It is probably not hard to identify the “superstars” of any youth team. You all know them – maybe it’s even your child – and you all know what most of their parents are thinking, “My child is the next Michael Jordan (or Mia Hamm, or whoever).” Before you get too far along in this thinking, I hate to be the one to inform you that even though you are positive your child is the best 3-yr. old free throw shooter this side of the Mississippi – so what if he’s got all the trophies to back it up – it means very little about what his chances are of making it into the NBA.
In reality, all early superstardom usually means is that your child has matured faster than his friends. Look at the real Michael Jordan. Was he considered the best player on his team when he was 5? Probably not. He couldn’t even make his high school basketball team! Performance success is due to a variety of characteristics including abilities, attitudes, body type, cultural background, emotional makeup, fitness level, learning style, maturational level, motivational level, previous social experience, prior movement experience (1) and personality (2). Each of these factors are extremely important, with ability being one of the most important, but because there is such a wide variety of factors influencing performance, it is virtually impossible to make an early prediction about a child’s future success in sports. That’s not to say that the early superstars don’t ever go on to be successful athletes at a later stage, such as high school. It just doesn’t happen that often, only about 25% of the time (3).
To help you better understand the situation, here is a quick lesson on motor learning. If you have ever observed your child and his or her teammates, you probably have seen kids of all different shapes, sizes and abilities, all in the same age group. You may wonder why there is such a difference between children of the same age. First of all, we all grow and mature according to our biological clock, not the date on the calendar. We will discuss more about this later. Second, we are all thought to be born with a pre-determined set of abilities, and success in a sport requires a high ability level in a set of sport-specific tasks. It should also be mentioned that just having the abilities isn’t enough. It requires practice to turn those abilities into skills. Without the practice, the abilities are just capabilities, something we are capable of doing but have not yet accomplished. The interesting thing about sports is that the abilities required for someone to be successful at the beginner stage are different from the abilities required at the expert level. It is impossible to predict whether or not a person will have those expert level abilities a few years down the road (1). This is why cutting players from teams at the youth level does not make sense. It is also why it is important for every player to try out every position. You never exactly know what a person’s strengths will be until he or she has at least gone through puberty.
Maturation is another important issue to discuss. Motor learning specialists Schmidt and Wrisberg (1) say, “Bigger, stronger children who mature at an earlier age have an advantage when it comes to the performance of a number of physical skills . . . As a result, observers may assume that these children have a wider range of motor abilities than do kids who are smaller, weaker, or physically immature” (p.42). Research has supported this statement, showing that the month in which a child is born, as it relates to the cut off date for the age group, can have an effect on the child’s success in some sports. This is termed the relative age effect (RAE).
A variety of studies have shown that the RAE exists in soccer, hockey, baseball, college football, cricket and tennis. It has been shown that up to 81% of the players had a birthday in the first half of the year (4). A recent study examining the US soccer Olympic Development Program (ODP) found that in one group of boys, 70% had a birthday in the first six months of the year (5). It is hypothesized that the RAE is due to the physical and psychological advantage that the older player has in addition to the opportunity to have gained more sport-specific experience (4). Glamser and Vincent (5) explain why this is so critical:
In the initial stages of the selection of young athletes, a 6 to 12 month developmental advantage can be decisive. Slightly older participants tend to possess physical and psychological advantages that make their selection more likely. Once young players are selected for elite sport participation, they are taught the correct skills and techniques, while being socialized into appropriate attitudes for later success by capable coaches. This specialized socialization process is not experienced by players not selected for elite teams. The absence of this early experience puts younger players who were not initially selected at risk of non-selection at subsequent player evaluations. Over time, this disadvantage builds. (p. 2)
The way the current youth sports system in the US is structured, it serves to further enhance the differences between the early maturers and the late bloomers. On a typical sports team there will be children 11 months apart in age or more eligible to participate, but many teams only want the best players. Travel teams are recruiting younger and younger participants, taking only the ones who are the best – presumably the late maturers. Team rosters are many times too large to give all adequate playing time, so the late bloomers may be left on the bench. Some teams use cuts to narrow down their roster, and according to research, the younger players are more likely to get cut (4). All this can add up to potentially a very negative youth sports experience for the kid who just wants a chance to play, have fun, and develop his skills. Unfortunately, that child will most likely get fed up with the negative feedback and drop out of sports all together.
To solve this problem most likely means modifying the way teams are formed. Some suggestions include: form teams based on biological age, not chronological age; narrow the age range; rotate the cutoff date; employ age quotas; and create a variety of teams based on different standards (4).
(1) Schmidt, R. A., & Wrisberg, C. A. (2000). Motor Learning and Performance: A Problem-Based Learning Approach (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
(2) Cox, R. H. (2002). Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications (5th ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill.
(3) Pangrazi, R. P. (2001). Dynamic Physical Education for Elementary School Children (13th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
(4) Musch, J. & Grondin, S. (2001). Unequal competition as an impediment to personal development: A review of the relative age effect in sport. Developmental Review, 21, 147-167. Retrieved January 17, 2006 from Science Direct database.
(5) Glamser, F. D. & Vincent, J. (Mar 2004). The relative age effect among elite American youth soccer players. Journal of Sport Behavior, 27, 31-38. Retrieved January 17, 2006 from Academic Search Premier database.