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U.S. Soccer Bio-Banding revisited with High Performance Director James Bunce

U.S. Soccer’s man behind Bio-Banding provides further context on the new youth development initiative.

New York City FC v Los Angeles FC Photo by Katharine Lotze/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece looking at and critiquing a new youth development initiative introduced by the United States Soccer Federation called Bio-Banding. I wasn’t exactly positive. Bio-Banding hoped to address a real enough problem: the dominance of players at youth levels who are more physically mature than other players they play with, creating an incentive for physical play over technical and positional skills. After all, it doesn’t matter how many step-overs you can do on the ball if the opponent can just push you over and take the ball.

Bio-Banding is supposed to address this by evaluating how developed a player is, and then giving him or her an opportunity to play with players that match that point in their development, rather than strictly by age. I was worried about how rigid this would be. Combining age and maturity could be used to divide kids into ever smaller and smaller groups, a process that would make errors more likely and more problematic. And I had a problem with the messaging. We need to be creating more flexibility in our youth systems and encouraging coaches to use that flexibility to help all soccer in America, not creating more rigid and specialized systems that aim to foster only the best of the best.

After the article was published, I got an email from U.S. Soccer’s communications office indicating they had seen the article and wanted to discuss Bio-Banding further. I was skeptical.

Still, I said “yes” to the interview.

Look, when the Federation comes by saying that they want to talk, I’m not turning them down. That’s simply too good of an opportunity. It’s not everyday that I get to talk to someone literally working at crafting the highest levels of our sport in the country. And that’s how I wound up in an hour long phone conversation with James Bunce, U.S. Soccer’s High Performance Director, the man behind Bio-Banding.

Through my phone, Bunce spoke with a quick voice in a very English accent. He had a clear earnestness about him. From the beginning, he wanted a good-faith conversation with a focus on the well-being of the sport in the country. So, for a bit, I simply let him talk. No questions. Just a straightforward account of his story and how Bio-Banding came to be.

It was only after he had started to explain that he was the Head of Athletics at Southampton that the pieces clicked in my head and I realized who exactly it was I was talking to. It was then that I realized that I wasn’t merely talking to a believer in Bio-Banding. I was talking to the creator.

A Southampton Start

Bunce has a tendency to lean rather heavily on his story with Southampton. And, indeed, it is quite the story. While Bunce spent three years with the English Premier League’s office after leaving Southampton, eventually being named the Head of Performance, before joining USSF as the federation’s Head of Performance in early 2017, it’s at Southampton that he spent time working hands-on with young players. After graduating with a degree in sports science, Bunce found a way into a full-time position with club. He worked with the club for 9 years. And during that time period, Bunce found a player named Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. If you have seen interviews or profiles on Bunce, chances are good that you are familiar with the Oxlade-Chamberlain story.

At the time, Southampton were deep in financial trouble. The club had been relegated from the Premier League in 2005 and, with the drop to the Championship, were forced to sell off valuable players like Gareth Bale (then a teenager who had relatively recently graduated from Southampton’s academy) at lower valuations. The club was relegated again in 2009 after being placed into administration. Southampton was forced to turn to its famed academy in order to generate revenue. It was in this context where the club’s entire strategy hinged on producing good players and then selling them to cover the team’s costs. The academy had to be producing players. And it was in this high-stakes environment that Bunce was operating when he took notice of Oxlade-Chamberlain, then a player in the academy.

Oxlade-Chamberlain excelled technically. However, that didn’t translate into games. It occurred to Bunce that the reason this young player was struggling so much wasn’t because he wasn’t talented, but simply because he was smaller. Oxlade-Chamberlain hadn’t hit the same growth milestones as his peers yet, and, as a result, he was being dominated physically. Bunce looked at situation and decided to do something small, yet radical with Oxlade-Chamberlain. He worked with the player and his family and kept Oxlade-Chamberlain back a year so that he played with kids a year younger than him. The move worked. Oxlade-Chamberlain eventually hit his growth spurts and grew into a highly accomplished young player. He soon debuted for Southampton before being sold to Arsenal in 2011, just shy of his 18th birthday, for a £12 million transfer fee. Last August, he was sold to Liverpool for £35 million. Southampton returned to the Championship in fall of 2011 before securing a second successive promotion in 2012, this time, to the Premier League.

