I saw a picture doing the rounds on Twitter this week of a U15 match for Ajax vs. Sparta Rotterdam where one boy looks almost fully developed and the other boy doesn’t. It got me thinking about the Relative Age Effect (RAE), this is the phenomenon that sees children born close to the cut-off periods for their age groups have an advantage in their sporting environments (the same can be true academically, too).
To help us study the RAE further the year is broken down into four quartiles:
(note: these quartiles may slightly change depending on country)
So why is this important?
Focusing on sports, those born in Q1 have a head start on their counterparts who are born later in the year, in fact they may experience the benefits of cognitive, physical and emotional advantages (Cobley, Baker, Wattie, & McKenna, 2009a) which can benefit them in their particular sport – think of the kid who has bigger and faster than everyone when you were younger, or for those who are coaching, I’m sure you’ve experienced being “wow’d” at your clubs trials or training sessions by a child who seemed to stand out due to their advanced physical capabilities, this might have even skewed your impression of them and the others on the field.
In 2017, an article in the Irish Examiner (Shannon, 2015) contained the details of the birth dates of the Irish national football team to play Denmark. 11 out of 23 (48%) of the players were born in Q1, 7 (30%) were born in Q2, 5 (22%) were born in Q3 and 0 were born in Q4. It’s not limited to football however, RAE’s have been found in Ice hockey, baseball, basketball, netball and cricket. Interestingly, a reverse RAE can occur and has been found in gymnastics where younger athletes seem to have the advantage (Maffulli, King, & Helms, 1994)
Why does it happen?
If you think of the traditional methods of talent spotting or talent identification, when looking at players at a particular age group one’s eyes would be drawn to the players who are bigger and faster than their peers. If you then think of a one-off trial day, it doesn’t always give the younger players a chance to make a lasting impression. It’s not uncommon for the Q1 kids to be labelled the “most talented” in their age group, and for coaches or clubs that prioritise the outcome (“win-first” mentality) over the overall development of all players this will likely continue to happen at youth level. But what happens when these players cannot get by with their physical ability anymore?
What about the Q4 athletes?
The following extract shows both sides to the RAE from the same football club:
“From my experience in football, English Premier League football academy 2010 had 150 boys of which 26 were born in the second, third and fourth quarter. That meant 124 were born in the first quarter of the year. 10 players were on loan that year; all ten were from the fourth quarter. Those boys on loan were 18, 19 and 20. The academy is up to 18, so the best players that kept on by English Premier League football academy were all from the fourth quarter.” (Andronikos et al., 2015)
There was a staggering amount (124/150) of boys in the academy that were born in Q1, but the players who have progressed out of the academy were all from Q4. The presence of RAEs can actually prove to be useful for those Q4 athletes; there is a line of thinking that proposes that the younger, smaller players have to become problem solvers, they have adversity to deal with in their younger athletic careers and this can aid the development of their psychological skills (Andronikos et al., 2015). There is a potential danger that dropout rates due to RAEs (think of the kids who do not enjoy sports because they do not get the attention they need to develop!),and this in turn means a reduction in talent pools in certain sports in those age groups in the future.
Ways around the Relative Age Effect
Research has shown that those born in Q1 do have advantages in certain (mainly strength-based sports such as football, basketball, rugby etc.) but please don’t go planning your child’s birth so they can be born in Q1! There are also sports that this does not apply to as much, think of weight categories in wrestling and martial arts, think of those finer/softer skills such as table tennis. Extended age categories (2-year age groups) have been found to work in some sports as well as dividing by “skills points” in skiing.
Educating those tasked with identifying the talent is important here, talent identification experts were interviewed and raised concerns about coaches they knew that would opt for children who would contribute to their team winning straight away rather than those who may show more promise in the long term, scouts were also said to fall victim to the RAE when watching games and recommending players (Adronikos et al., 2015).
It’s clear that a focus on long-term development will help to include those “late-developers” and give them more opportunity to showcase their skills, I think clubs have a duty to inform and educate parents on this as well so they are on board with the vision for youth development. It’s easy to forget the bigger picture and place too much emphasis on winning nowand although it can be important, it can also have a negative effect on player development as playing time may be distorted. As well as focusing on skill development instead of results, it has also been proposed that age groups get split into 1stand 2ndhalf of the year or even into 4, something which might be hard to implement but it’s an interesting idea.
If you are a coach, or involved with a club, or sports organisation then you may already know about the RAE. If not, I hope that this goes some way in raising the awareness around this phenomenon and you can start to notice it and maybe it can even change the way you try to develop players. The phrase I have come across before is that there is talent that “shouts” and talent that “whispers”,I’m pretty sure that you have, or will come across both “types” of talent but it’s vital that both are nurtured and provided with the right environment to thrive.