Can Your Birth Date Make You a Better Athlete?

Will Your Date Of Birth Affect Your Sporting Success?

A surprising amount of research and reading is available on a phenomenon commonly referred to as the “relative age effect”.

What is the Relative Age Effect?

“The relative age effect refers to the overall difference in age between individuals within each age group, which may result in significant differences in performance.”

believeperform.com

The relative age effect has been found to exist in many youth sport settings.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers – The Story of Success” examines the issue, citing Canadian youth ice hockey, where we learn the eligibility cut-off date is 1 January.

He says:

“A boy who turns 10 on January 2, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn 10 until the end of the year – and at that age, in preadolescence, a twelve-month gap in age represents an enormous gap in physical maturity.”

It makes sense. The earlier-born athletes, benefiting from the critical extra months of growth and development, will have an obvious advantage in sports that require speed, strength and coordination.

Further to this, the younger the athletes, the greater the potential advantage. This is demonstrated in the following statement that can be found on Wikipedia:

“The difference in maturity – which can be extreme at young ages: a six-year old born in January is almost 17% older than a six-year old born in December in the same year – causes a performance gap that persists over time.”

Wikipedia

A performance gap that exists over time? 

But wait – doesn’t the relative age effect flatten out over time? Won’t kids grow out of it?

Maybe not.

What happens when young kids – benefited by extra maturity over their later-born age group peers – are defined as “talented”? Malcolm Gladwell says they will most likely get better coaching, their teammates will be better, they will play more, and they will practice more.

He writes:

“In the beginning, his advantage isn’t so much that he is inherently better, but only that he is a little older. But by the age of thirteen or fourteen, with the benefit of better coaching and all that extra practice under his belt he really is better . . . “

This relative age effect is seen widely across junior sports. Contrary to popular belief, it is something that may not “even out” as the athletes reach and pass through adolescence. With the early talent identification systems and representative teams common in many sports, it may have further reaching effects than many people realise.

How We Can Best Manage the Relative Age Effect?

Coaches, sports parents and sporting organisations need to be aware of this phenomenon and avoid making decisions about who is good or talented at an early age. Otherwise, as Malcolm Gladwell surmises, we will “. . . end up giving a huge advantage to that small group of people born closest to the cut-off date.” He says we may also  “. . . prematurely write off people as failures”.

How else can we best manage a young athlete you parent or coach who is “disadvantaged” by the relative age effect? How else can we ensure that they won’t become discouraged and drop out of a sport prematurely?

1. Focus on what youth sport is really about

Ultimately, youth sport is about developing kids into better people. Sport provides a platform for developing personal characteristics such as determination, effort and resilience, a sense of fair play and and an appreciation of teamwork. Make sure that as an influential adult you focus on these things rather than competitive outcomes.

Think back to why youth sports originally emerged. Do we really think that youth sporting organisations and clubs were originally set up so that kids could win more medals and trophies? Of course not!

It has been stated that a good coaching or sport sprogram will develop the 4 C’s in an athlete:

  • Competence
  • Confidence
  • Connection
  • Character

All of this can be achieved without the need to win or be “the best”. In fact character is more likely to be developed when an athlete isn’t winning all of the time.

2. Focus on intrinsic motivation factors

In is really important to focus on what will intrinsically (internally) motivate a young athlete, which has been shown to be far more effective and enduring than extrinsic (external) motivation.

Self determination theory states that people have three psychological needs: a need to feel competent, a need to feel connected and a need to feel autonomous. So if we can we put the emphasis on someone improving their own skills and abilities, create a great social environment and give the kids a say in their development, this will certainly assist them to cope with any relative age effect “disadvantage”.

3. Teach young athletes to focus on their own performance rather than compare themselves with others

it is better to focus expectations on things that kids can control like their conduct, attitude and effort, rather than things like winning, medals, trophies or titles, which they have far less control over.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.”

Theodore Roosevelt

It has been said that kids love to compete; parents love to compare. We need to get over this if we are truly going to help kids to love their sport, whatever the outcome on the scoreboard.

3. Use the situation to the child’s advantage

Getting things easy or having success because you are bigger or more mature than those around you is not a great way to learn grit, persistence, determination and resilience.

Framed in the right way there are many valuable lessons that can be learned about sport and life when a young athlete is required to cope with defeat, losses and not being “the best”. In fact it is thought in some circles that having to cope with setbacks and hard times is a necessary ingredient in becoming a great athlete. Help young athletes to embrace the valuable lessons that are presented to them.

Summary

Will your date of birth influence your sporting success? The evidence seems to say that yes – it possibly can. The next question to ask is are we content with this situation and if not, what can youth sports and the adults associated with these sports do to address it?

What Can You Do?

Think about how you – as a parent or coach – can soften the effect of the relative age effect within your circle of influence. I would love to hear your ideas. Let me know by leaving a comment/reply or by using the below contact details.

Further reading

Books:

Outliers – The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell from Amazon

Outliers – The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell from Booktopia

Articles:

Relative Age Effect – Wikipedia

The Relative Age Effect in Sport – Believe Perform

How To Help Kids Love the Sport More Than the Medals

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If this post helped you please take a moment to help others by sharing it on social media. If you want to learn more I encourage you to leave questions and comments or contact me directly.


20150614_154020-1Darren Wensor is a sports development professional, coach educator, specialist coach of young athletes and founder of the blog coachingyoungathletes.com. Learn more about him here and connect with him on TwitterFacebookLinkedin, Anchor or via email.

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