Posted by admin on April 22, 2010
Early selection for elite sport participation can become a self-fulfilling prophecy for athletes and coaches. Players begin to think of themselves as talented and are thus likely to invest more time and effort into their sport with predictable results. As the identity of previously selected players becomes known to coaches and administrators, they watch those players more closely lest they miss an elite performer.1
– Francis Glamser and John Vincent
Would you give up on your kid walking if they were not walking by 12 months? Of course not! Kids grow up at different rates. There are early bloomers and late bloomers. Some children are walking at nine months, some start closer to age one and one-half years! Despite this, the late walkers do not experience a life-long struggle with walking. To state the obvious, after they have walked for a while, they are just as good at walking as their early-walking peers. We expect and accept that children will develop walking skills at different ages. As parents and coaches we need to understand and expect that young athletes will also develop skills at different ages.
In organized sports, players are grouped by age with a specific cut-off date. For example, all children born in 2006 may be placed together in the same league. With this grouping, children born on January 1 have a huge advantage over children born on December 31. They are almost a full year older. If we select players on January 1, 2010, the players born on January 1 are four years old but the players born December 31 have just turned three! The differences in development between a three year old and a four year old are profound. Parents and coaches and youth leagues fail to recognize this disparity. The players with favorable birthdays are identified as the promising young athletes and singled out for development. This phenomenon is called the “Relative Age Effect” (RAE). It is extremely well documented in sports literature.
The discovery of the RAE in children’s sports resulted from an analysis of the birthdays of professional ice hockey players in Canada. Barnsley, Thompson, and Barnsley found that professional players were much more likely to have been born early in the calendar year than in later months. First quarter birthdays were twice as common as last quarter birthdays.2 In a follow-up study it was found that the RAE was even greater among elite youth teams. In the case of 9- and 10-year–olds, almost 70% of the top players were born in the first half of the year. Only 10% had birthdays in the last quarter of the year!3
Returning to our example of children starting to walk at different ages, it is also true that children develop athletic skills at different rates. By age 10, the differences in biological development are profound. Some children are nearing puberty while others are still children – three to four years biologically less developed. The great leveler in athletic ability, particularly for boys, is puberty. Some boys get there at age eleven, others not until age 16 or 17. When boys pass puberty, hormonal changes make them bigger, faster, and stronger, all attributes that lead to increased athletic competitiveness.
Performance in swimming is a good measure of athletic ability because events are objectively timed. US Swimming tracked swimmers through the years. They found that swimmers who are outstanding at age eleven are not the same swimmers who excel in later years. The late bloomers have more time to develop and, when they get through puberty, pass the early bloomers.
This difference in biological age has profound implications for development of the young athlete. Consider that RAE is well-established. Young athletes are discriminated against because they have an unfavorable birthday. Now consider the further devastating effect of being a late bloomer. The late blooming child struggles to compete with his early blooming, more biologically developed, peers. Parents, coaches, and athletes interpret these struggles as lack of talent rather than what it truly is, slower development. The early bloomers are identified as the “elites” and are put on the best teams, given the best coaches, and given the best training opportunities. The late bloomers are given lesser opportunities. Parents, coaches, and the youths, themselves, begin to think, “Athletics just aren’t his thing.”
Considering the combined effects of RAE and differing rates of development, we as parents, coaches, and league administrators are systematically discouraging high-potential athletes from continuing in sports. To change, we must adopt the mindset that every young athlete deserves opportunities to improve. We need to identify late bloomers and encourage their love of sports. Treated with patience and given access to development opportunities, these are athletes with vastly underappreciated long-term potential.
What do you think? Are we doing a good job developing young athletes or are we systematically excluding those with high potential? I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments below!
1 Glamser, Francis D. & Vincent, John (2004). The Relative Age Effect among Elite American Youth Soccer Players. Journal of Sport Behavior, Vol. 27, 2004
2 Barnsley RH, Thompson AH, Barnsley PE (1985). Hockey success and birth-date: The relative age effect. Journal of the Canadian Association for Health, Physical Education, and Recreation, Nov.-Dec., 23-28.
3 Barnsley, Roger H.; Thompson, A. H. , Birthdate and success in minor hockey: The key to the NHL. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement. Vol 20(2), Apr 1988, 167-176.