Relative Age Effect can lead to blind spot in talent identification

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In sport across the globe there is an increasing pressure on coaches to be able to identify talent at an early age to ensure the athlete gets the best possible coaching in order to allow them to reach their full potential. The demand by the top sports teams and coaches to uncover the next star as early as possible can have great benefits. For example, if talent is identified at an early age there is more time available to develop the athlete to reach the top level, thus increasing the chances of success.

However, it is now becoming clear that this demand to identify players very young can lead to coaches and teams missing out on a huge pool of talent – namely those whose potential may not be obvious until they are older. A lot of work goes into assessing the potential for any individual to reach elite level at sport, and such measures include skill, mental strength and physical ability. What recent research has illustrated is that the time of year in which a person is born is a factor in determining if they will make it to the top, and this is a concept known as Relative Age Effect (RAE).

Physical edge may give impression of more talent

This refers to the age difference between individuals within their age group (usually 12 months), where an individual born in January could be in the same age-group as a person born in December of the same year.

Naturally, the January child has a greater advantage in that they will mature quicker physically and mentally than their December counterpart. This physical edge may make them appear more talented and as a result more time will be invested into developing them. The December player may not get the recognition his talent deserves and as a result the lack of playing time may mean that they don’t get the opportunity to develop that they should.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

This issue is also referred to as the Matthew Effect as explained very clearly by Ross Tucker. That name was coined by the sociologist Robert Merton, based on the bible verse from Matthew:

For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him (Matt 25:29).

He argues that this approach of picking the stronger players leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The strong player is picked because he is better, and then ends up being better because he was picked, apparently vindicating the coach’s early decision.

However, the question that must not be ignored is:

Was his initial selection the result of his age, or was he genuinely the better sportsman?

That is the challenge for talent identification.

Werner F Helsen, Jan Van Winckel and Mark Williams help us understand the basis of the problem in ‘The relative age effect in youth soccer across Europe’ by explaining the average physical differences in a 10-year-old.

A 10-year-old child in the 5th percentile is likely to be 1.26 m tall with a body mass of 22 kg, whereas a child in the 95th percentile who is almost 11 years of age is likely to be 1.54 m tall and 49 kg in mass.

Consequently, a relatively small 10-year-old child can be approximately 0.2 m shorter and 27 kg lighter than an early maturer with a one-year relative age difference. A relative age difference of 12 months can therefore result in significant anthropometric variances.

According to Karim Tayara this has been borne out by research as he reveals

The relative age effect highlights that there are more elite athletes born in the earlier months of the calendar year in relation to athletes being born in the later months of the year (Helsen et al., 1998). Cobley et al., (2009) meta analysis on the relative age effect showed that for every 2 elites athletes born in the 4th quartile of the calendar year, there were 3 or more elite athletes born in the 1st quartile of the calendar year.

Many other examples back up these findings.

Measures to reduce effects of RAE

Clearly, the time of year an individual is born shouldn’t have such a dramatic impact on their potential to become an elite athlete. However, because the figures suggest otherwise, the onus is on coaches and teams to ensure they don’t miss out on talent that is very often right in front of them. Ideas put forwards to address this issue such as a yearly rotation in cut-off date or a smaller bandwidth (six months as opposed to one year) may be more difficult to implement, but among the practical solutions to this problem is one supported by Helsen, Winckel and Williams when suggesting that a change in mindset from coaches is needed.

Coaches should pay more attention to technical and tactical skills when selecting players as opposed to an over-reliance on physical characteristics such as height. In a similar vein, coaches should be encouraged to change their philosophical approach to instruction. The statement that ‘‘winning isn’t everything, but the only thing’’ currently represents the strategic thinking of many youth coaches. Coaches should find a better balance between short-term success and a more task- or process-oriented approach to instruction.

Examples where the Relative Age Effect is reduced are Ladies soccer, where the emphasis for selection is based more on technical skill and the South African schools rugby system. Tayara argues that a broader view must be taken to avoid the blind spot created by Relative Age Effect.

In summary, the relative age effect is present in a wide range of elite sports and sheds light on the flaws of many talent identification systems. Due to the short-term approach to success in elite sports, coaches select players that will win them games in the immediate future. This means selecting players who are physically and emotionally more mature. The implications of this process will lead to a big pool of talent being overlook and misrepresented. Talent identification programmes must try to reduce the risk of the RAE through raising awareness, monitoring player’s maturation rate and avoid employing intensive early age talent selection

The Matthew Effect: Talent ID and sports science application by Ross Tucker, Science of Sport
The relative age effect in youth soccer across Europe, Werner F. Helsen, Jan Van Winckel, A. Mark Williams
The Relative Age Effect in Sport by Karim Tayara
Football talent spotting: Are clubs getting it wrong with kids? by Alistair Magowan, BBC Sport

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