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Research suggests that the month in which an athlete is born has a significant effect on how likely they are to be successful in sports. Because athletes are grouped by age in youth sports, a child born early in the year will be much “older” than someone they are competing against who is born late in the same year. These older athletes are likely to be more physically and emotionally mature and experience early success in sports. That early advantage makes them more likely to be successful later.
What is the relative age effect?
Relative Age Effect (RAE) is an observed effect where athletes at the top level of sports were born in months earlier in their sports relative cut-off period. If the cut-off for a sports league is December 31st, an athlete born in January is 11 months older than an athlete they are competing against who is born in December.
Does this age effect really matter?
Research across several sports shows a clustering of birth months in athletes at the professional and college level. The NCAA researched the birth month of all incoming DI athletes in the 2011-12 school year. They found that “all sports show some effect for relative age effect, but the sports where age effect seems to have the biggest impact are baseball, softball, tennis (men’s) and ice hockey.”
- Softball – Athletes born in May-Aug. are 40 percent more likely to play college softball compared to athletes born between Sept.-Dec.
- Baseball – Baseball players born in Sept.-Dec. are 38 percent more likely to play in college compared to players born between Jan.-April.
- Tennis (men’s) – Athletes born Jan.-April are 43 percent more likely to play in college compared to athletes born between Sept.-Dec.
- Ice Hockey – Female hockey players born between May-Aug. are 56 percent more likely to play in college compared to athletes born in Sept.-Dec. Male hockey players born between Jan.-April are 48 percent more likely to play in college, compared to athletes born between Sept.-Dec.
We are confusing maturity for ability in young athletes
There is no logical reason why the month an athlete is born has such a significant effect on their involvement in college sports. The issue stems from the fact we often confuse an athlete’s early success in sports with skill, when it is most likely due to maturity. That early “talent” is more likely to be fostered by well-meaning parents and coaches, making additional training and competition available to the athlete who was simply more mature then their younger teammates.
How to combat relative age bias for young athletes
Age effect is an issue at the very early days of youth sports (age’s between 7-11) and the “success” an athlete experiences manifests in them being encouraged to continue with that sport later. The fact a young athlete is given greater opportunity at an early age is the fault of the adults, not the child, so what can we do to combat this age bias in sports?
- Avoid leagues focused on winning too early – there is always a place to focus on winning, even in youth sports, but there is no reason to be overly focused on all-stars or elite teams for athletes between 7-10 years old.
- Stay invested your child’s sports even if they aren’t the best – as a parent, you can fight against age bias by staying invested in your athlete’s sports even if they aren’t the best. It is natural to want your athlete to be “above average,” but when it comes to success in sports, early success is mostly out of your control.
- Define success differently for very young athletes – success for very young athletes is simply having fun, playing with their friends, learning to be a teammate, and seeing their parents having a good time. Don’t focus on winning or losing too much. Instead, just make sure they have fun and enjoy the game.
Relative age bias in competitive youth sports
Eventually, the focus of youth sports shifts to winning. This is fine and healthy (most of the time), but that doesn’t mean the age effect goes away. If you are an athlete or the parent of an athlete playing competitive youth sports, but find yourself less developed than your peers, you can focus on the right things.
- Don’t train like a professional athlete – the training programs developed for professional athletes are designed for adults. Talk to your coaches or trainers about the right type of training for you, as it is likely different than your 6-2, 190-pound teammate.
- Train your skill, not your brawn – athletes who are more physically advanced have a disadvantage when it comes to developing the true skills of a sport. They can so easily dominate a game physically, they don’t worry about the skills of the game. If you focus on developing your skills, once your physical attributes catch up, you will be ahead.
- Continue to play, even if it isn’t the best team right now – age effect ultimately leads to athletes who are less developed quitting sports earlier than their peers. If you didn’t make the top travel team or got cut form the high school team, go find another team to play for. Whatever you do, don’t quit playing just because you didn’t make the all-star team as a freshman.