How to Counteract the Relative Age Effect in sports?

Thanks to Joy of the People, on Twitter, for the link to this article on the Relative Age Effect in Bayern Munich’s teams and the Bundesliga, in general.

The data supports the idea that the players closer to the age cutoff for age groups in sports (i.e. the oldest of the group) have advantages that wind up causing top teams to have a higher composition of these players than players born in the back half of the year.

Even as a coach observing a small sample size of players, I saw the Relative Age Effect with my own eyes. I wrote about it here.

The Bayern article suggests a few counter measures, like waiting longer to make selections for training programs or looking at age so they know who is due for growth spurts.

IMO, those won’t work. The REA creates the bias early on, from the earliest organized teams around age 5 or 6, so that by the time the players are 16 or 17 it’s not just a physical difference that will be closed on the next growth spurt.

It’s that the players who benefited from the REA from the start got 30x more action in games and practice. It’s an experience and repetition deficiency. Probably also some mental deficits, as the the kids on the tail end receive lots of signals that they are no good and leave the sport.

I expect the ones that do make it from the tail end of the age bracket to be especially resilient, hard-workers who especially love the game, which has helped them overcome a higher hurdle and likely had a good dose of all ages pickup play, and/or older siblings and parents that played soccer.

My counterintuitive hunch is that a better countermeasure would be to widen the age groups to 2-3 year age brackets, rather than narrow them.

A few things happen with the wider age brackets. The age differences become more apparent, so both kids, coaches and parents factor that in. Instead of relying on the big kids in the single age bracket to get the win to feed their egos, they can say, my 8 year old held her own against the 9 and 10 year olds and be happy with that.

Something else important happens. The younger kids learn from the older kids that are 1-2 years ahead of them. That’s a piece that goes missing with 1-year or less age brackets. Sure, the games are closer and everybody feels good about that, but they learn nothing and don’t have anything to aspire to!

I believe a reason pickup play works well is that it often mixes ages and skills levels, so those on the bottom can get in and see what they have to learn to match up.

But, also, while lots of folks point to the hard-nosed, competitive nature of pickup, there are also a lot of balancing mechanisms that emerge. One example, when I played pickup against a better team who had been on the field for 4 or 5 turns, they were tired. So, my team of lesser players, with fresher legs, could match up with them better than if they had fresh legs. And, we even beat them a few times.

But, other ways of balancing emerge as well. Just think about any sport where you played pickup and all the little tricks you might have used to make the competition interesting. Maybe you spot the lesser team a few points, or offer some other handicap, like ‘our team can only shoot with our weak foot.’ Maybe you balance out the good players across teams. Or, even within the game, maybe you take the foot off the gas or man up to people of similar ability on the other team.

The point is, pickup play has evolved a lot ways to get people engaged in the sport and keep it interesting and educational.

Organized play sterilizes all the good that comes from that for the belief that “it will be more competitive.” That’s not even true, if compared to the balancing mechanisms in pickup, but it sounds good.

So, I think organized play with narrow age bands leads to less learning, less motivation to become like players 2-3 years advanced, and more Relative Age Effect.

If I were inclined, I think it would be an interesting study to look across countries for a few things, like the prevalence of all ages pickup play and the age groupings in the youth leagues.

If I’m right, I would expect to see less Relative Age Effect in countries that have more all ages pickup and wider age bands in their organized leagues.

Also, I might expect these places to produce better overall talent, relative to places with more isolated age play.

Update: I had a couple more thoughts after posting.

I think sports are better learned in 2-3 year chunks than in isolated age bubbles. Kids need more than the coach telling to put the effort in for the long haul. They also need role models that they know and want to be like.

The role model gives a player a vision of what they should be working toward in 1-3 years and to show them what is possible. Without that vision, kids are somewhat rudderless and just focus on the results of the game against the similarly skilled and aged opponents.

Finally, as kids mature to be the older group in the age bracket, they get to look back on the progress they’ve made and get some experience taking a leadership role with the younger kids, which helps them establish the field presence and confidence before moving to the lowest rung of the next level.

It’s also a little bit like how schools are organized into chunks of grades and you get a little bit of those dynamics there, too.

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