A comparison of sport, school year and gender in elite youth athletes

Kevin Watson & Katrina Gibbon


Purpose: Screening protocols are commonly used as a method of identifying sport specific talent. However, the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) devised by Cook et al. (2006) takes a functional approach to identify biomechanical deficiencies in movement, compensatory movements and asymmetries observed in an individual, in order to identify potential injury risk factors and limitations in functional performance. A score of 14 or less has been attributed to a higher risk of injury, (Kiesel et al., 2007). Research in this area is limited, however FMS has been positively associated with physical activity in British Primary children (Duncan & Stanley, 2012). To our knowledge, there is no published work reporting FMS scores of elite youth athletes. Methods: Glasgow School of Sport pupils between S1-S5 (11-17 year old) volunteered as participants in the study (n=83). The screening process involved participants completing the 7 FMS tests according to Cook (2006). Tests were scored individually according to Cook (2006) on a scale of 0-3 and added together to give an overall score (out of 21). Results: No significant differences were found between comparisons of sport, age or gender on average overall score and average score of individual tests. Overall, 53% of participants scored ≥15. Gender differences in overall scores exist with 49% of males compared to 62% of females scoring ≥15. Athletics and gymnastics had more than 50% of participants scoring ≥15, while badminton, hockey and swimming had less than 50% scoring ≥15. The largest difference observed was in the percentage of pupils scoring ≤14 in S1-3 compared with S4-5. Conclusion: Although not significant (p=0.09) there was a noticeable difference found between the number of pupils scoring ≤14 in S1-3 compared with S4-5. This could be due to differences in the stage of maturation within the two groups. It would be interesting for future research to compare FMS scores with stage of maturation, potentially identified by peak height velocity (PHV). No significant differences were found in comparisons between average test scores of sport, age or gender. This could be due to the small sample size within each sport and between year groups (age of pupils).


Screening protocols are commonly used as a method of identifying sport specific talent, however, they can also be utilised as a method of identifying movement deficiency in an individual that could lead to injury or limit sport performance (Schneiders et al., 2011). One such method of movement evaluation is the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) devised by Cook (2006). This screening system utilises seven basic functional tests to assess the body’s kinetic chain system and how it stabilises and controls mobility during movement.
Research in this area is relatively limited. However, FMS scores have been positively associated with physical activity and negatively associated with weight status in British primary children, (Duncan & Stanley, 2012). A study by Butler et al. (2009) involving a paediatric population (39 school children) concluded that girls score higher in FMS tests than boys. This was attributed to significantly higher scores in deep squat, in line lunge, straight leg raise and shoulder rotation. No reference was made to physical activity or maturation status of the participants but shows a significant difference exists among school age boys and girls in functional movement. It would prove interesting to observe if differences exist between sports, gender and school age in school children who participate in functional training as part of a high performance sport and strength and conditioning program at an elite sports school.

Figure 1: Percentage of overall FMS scores ≤14 and ≥15 by school year and total participants


GSOS pupils between S1-S5 (age 11-17) volunteered as participants in the study, (n=83). Participants completed 7 tests according to FMS instructions (Cook, 2006 ). Tests were conducted according to Cook’s (2006) instructions but were simplified to accommodate the age of participants. All tests were completed barefoot to eliminate the effect of variation in footwear on movement and mobility and thus results.
Each participant performed each test three times. Uni-lateral test were assessed on each side with the lowest score recorded as the overall score for that test. If the participant reported pain (related to injury or impingement not muscle soreness )a score of 0 was given as the overall score for that test. Scores between 1-3 were given individually by each scorer according to Cook’s (2006) scoring criteria, with an overall test score recorded out of 21. Screening was carried out with two scorers and filmed to allow scorers to review participant’s performance and retrospectively agree on the score of each test.
Descriptive statistics were provided between school year groups, sport and gender. Independent t-tests were used to assess any statistical significance between sports, gender and year group (age).


Figure 2: Comparison of average FMS score of sports

Figure 3: Comparison of male and female trunk stability scores

Figure 4: Comparison of male and female FMS Active Straight Leg Raise scores

Figure 5: Percentage of overall FMS scores ≤14 and ≥15 by sport


Positive trend towards better FMS scores as pupils progress to senior school
The data suggests there was a positive trend, although not significant difference, between the overall number of pupils scoring ≥15 in S4-5 compared to S1-3 year groups (figure 1) This finding is perhaps not surprising as most of the pupils in S4-5 year groups will have gone through puberty and achieved peak height velocity (PHV). Flexibility and mobility are often lost during periods of accelerated growth and development. The higher scores in these groups may suggest that the participants may have had sufficient time to develop and establish a high degree of flexibility and mobility following their major period of growth.
Highest Percentage of scores ≥15 were observed in gymnasts
The data shows that the gymnasts had the highest number of participants scoring ≥15. This would suggest that the underlying key factors in successful functional movement are mobility and strength. These attributes have been previously identified as key attributes in GSOS gymnasts (unpublished data).
Differences in test performance between males and females
Butler et al. (2009) reported school aged girls to score better than boys on the deep squat, in-line lunge, active straight leg raise and shoulder rotation. Our data partially support Butler et al. (2009) but support the observations of Schneider et al. (2011) suggesting that there is a trend, although not statistically significant difference, towards males scoring better in trunk push up and females scoring better in active straight leg raise. This would support our general observations that male and female elite youth athletes have more upper body strength and better hamstring flexibility, respectively.
FMS and strength and conditioning (S&C) training
The S&C team have recently modified the structure of the S&C programme at the Glasgow School of Sport to incorporate Olympic lifting technical training from S1 (age 11). The rationale behind this decision was that lack of mobility is the overriding factor in limiting strength development in the gym. By using the Olympic lifts as a means of improving mobility, pupils should be able to develop strength in S3/4 once they are physically capable, as opposed to spending significant time on improving mobility.
The data from this study will be used to progress research on how effective the Olympic lifts are at improving and maintaining mobility in elite youth athletes as they mature.


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1 comment:

  1. I found this study to be very interesting with its implications to the Strength and Conditioning field. Although none of the findings were exceptionally unexpected, it is nice to see scientific findings that show what many Strength and Conditioning professionals accept as common knowledge. I think it is very important to teach beginner athletes the Olympic movements with a focus on proper form instead of maximum weight. It always appears that the athletes who can complete these movements most efficiently, are the athletes who excel in sport and tend to stay more healthy. This study gives a reasoning behind this phenomena.