Yesterday, I did a post describing something that has been called The Matthew Effect, as applied to sports performance and talent Identification. Briefly, it refers to the phenomenon where a disproportionate number of elite level sports people are born during the first few months of the year. This comes about as a result of a confusion between ability and maturity, and the selection of those children into regional or school teams based on their ability at a young age. Unfortunately, at this age, 10 months is a significant difference, and those who happen to be younger are soon left behind.
In response to the post, we received some really interesting and thoughtful comments,
which you can read at the original article. I tried to respond to those comments, but it’s worthwhile mulling over a few of the points raised. In particular, the big question is: Given this effect, and the fact that children born in later months are seemingly disadvantaged by their younger relative age, what should be done to ensure maximum talent “delivery” at the senior level?
The key point is that a scientist who is faced with the seemingly daunting task of selecting a squad of sportsmen from a completely random sample would be reasonably accurate simply by asking everyone born in January, February and March to stay behind, and sending home those born in the latter part of the year! This in turn means that all those who are born later in the year are placed at a disadvantage, and you create a vast pool of “unrealised potential”.
It’s important to note that by the time the national coach, or the head coach of a profession team makes his/her picks, it’s already too late. The damage has been done, many years earlier. Similarly, a sports scientist who is doing talent ID assessments for a high performance programme at say Olympic level cannot be concerned with month of birth – their job is simply to pull out those people who display talent or ability to perform better than others. The problem is, most of those they pull out will have been born early in the year, thanks to a decision made many years earlier. The question is what one should do to ensure that up to half the population remain eligible for success for as long as possible?
A split in age-groupings?
And that is a question I was thinking about a great deal today, and must confess that no easy solution presents itself. In his book, Gladwell suggests the creation of a “split” in the age groupings, so that children born in the first half of the year compete in a separate league structure to those born in the second half. I’m not sure about ice-hockey (which is the example he uses), but this idea would be very difficult to implement for most other sports. For one thing, it would require twice the coaching time and expertise and would more than double some of the resources required for the participation of athletes in sport.
That is, the entire basis for the Matthew effect is that younger players who happen to be older by virtue of their earlier birth month are given superior coaching, competition and opportunity. The creation of a second, separate league for those born later in the year would not solve this problem, unless the quality of coaching provided to that second group of children was at least comparable. In SA, there are barely enough decent coaches for one team, let alone two, so I’m not convinced this would work. And that’s apart from the administrative problem raised by Gladwell in his book.
The second possibility is the creation of weight categories for young children. The rationale here would be that in sports where size, weight and strength (these are often, but not always, associated) are key determinants of performance, the early developers and the relatively older children enjoy a large advantage which manifests itself as improved ability, and which is the basis for the fateful selection of January births rather than December births.
The creation of weight limits would ensure that children only compete against those who are in the same weight bracket as they are, regardless of age. It has some advantage, but there are also a couple of problems. The first is the incentive it creates for children to make weight. That’s not to suggest that the use of anabolic agents or diuretics (depending on which direction they wish to go) would be the obvious result, but it is a possibility.
More than this, it creates something of a perverse criteria against which children are measured, one which I’m not sure is healthy. It also starts to mix children of very different ages together, and there is an emotional and intellectual difference that is not controlled for. Suddenly a 10-year old is playing sport against 15 year olds, in a league that is, by nature, likely to be much more competitive than should be the case for a 10-year old.
Secondly, many sports actually require a separation in weight before specific skills can be acquired. Being South African, the sport that comes to mind is rugby, but for those in the USA, the obvious one might be American Football. In both sports, positions are very heavily influenced by body shape, size, strength and physical stature. As a result, so too are the skills required from the players in those positions. If players compete in age categories, then one would be delaying the acquisition of these skills.
Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Skills develop according to the situation presented to the player, and so a more all-round skill set would be the result if age-categories were adhered to, since no size advantage would exist for one player to easily dominate another physically. Late maturers would be rewarded, because they would develop skills that one would usually be found in the smaller, more nible players, and when they eventually “fill out” and bulk up, they’d carry through those skills, and remain skillful as “big men”.
On the other hand, do you really want a team with all-round skills and reduced specialist ability? Once you reach the professional level, the very specific demands of playing each position would quickly expose weaknesses that have developed as a result of the lack of necessity to develop those skills earlier. It’s a debatable one, for sure. It has been tried, that much I know – I believe that they tried weight groupings (mixed with age groupings) in Australia. I haven’t had the chance to investigate that more thoroughly, so I’m open to input on that one.
Changing the focus of performance
Perhaps the best approach I can think of borrows from this principle that you want to discourage a form of play where size, strength and speed are the crucial factors that determine success. In this regard, many sports systems around the world are already making the effort, since they emphasize that younger children do not play contact forms of sport, play rather for fun and enjoyment and do not prioritze winning. The notion of play to play, rather than play to win, is the focus.
Recall that the Matthew effect develops when coaches select players and then begin to provide a superior coaching and competition environment. If those coaches are able to make their selection in such a way that ability is not confused with maturity, then younger players would remain in the system for longer, perhaps long enough that they could themselves develop and catch up to the older players.
The incentive (and the wisdom) of the coach is therefore the first element - they should not be driven to win. Unfortunately, in many sports, this is an unrealistic goal, and one can understand how coaches pick better players at such young ages – they are under pressure to perform. So the collective mindset of the team, the parents, the school and the club often must change before this happens.
Once it does, then the priority of the coach can become skill development, enjoyment and development of attributes where size, strength and speed are not solely responsible for performance. This will never completely remove the effect, but education, a change in mindset and a different set of priorities might go a long way to “rescuing” those younger players who are so quickly lost from the system. Ironically enough, this focus on play rather than performance at a young age is likely to help performance at an older age, through the creation of a larger body of “eligible” players.
An impossible puzzle to solve, I suspect. As I said, I’m actually going to be suggesting to a few sports federations here in SA that they look long and hard at this very phenomenon, and try to understand how young talent moves through the system. Part of this will be discovering where these “early developers” go, what happens to late developers, and what strategies might be effective in maximizing the available player pool. So we have the possiblity of a real-life “case-study” or two, and I hope to be able to report on that soon!