikson and Saltin 1974, Jacobs, Sjodin and Svane
1982). The present data would seem to confirm the results of previous longitudinal
studies which showed that intensively active boys have greater proportions and
absolute amounts of lean body mass (Parizkova 1989).
Male gymnasts had significantly lower body mass than predicted for their
chronological age. Again, it is important to interpret these data taking into account
biological age, as interpretations using chronological age can be fallacious. The low
body masses observed reflected their observed late maturation. A previous study
found that percentage body fat was considerably lower in gymnasts than in other
sports and in a non-gymnastic population (Claessens, Veer, Stijnen, Lefevre, Maes,
Steens and Beunen 1991). However, the present study's longitudinal design gives a
better insight into gymnasts' growth and development, showing that, although in
cross-section they appeared to be lighter than predicted, what was actually being
observed was their late sexual development.
Information on the maturity of young male athletes is not as extensive as that
available for young female athletes. In part this is because males do not have a
convenient maturational milestone like menarche. In general, studies of male athletes
have found that in a number of sports they have average or advanced biological
maturity (Malina et al. 1982, Beunen 1989). A study of Mexican soccer players
suggested that there was a trend for boys advanced in sexual maturation to be more
successful in soccer in late adolescence (Pena Reyes et al. 1994, Brewer, Balsom and
Davis 1995). Although data on Italian youth soccer players suggest a similar tendency
for advanced sexual development (Mazzanti et al. 1989, Cacciari, Mazzanti, Tassinari,
390 A.D.G. Baxter-Jones et al.

Bergamaschi, Magnani, Zappulla, Nanni, Cobianchi, Ghini, Pini and Tani 1990)
these results were not reproduced by the present study. However, development of
testicular volume, which is probably a better maturational index than secondary
sexual characteristics (Tanner 1989), suggested that soccer players had normal pubertal
development. In accord with previous data the present study found that male
swimmers and gymnasts had early and late maturation, respectively (Bugyi and Kausz
1970, Newble and H o m a n 1978, Osterback and Viitasalo 1986, Keller and Frohner
The observed advanced maturity seen in swimmers probably reflected
physiological advantages that early maturers have in chronologically age-banded
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competition. Szab6 et al. (1972) demonstrated that early-maturing swimmers had a

better performance in the 100-m freestyle than average or late maturers. Other studies
have also found that biological age is a better predictor of performance than
chronological age (Beunen 1989). A moderate to high correlation was found between
performance and bone development in young track-and-field athletes (Cumming
1973). The advantage of advanced sexual maturity for selection into certain sports is
also highlighted by the observation that in some sports athletes who are born at the
start of the selection year have a distinct advantage of being selected as having talent
over those born later in the year (Bar-Or 1985, Brewer et al. 1995, Dudink 1994,
Baxter-Jones and Helms 1994). However, in sports such as gymnastics late sexual
maturation is thought to give a performance advantage (Claessens et al. 1991, Buckler
For personal use only.

and Brodie 1977).

In conclusion, we found that in sports where large physiques were necessary for
performance success (i.e. swimming and tennis), these athletes tended to have
advanced sexual maturation. However, late maturation was observed in gymnasts, a
sport in which the prepubertal physique confers a performance advantage. As
differences were present in the youngest age groups studied no evidence was found to
suggest that training had caused these observed differences. Although a training effect
prior to entry into the study cannot be ruled out, it was far more likely that these
children had been selected for their specific sport because of their body build and stage
of sexual maturity.

This research was funded by the Sports Council (UK). We thank S. Rowley,
G. Garnet-Frizelle and J. Douglas for their help with data collection and
management, and Professor J . M . Tanner for his help in the conception and early
planning of the study. We are also grateful for the cooperation and participation of
the children and their parents.

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Address for correspondence: A. D. G. Baxter-Jones, Department of Child Health, University of

Aberdeen, Foresterhill, Aberdeen AB9 2ZD, UK.

Zusammenfassung. Es ist bekannt, dais erwachsene Hochleistungssportler kOrperliche und physio-

logische Charakteristika aufweisen, die fiir ihre Sportart in besonderer Weise geeignet sind. Es ist jedoch
unklar, ob die beobachteten Unterschiede bei den Erwachsenen dutch Trainingseffekte entstehen, oder ob
der Sport Individuen mit den geeigneten Merkmalen selektiert. Ziel der vorliegenden prospektiven Studie
For personal use only.

