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Do older kids actually do better in sport?

Whenever I enter into a conversation about sport for young people, the discussion almost always ends up centring around the 'Relative Age Effect' (RAE). RAE is a cultural phenomenon whereby children who are born at a given point in the year (usually the 3 months or so after a cut off point for the purposes of age grades) are disproportionately represented among their peer group in representative age group teams.

The theory goes that these children are more cognitively and physically developed than their peers who are born later in the year group and so have an advantage over their relatively younger and less developed teammates.

Check out this video for a great example of a player with a major physical advantage over his peers.

A study by David Hancock, Ashley Adler and Jean Cote published in the European Journal of Sport Science in 2013, entitled "A proposed theoretical model to explain relative age effects in sport" sought to examine this phenomenon. In the study they propose that RAEs are more than just about physical advantage. They suggest that the effects are amplified by pretty powerful social influences driven by the influential people in children's lives which serve to increase the gaps between those that benefit from relative age advantage and those that do not.

" agents have the largest influence on RAEs. Specifically, we propose that parents influence RAEs through 'Matthew effects', coaches influence RAEs through 'Pygmalion effects' and athletes influence RAEs through 'Galatea effects'".

So what are the Matthew Effect, the Galatea Effect and the Pygmalion Effect?

'The Matthew Effect' is so called in reference to the book of Matthew in the bible which describes the 'rich getting richer' phenomenon in the 'parable of the talents', "For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath". In simpler terms, those who have ability are given extra support which increases that ability which in turn prompts more support.

Malcolm Gladwell provides an easily understandable explanation of this phenomenon in his bestselling book 'Outliers' (you cen get it in my library) where he describes the over representation of Canadian ice hockey players born in January, February or March (the 3 months after the cut off date for age grade teams) having a doubly disadvantageous impact as the players that are older and better are provided with additional training and access to more advanced coaching opportunities which reinforces the issue as these players improve more rapidly than other who are not given such access.

The 'Galatea effect' is a social experience where people's own opinions about their ability and self-worth influence their performance. This can often be seen as players evaluate their ability by comparing themselves against their peers.

The 'Pygmalion Effect' refers to the phenomenon in which the higher the expectations placed on people the better is their execution of a given activity. This effect was made famous by the film 'My Fair Lady' where Professor of phonetics Henry Higgins makes a bet that he can train a bedraggled Cockney flower girl, Eliza Doolittle, to pass for a duchess at an ambassador's garden party by teaching her to act as if she were a member of the upper classes.

So to summarise these 3 effects in practice we are presented with a perfect storm where:

  • Parents are throwing support and resources at their kids if they think they might be good at something. It makes sense that the player who turns up to everything and has access to best schools and coaching is going to do better than the player who doesn't. Just check out the car park of a junior sports tournament for an idea of what we mean

  • The player is viewing their ability and their potential through comparisons with their peers, If one players sees that they are better then their peers through being an early maturer then that has a powerful reinforcing action on that player (and presumably a negative response to those without that advantage)

  • Coaches are reinforcing both of these effects by paying more attention to those with more ability and raising their expectations. Players respond to this and rise to the expectations of the coach wheras those that do not recieve this patronage assume that they are not as good.

My latest newsletter to my subscribers I talk about this from a practical viewpoint as I am presented with these effects on a daily basis and I suggest a series of solutions to potentially help offset their impact.

My old employers SportsCoachUK have recently published an article explaining this is some more detail. Check it out here.

On the other hand a paper produced by Professor Dave Collins and Neil McCarthy from the University of Central Lancashire, recently suggested that RAEs may well be a necessary requirement for the development of talent. In the paper the authors studied the progression of players through a professional rugby academy and discovered that those who actually make it through to the pro ranks are actually more represented by those who are born later in the year.

One of the conclusions that they draw from this stems from the 'rocky road' theory which suggests that for players to truly develop their abilities they need to be presented with challenge which ignites a passion in them and fuels their development.

In this case the proposal is that the younger players are challenged by being smaller or less able which makes them adaptable, gritty and streetwise. The older players have it comparatively easy when they are younger and as such they rest on their laurels and don't develop as much as they could or should so that when size and speed and skill all even themselves out in adulthood, the ones who have had to adapt have the advantage.

I do know of parents that have timed the conception of their children to ensure that they benefit from the relative age cut off in education and sport so it is clear to me that some people take this very seriously. I have 2 children born either side of the education cut off so I will be interested to see how they both develop. Already, my son Evan, who is relativey old for his peer group is a bit of a cruiser while my daughter, Isla who is the youngest in her school year group is displaying grittiness.

Then again it could just be that Isla benefits from having to play catch up with her rough and tumble older brother!

I think that this is a complex topic but if coaches and parents are aware of the pros and cons then they can ensure that the affects of relative age challenges can be mitigated or even used to the child's advantage.

Diabo Johnson has already experienced plenty of Matthew, Galatea and Pygmalion effects in his short life. I write this blog in the hope that I can help players on both sides of these effects be surrounded by people who can ensure that their effects have a positive impact on their lives!

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