If your child plays hockey or softball and is celebrating a birthday this month, congratulations, your kid is very lucky!
Why is that, you may ask?
Well, it's pretty simple: a phenomenon called the relative age effect or factor, which, numerous studies have shown give kids in sports where teams are grouped by age born early in the age-group year (January for hockey and softball, May for baseball, and August for soccer) a number of advantages over their younger teammates. Because each child develops on their own unique timetable, even for kids born in the same month, there can be big differences in the rate at which they grow and develop, with early bloomers often benefiting from many of the same advantages as those with birthdays in the first few months after the age cutoff.
When young athletes are competing for spots on "select" or "travel" teams, a six-to twelve-month developmental advantage can be huge and is often decisive. Slightly older participants are more likely to be selected because they tend to be more mature physically and psychologically. The relative age factor can and often does have an extremely large impact on success in sports, especially at the elite levels. It is a special problem in sports where height, weight, strength, and power are an advantage.
In 2006 I wrote about the relative age effect (also called the relative age factor or RAF) in my book, Home Team Advantage. In his best-selling 2008 book Outliers1 author Malcom Gladwell argues that the reason some people are successful, whether it be in sport or in school, is because they are "invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages." What is the very first advantage, Gladwell identifies, the one to which he devotes the entire first chapter of his book? You guessed it: RAF.
Of course, neither Gladwell nor I can take credit for discovery RAF. That honor goes to a Canadian psychologist named Roger Barnsley, who first identified the phenomenon in the 1980s. Barnsley found that more players in the Ontario Junior Hockey League were born in January than in any other month, and by an overwhelming margin. The second most frequent birth month? February. The third? Well you get the point. The same was true, Barnsley found, among all-star teams of eleven-year- and thirteen-year-olds, and in the National Hockey League. Gladwell's book cites to studies finding the same RAF in baseball, European soccer, among fourth graders and the birthdays of those attending four-year colleges.
Are the hockey players who make it to the professional level more talented than most? Undoubtedly. But, Gladwell, argues, they also got a big head start, an opportunity that they neither deserved nor earned - the most coaching, the most practice - which led to success from what sociologists call "accumulative advantage."
The problem, as Gladwell points out, and as highlighted in a 2004 article in the Journal of Sports Behavior2 that I cite in Home Team Advantage, are twofold: that an age group system not only gives those born early in the year advantages that others don't enjoy but result in a monumental squander of talent: "the long-term result of the RAF may be a lowering in the overall quality of the highest competitive team" as talented individuals may be overlooked because they are born late in the selection year. Using the 2007 Czech National Junior soccer team as an example - a 21-player squad comprised of 15 born in January, February or March, just two after June, and none after September - Gladwell says that, at the tryouts, the Czech coaches "might as well have told everyone born after midsummer that they should pack their bags and go home."
By all of this I don't mean to suggest that your child cannot achieve athletic success if he or she happens to have a birthday late in the age-group year for their sport, but the statistics do seem to suggest that they face an uphill battle.
And why should that be?
I agree with Gladwell that perhaps the first step in addressing the relative age factor problem - assuming you agree that there is a problem, and, if your child plays hockey or softball and was born in January, perhaps you are happy with things just they way they are, thank you very much - is simply to recognize that it exists, to acknowledge that cutoff dates actually matter.
Once we take that first step, then, perhaps, as Gladwell suggests, we could set up two or even three hockey leagues divided up, not by year of birth, but month of birth so as to let players develop on separate tracks and then pick all-star teams for each.
For me, it comes down to a question of fundamental fairness, to giving every child who plays sports, as much as possible, an equal chance at success, not success that may be largely preordained by the happenstance of their birthdate.
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1. Gladwell, Malcom. Outliers. Boston. Little Brown, 2008.
2. Glamser F, Vincent J. The Relative Age Effect Among Elite American Youth Soccer Players. Journal of Sports Behavior. 2004; 27(1):31-38.