Why I’m pleased my son is born in May…

It’s been a hotly discussed topic for many years, there are countless opinions available relating to the subject but the topic of birth bias keeps rearing it’s head. For example, a quick Google search for “relative age effect” brings up over 21,000 articles linked to this and a further search on Scholar raises another 1,300 research pieces on the subject. It’s clearly a worldwide and recognised phenomena. 

If you aren’t familiar with this it essentially suggests that if you are born in the first few months or half of the ‘selection year’ for a particular sport you will have more chance of being selected for higher level teams. This brings about the increased opportunity of better facilities, playing with and against better players and working with better coaches. It’s akin to the “Matthew Effect”. 

The Premier League football academy programme supports just skewed statistics with 57% of players in the system born in the first third of the year (Sept-Dec), with just 14% born in the last four months of the selection year (May-Aug). However, birth rates for children across the year are largely level, there isn’t a variance of any major discrepancy that should skew these stats enormously. 

The world of football scouts select their children from grassroots participation – from local leagues that play up and down the country. These leagues are often bias already due to someone’s mum or dad making the ‘first selection’ of players and deciding who plays and sometimes who doesn’t. Evidence suggests that it doesn’t always mean the quarter 3 and 4 born children don’t get to play, it means they might be in teams in lower divisions rather than the top teams. Where do scouts look? Primarily at the top. Therefore, often some of the late developing children might get missed from the system.  

However, I’m going to give an alternative view from my own experiences. 

Being the smallest sometimes isn’t a disadvantage, it can be really helpful (if you get IN the system). And that’s the challenge. Getting in. However, once you are in the accelerated learning experience you can get compared to others is important to recognise. I have coached Academy teams, full of mixed birthdays and sizes, for the last six years and seen all sorts of kids from different backgrounds come through. 


Here’s the thing – I sometimes think that it’s the big kids that can be disadvantaged! This is often what you witness in the players…

Player A (early developer):
– Wins most of the physical battles and 1v1’s through size and strength.
– Technically more powerful (longer range of passing and shooting from distance).
– Better scores in physical testing such as straight line sprints and jump tests. 
– Less need to focus on learning as success can come from physical advantage.
– Socially dominating due to size and others can be intimidated.

Player B (late developer):
– Loses out when pitted against a giant in outcomes that can be won by strength. 
– Technically often skilful in possession with good agility but less ‘impact’.
– Scores lower when benchmarked against players chronologically older.
– Criticised for “not influencing game” or “not getting about the pitch”.

However, Player B gets some advantages:
– Has to be a better learner to survive against the older players.
– Solves problems in different ways and comes up with creative solutions as can’t use their physical advantage.
– Develops coping and adapting strategies that will serve them well in latter years and key to become an elite player.

The skills that Player B can develop (assuming the right environment is created and the coach recognises the importance of this matter) are huge and in the long term can massively outweigh any early physical dominance. If they have the psychological support and skills they can thrive! But word of caution and don’t forget, the early developing Player A could always be the biggest!!

The challenge for coaches is to ensure that we allow all players to develop the mix of skills. The things they gain from being the biggest (self-confidence possibly), can we let the little ones gain this by playing down? The things that the early developers miss out on in their own age group, can we generate this by playing them up against bigger kids so they now have to think differently? I appreciate this solution is easier within the rules for the professional game but many grassroots clubs have mixed age group training nights so some things can be tried. 

The key to all this is patience… Give every kid the same opportunity, not just because they are shaped in a particular way today. See beyond what is in front of you now because the long term will look very different.  


3 thoughts on “Why I’m pleased my son is born in May…

  • March 30, 2017 at 1:27 pm
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    Very good article my son is end of July birthday and was at MUFC from 6 to 16, he was held down a year at U10 for one of the reasons highlighted in the piece “not influencing the game enough”

    being held down did him the world of good it allowed him to be a bigger fish if you like and he grew in confidence and at U12 went back into his own age group ready to cope with the greater physical and mental demands

    MUFC at the time were very big on the idea of holding players down a year I’m not sure if it’s still the same but I do know that not many academy’s do it which is in my opinion a mistake as like the article says you find that the smaller younger lads become the most technical and the better all round players as they have to solve issues using the brain and not brawn
    My son is now a professional at Blackburn Rovers he can play in multiple areas of the pitch wether it be centre half or left wing, he has learnt to and understands each role on the pitch and this stems from being a problem solver and having to think about his game rather than just being the biggest and most powerful

    Reply
    • March 31, 2017 at 10:52 am
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      Hi Scott,

      Thanks for the reply and sharing your story. Great to hear it has worked out well! John Stones is another example of a player that played down a year group from U13-U16 and great credit needs to go to the coaching staff at the clubs that have done this.

      Nick

      Reply
  • April 12, 2017 at 1:43 pm
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    I was introduced to this problem in the early 2000’s at an FA conference in Chicago. Trevor Brooking showed the data of Birthdates of the academy kids of course greatly titled toward the early birth months (I believe the cut off date back then was September?) anyways I went back to my youth club in Minnesota and checked the birthdates of the highest level boys and wow! 60% born in the first three months. I saw myself as part of the problem. I decided that kids should not be “selected” until 15 or 16 (or until they reach peak height Velocity). Left the club system to start a free play organization. I believe in Krashen’s second language learning theory. THat kids need to go through two phases before they speak fluently. 1) Acquisition–the in and around the language–not focused on output, then 2) the learning pphase which is the skills, rules, laws and techniques–focused on output or performance. We tend to teach sports only focused on output and therefor our kids can not play fluently. This may be where the late developing kids may gain advantage–they are allowed to “Stay” in the acquisition phase and greatly “acquire,” before they are asked to perform. And, guess what? 7 years later very good players, never a tryout or selection –just play–and a very level birthdate distribution. all the team we play against are still heavy on the first three months. http://www.joyofthepeople.org

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