war es, die kOrperliche Entwicklung junger Sportier (8-19 Jahre) zu vergleichen und gegeniiberzustellen
und damit eine m6gliche Antwort auf diese Frage zu geben. In einer Gruppe von 232 m~innlichen
Sportlern wurde fiir drei aufeinanderfolgenden Jahre die Entwicklung anthropometrischer Merkmale
und die sexuelle Reifung untersucht. Zur Pr~idiktion der ErwachsenenhOhe wurde die K0rperh0he der
Eltern herangezogen. Bei den Probanden handelte es sich um eine zuf~illig ausgew~ihlte Stichprobe
Britischer Sportier aus vier Sportarten: FuSball, Turnen, Schwimmen und Tennis. Mittels eines
verkntipften longitudinalen Kohortendesigns (Alterskohorten 8, 10, 12, 14 und 16 Jahre) war es mOglich,
innerhalb der dreij~ihrigen Datenerhebungsperiode daN Entwicklungsmuster ftir einen Zeitraum von 11
aufeinanderfolgenden Jahren zu beschreiben. Die adjustierte mittlere (ANCOVA) K6rperhOhe, die dem
Alter und dem puberalen Entwicklungsstatus Rechnung tr~igt, war bei m~innlichen Schwimmern
(161.6_+0.6cm) signifikant grOl3er ( p < 0 . 0 1 ) als bei Turnern (150.7+_0.8cm) und FufAballern
(158.7 _+0-6cm). Ihre adjustierte KOrpermasse (51.3 _+0.6kg) war ebenfalls signifikant gr6f~er (p<0"01)
als in den anderen Gruppen. Ein Vergleich des Volumens der Testes zeigte, dab Schwimmer im Alter von
14 biN 16 Jahren ein signifikant grOSeres Volumen aufwiesen als Turner und Tennisspieler (p<0"05). Die
Wachstumskurve der Testes bei Turnern entsprach der charakteristischen Kurve fiir Sp~itentwickler, die
entsprechende Kurve for Schwimmer entsprach der ftir fr0hreifende Jungen. Da alle jungen Sportler
bereits vor der Puberdit mit dem Training begannen, sprechen die sprite Reifung der Turner und die frtihe
Reifung der Schwimmer for eine Art sportspezifischer Selektion. DaN Training scheint daN Wachstum und
die Entwicklung dieser jungen Sportier nicht beeinflulh zu haben; ihr anhaltender sportlicher Erfolg
scheint vielmehr mit vererbten Merkmalen im Zusammenhang zu stehen.

R6sum& L'61ite des athl&es adultes est connue pour pr6senter des caract6ristiques physiologiques et
physiques sp6cifiquement adapt6es ~ leur sport. Ce que l'on ne sait pan clairement cependant, c'est si ces
diff6rences r6sultent de l'entrainement ou bien s'il s'agit d'une s61ection des caract6ristiques appropri6es
exerc6e par le sport lui-m~me. Le but de cette 6tude prospective est de comparer et de distinguer le
d&eloppement physique de jeunes athl6tes (8-19 anN) afin d'apporter &entuellement une r6ponse ~ cette
question. Le d6veloppement des caract6ristiques anthropom&riques et la maturation sexuelle sont
observ6es dans un groupe de 232 athl6tes masculins pendant trois ann6es cons6cutives. Les statures
parentales ont 6t6 utilis&s pour pr6dire les statures finales. Les sujets ont 6t6 choisis au hasard parmi de
jeunes athl&es britanniques pratiquant quatre sports: football, gymnastique, natation et tennis. Au
moyen d'une technique d'6tude d'enchMnement de cohorte longitudinale (cohortes d'figes 8, 10, 12, 14 et
16anN), il a 6t6 possible d'estimer un profil de d6veloppement de onze anN, ~ partir des trois ann6es
d'observation. Apr+s consid6ration de l'~ge et du statut pubertaire, la stature moyenne ajust6e
(ANCOVA) des nageurs (161.6_+0.6cm) est significativement plus 61ev6e ( p < 0 . 0 1 ) que celle des
gymnastes (150.7 _+0.8 cm) et que celle des footballeurs (158.7 _+0"6 cm) et leur masse corporelle ajust6e
(51.3 _+0"6 kg), significativement plus forte (p <0"01) que celle de autres groupes. Quand on compare les
394 Growth and development o f male athletes

volumes testiculaires de 14 ~ 16ans, on trouve que les nageurs se distinguent significativement des
gymnastes et des joueurs de tennis (17 < 0.05) par des volumes plus grands. La courbe de croissance de la
taille des testicules des gymnastes est caract6ristiques d ' u n e maturation tardive, tandis que celle des
nageurs l'est d ' u n e maturation pr6coce. Etant donn6 que t o u s l e s athl6tes ont commenc6 leur
entrainement avant la pubert6, ces 6carts de maturation entre gymnastes et nageurs 6voquent une forme
de s61ection sp6cifique de chaque sport. L'entralnement ne parait pas affecter la croissance et le
d6veloppement de ces jeunes athletes; leur succ+s qu'ils maintiennent dans leur activit6 sportive apparait
reli6 ~t caract6res g6n6tiquement h6rit6s.
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