Liverpool v Manchester City - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Leg One
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain of Liverpool celebrates after scoring his sides second goal during the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final Leg One match between Liverpool and Manchester City at Anfield on April 4, 2018 in Liverpool, England.
Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

After Oxlade-Chamberlain, Bunce began to think about how he could implement the lessons he had learned so that he could help other players who may be underserved in the system because of where they stand in their development. Bunce, himself a sports science graduate, worked with researchers in order to develop a metric for how to identify players who would benefit from different environments. The plan wasn’t to make a perfect program. Rather, it was to more precisely target young players who needed help right when they needed help. The point of greatest divergence in youth sports is between 13 and 14, when players vary in their maturity by as much as 16%. Bio-Banding is meant to help cut that down, at least just a little bit. And this process doesn’t merely help small and technical players. Playing along development bands means that developmentally advanced players can’t rely on temporary physical advantages and, thus, have to learn other skills.

The way Bunce structured Bio-Banding in Southampton (and encouraged clubs to structure the program once he moved to the Premier League) was by creating parallel systems within the club. Players would be evaluated for their development band every few months. Kids in age ranges of rapid development were evaluated monthly. Most training and most games were unchanged. But once a week, instead of meeting with their usual team assignment, the players would train with teams formed along development bands. When other Premier League teams established similar programs, teams would occasionally scrimmage developmentally banded teams.

Changing How I Thought

I guess this is where I eat my words. At least as far as what James Bunce’s vision for Bio-Banding is, I was wrong.

I spent a lot of time in my original piece talking about how small errors in the predictions could have outsized effects. I also talked about how the messaging didn’t line up with what was needed in American soccer. It was weird to have these criticisms, criticisms that I had thought long and hard about, fall by the way-side as the conversation progressed. And then I realized that my framework for understanding this was off. I had thought that Bio-Banding was a method of dividing kids up to somehow produce slightly more elite players, even at the cost of other kids. But it’s not really a way of splitting kids into more groups. It’s about encouraging clubs to consider what kids need. I don’t know if James realized this or not, but what I heard while talking to him wasn’t about a scientifically-based method for marginally improving the outcomes in youth development. Not really. What I heard was culture change. Significant and foundational culture change.

My criticisms didn’t work because all of them were based on a vision of a rigid algorithmic process. But Bio-Banding is really supposed to be about encouraging flexibility. When I realized this, I asked exactly that. Is Bio-Banding about flexibility? And James said yes. And, to me, this was confirmation that this was really about this bigger vision on culture change.

I originally saw Bio-Banding as this scientifically-based method in order to categorize kids in order to give them specialized training. But what I got from Bunce was that it was more important to get coaches and administration to put kids in positions where they get many experiences instead of just specialized ones. It encourages clubs to think much more about how the individual kids are doing and less about the success of the teams they are on.

It sounds to me like the science only matters in that it provides a framework for people to understand and put flexibility into practice for their players. It gives a reason and an explanation for why a coach should think about a kid differently than the normal system. And it gives them a tool to say when that is appropriate.That it was about, at least in some small way, putting coaches and administrators in a position to look at a player and be able to change their play environment in order to help them grow.

In US soccer, there’s a built up system where we divide kids by age and put them into groups. If you’ve played in an organized program, you’ve experienced it. It’s a rigid system; you can’t put an older kid on a team of younger players. You just can’t. On rare occasions, a younger player will move into an older team. But that is very rare. However, Bio-Banding creates a kind of parallel system that allows kids different opportunities for growth. It doesn’t seek to replace the current system. Instead, it says that the good of the player is more important than the system. The age system is there to facilitate development, but when it’s not doing that, it’s OK to bend it and use the science of maturity as a tool to do exactly that.

As High Performance Director, James Bunce doesn’t actually wield the sort of absolute power that many of us imagine when we think of federation officials. Bio-Banding isn’t a mandate on US soccer at any level, not even the elite developmental academies. It’s a recommendation. USSF isn’t directly dictating how any one club implements it’s program. It’s up to the clubs to implement the programs as they see fit (or not implement it at all). I think this is where my criticisms should be kept. There’s a good vision behind Bio-Banding (well, I at least have been convinced of that) but that doesn’t mean that every club is going to design their program along that vision. It’s possible that some may take a lesson in rigidity away with them. And we should watch out for that. But there’s more room for optimism than I had given credit. And that’s how our conversation ended: with optimism.

As time progresses, more and more of our coaches will have experience as players themselves. As time progresses, our soccer institutions will develop and gain more understanding. And, as time progresses, more and more of our young players will develop into stand-out professionals. We are already seeing that happen. With World Cup preliminary rosters coming out, it feels like a pretty bitter time to stand as a supporter of American soccer. But that doesn’t mean that progress isn’t in the works. We’ve already seen the emergence of players like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, and Tyler Adams. And there’s more and more promising players rising and developing. There’s still a future there yet.

As always, we want to hear what you think. Leave a comment below. And, of course, a big thank you to James Bunce for talking with me and to U.S. Soccer for making this happen.