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Age: It's All Relative

By T.J. Buchanan, US LaCrosse, 01/30/18, 12:00PM CST

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Be aware of a performer’s birth date – highlight quarter one and four participants on your profiles and group them accordingly to allow each to be challenged and find success.

Recent research in sport has shown that at the “elite” level of participation, there is an over-representation of athletes born in the first three months (the September 1 birthday) following a sport’s age and eligibility cut-off date. This phenomenon is often referred to as the Relative Age Effect and it has some serious implications for the development of aspiring young athletes.

Because these athletes are biologically more mature, they are often bigger, faster, and stronger than their peers. This gives them a competitive advantage over their peers and presents the appearance of them being “elite”, when often times they are simply just bigger, faster, and stronger and not actually “elite.” Naturally, we select them first because they can help us win. We then give them access to better training, put them on teams with other kids who are similarly identified, and in turn it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. All because they physically mature ahead of their peers.

Using the 14u age segment as an example; the age and eligibility rule states that a player must be 13 years old or younger on August 31 of the year preceding competition. Under this rule an athlete turning 14 on September 1 of the year preceding competition is eligible, as well as an athlete turning 13 on August 31.

Fast forward several months to the start of the season and we now have an athlete who is 14 years and 6 months old, alongside an athlete who is 13 years, 6 months and 1 day old. It’s still only about a year of difference looking at the calendar, while biologically speaking it can be over 2 years of difference. Why? Puberty.  Generally, 12-15 years of age for boys (11-14 for girls) is a time when their bodies are going through rapid change towards adulthood. We’ve all seen the kid in the 14u game that looks like he/she drove to the game. While alongside him/her is another player that looks like he/she is still required to sit a car-seat to get to the game.

So what happens to the kids at younger end of the spectrum? Win-at-all-cost coaches often don’t play them in games, they don’t gain access to as high a quality of training opportunities, and at the worst…they get cut before they have matured to the same point as their peers. Again, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and these kids leave the sport because they were identified as “sub-standard,” not because of their sport ability, but because they are physically maturing a little later than their peers they are grouped with through no fault of their own.

What can be done about it?  It’s not realistic to think we can group kids by individual date of birth or even in which quarter of the year they were born in and still be able to field full teams. There are however a few things that leagues and programs committed to the development of all of their players can do to help make sure we provide ample opportunity for development, despite the Relative Age Effect: 

Here are the top five (adapted from Sports Coach UK):

  • Be aware of a performer’s birth date – highlight quarter one and four participants on your profiles and group them accordingly to allow each to be challenged and find success.
  • Emphasize skill development alongside the development of physical fitness and attributes.
  • Assign playing positions and roles based on skills and qualities, not necessarily on physical size. Performers should also continue to experience a variety of playing positions both in training and during games.
  • Enable athletes to play down as well as up an age group alongside athletes they physically match with. Keep in mind they must also be a good fit socially/emotionally for the prospective move in age group.
  • Make sure you find a place for quarter four participants. Quarter four performers who are retained often develop coping strategies and resilience along the way as they progress in physical development. These performers have overcome setbacks and challenges, often created by their physical and emotional stage of development; leading to better future performance.
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