We have had a number of enquiries to the site asking us what is meant by the ‘Relative Age Effect’ and what do we need to be aware of as parents when this is mentioned to us.
The ‘Relative Age Effect’ is a phenomenon in which children born in, or close to, a critical age cut-off period may have an advantage in both athletic and academic endeavours.
For example, in the UK children who are born in September may have an advantage academically to those born 11 months later, however they are still in the same class and academic year. This advantage can be even more pronounced at a younger age.
In a sporting context in a lot of UK sports the cut-off date for a sporting year or competitions is also September and history suggests at junior age groups that early selections have heavily favoured those born in the first quarter of the sporting year (September to November).
In the USA similar historical statistics around Ice Hockey selections for example show a favour towards those born in the first quarter of their sporting year (January-March) as January is the cut-off date in the US.
In Europe many of the leading football academies and those selected at international level in youth football historically favour those born between January-March, similar to the US.
The reason for this is that those fractionally older often have greater physical attributes as well as the ability to maybe deal with situations and take on coaching information better due to being more emotionally mature. In days gone by these athletes were often deemed to be the most talented as selections were based purely on their ability in the then and now.
Thankfully, there is now a far greater awareness in the sporting world amongst organisations and coaches that we need to perhaps pay less attention to early success, maybe dig a little deeper into what talent actually looks like and how we define it, ensuring that we give every individual the opportunity to develop to their full potential.
Parents can get incredibly upset as probably the biggest impact with this phenomenon is that the children who achieve early success often get in the best teams, get more opportunities and often end up with the better level of coaching. In a parent’s mind that can often mean their child has no chance of bridging the gap on those achieving the early success, so their child is heading in the opposite direction.
The good news for parents is that we know that early success is a poor indicator of long-term success and that as time goes by these advantages start to even themselves out particularly post puberty.
Sporting organisations and coaches have a responsibility to ensure that there is space for all players to develop and even if some are struggling more than others at a younger age the environments created for these players allow them to stay close enough to the curve so that they can make that jump when the time is right for them.
This article is not intended to bring doom and gloom to those with younger children in each age group and there are a number of things that parents can do to help support the younger and potentially later developer:
- Be positive at all times, continue to positively reinforce how they are doing.
- Ensure that your child is playing at a level appropriate to them at that time, don’t let them suffer for too long in the wrong environment so that they lose confidence and fall out of love with what they are doing.
- Really focus on praising the processes and not the outcomes. Really look at their work rate, technique, resilience, and decision making etc as opposed to looking at the score line.
- Ensure that your child understands that their peers may be successful now and having a greater share of the glory but that may not be the case in the future. Your child may struggle to believe that particularly in this age of instant gratification but at least it will be somewhere in the back of their mind during those moments.
- Make sure that the environment that your child is involved in is far more centred around player development than results.
- Make sure that your child’s coach has an understanding of this – certain parts of training sessions can be adapted accordingly.
- Teach them to be tough, dig in and overcome challenges and obstacles. If they have been brought up this way once they develop physically, they will have a really strong foundation to build on.
There are a few things that you probably want to avoid in the early stages of managing the younger and potential late developer:
- Don’t panic if they are struggling physically just as long as it is not becoming a major issue for them in terms of them having some success during training or in matches. Don’t allow them to give up at the first sign of difficulty.
- Encourage them to keep persevering and then make sure you are there to point out that the perseverance has paid off.
- Don’t focus on the result or the early selection of teams, no matter how difficult that may be for you. As long as your child is playing at a level appropriate to them, that they are progressing and enjoying it then that should be fine by you the parent.
Likewise, if your child is one of the more dominant younger players and perhaps has an advantageous birthdate then it is important not to get too carried away with early success and ensure your child has the best chance of achieving their full potential.
There are a number of things that parents can do to help support the older and potentially early developer:
- Ensure your child works as hard as possible at all times– There is a danger that if the child is winning games easily or dominating training sessions that they do not feel that they need to try as hard as their physical capabilities will take care of it.
- Focus on skill development and technique – Base all success criteria on work rate, acquiring skill and improved decision making as opposed to outcomes such as number of goals scored, or matches won.
- Put them in a position to fail – then help them in dealing with it. As they get older, there will be much less success and they need to be able to deal with it and see failure as a valuable learning opportunity.
- Focus on their problem-solving ability and understanding – they will need to rely on this later on and many smaller less dominant children automatically get good at this as they cannot rely on their physical attributes.
There are a few things that you probably want to avoid in the early stages of managing the older and potential early developer:
- Try not to allow your child to become complacent– always try to move them onto the next challenge quickly.
- Don’t describe them as talented– they may start to believe you and become complacent.
- Over hype their achievements– later on they may struggle to live up to heightened expectations.
- Focus on performance outcomes– goals scored, winning etc.
- Allow them to over exploit their physical ability– others will catch up in the end.
The ‘Relative Age Effect’ is still present in a wide range of sports and often sheds light on the flaws of many talent identification systems. Due to the short-term approach to success in certain sporting environments, coaches select players that will win them games in the immediate future.
This means selecting players who are physically and emotionally more mature. However, there is certainly a far greater awareness of the relative age effect than there was even 5 or 10 years ago.
We hope that we have helped shed some light for sporting parents on this and the impact that it may have on sporting families all over the world.