What’s the Latest on Relative Age Effects?

What’s the Latest on Relative Age Effects?

Paul Jurbala, Director, Knowledge, Sport for Life Society

The following is a synopsis of abstracts and presentations along with my comments from “Relative Age Effects: An International Conference” held October 17, 2018 at York University. For more information on the conference see https://scholar.uwindsor.ca/rae-conference/

High-level Summary:

  1. Relative Age Effects (RAE) exist and have been well researched and established in a number of settings, notably education and sport.
  2. There is a call among RAE researchers to move beyond finding RAEs in more or different contexts, and to begin to look at underlying causes and solutions for RAEs.
  3. Sport research shows that the “sport system” (coaches, organizations) are resistant to change to limit RAEs, even when the negative consequence of RAEs are known to them.
  4. Several sport talent identification and development programs have been developed to take RAEs into effect and correct for them, such as Australia’s “H2Grow” program.

Sessions and Comments:

RAE: The Early Studies by Roger and Paula Barnsley, Thompson Rivers U.

This presentation discussed the discovery of the relative age effect (RAE), which emerged from observations about a higher incidence of younger children in a classroom or grade being labelled as learning disabled. Early explanations of maturity, critical periods, and school readiness failed to explain the number of false positives in these younger children. Further, personal observations of hockey players suggested that skill and achievement were highly correlated with relative age. These issues were examined by analyzing the birthdates of NHL, major junior, and minor hockey players. Based on these early studies, the RAE was found when: a) children were placed in defined age (cohort) groups for an activity; b) children in an age cohort are evaluated on a particular skill or ability; c) based upon the results of an evaluation, children are labelled or placed in skill/achievement specific groups, and; d) these defined groups received differentiated programs and experiences.

RAEs in Education by Elizabeth Dhuey, U of Toronto

Most jurisdictions worldwide have a single specific cut-off date which determines when a student can enter primary school. For example, in Ontario, a child is eligible to enter kindergarten if s/he turns four years old by January 1st of the relevant school year. These cut off dates create a distribution of ages of children within each cohort at school entry, where the oldest child will be approximately one year older than the youngest child. Studies have found that children who are relatively older than their classmates at the beginning of primary school have a variety of short- and medium-run advantages such as scoring higher on standardized exams through primary and secondary school, having higher development of non-cognitive skills, and being less likely to commit a crime as a teenager or an adult. These findings suggest that early differences in maturity can propagate through the human capital accumulation process into later life and may have important implications for adult outcomes and productivity.

Comments: Even within families, there may be significant differences in school performance between siblings. The implication is that when siblings are studied, all other factors (upbringing, socioeconomic status) are controlled for, leaving RAE as the predominant factor to explain different performance. However, responses of parents play out differently – wealthy parents may hold kids back from school until they are “more ready” while poorer kids enter school and are more likely to repeat grades due to poor performance. These effects persist through high school.

The RAE in Mental Health and Well-Being by Angus Thompson.

Data supporting the supposed effects of relative age on mental health and well-being were presented. To date, the connections have not been as robust as those found for sports or academic achievement. Nonetheless, associations with relative age have been found for self-esteem, school adjustment, youth peer relations, suicidal behaviour, and depression. The view will be advanced that the somewhat small effect sizes have been due to methodological obstacles that may be masking the strength of the relationships between relative age and well-being.

The Relationship Between Relative Age, ADHD and Well-Being by Nick Wattie, UOIT

Relative age effects describe a range of outcomes associated with age differences within cohorts. Predominantly, these outcomes advantage older youth within their age group cohorts. While outcomes such as academic achievement and athlete development predominate in the literature, evidence also suggests that relative age can influence health and wellbeing. For example, evidence suggests that relatively younger children may be at a greater risk of being diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and subsequently medicated.

Mechanisms of Relative Age Effect by Dave Hancock, Indiana University Kokomo

Several mechanisms potentially contribute to relative age effects, including sport structure, physical, and social mechanisms:

  • Sport Structure Mechanisms – To maintain fair athletic competition, organizations often institute one- or two-year age bands (e.g., players born in 2008 and 2009 compete in U8 soccer). Even in a one-year age band, athletes’ ages can differ by 364 days. While smaller age bands and rotating cut-off dates have been proposed, these solutions provide many administrative challenges. Thus, the inherent sport structure lends itself to relative age effects.
  • Physical Mechanisms – Though not guaranteed, being chronologically older than one’s peers can lead to growth and maturation advantages. The average child who is 8 years and zero days old (e.g., born January 1) weighs 58lbs and stands 51” tall; meanwhile the average child who is 7 years and one day old (e.g., born December 31) weighs 51lbs and stands 48” tall. Both children play in the same age division, but the older child has a distinct physical advantage. Additionally, maturation advantages (e.g., better coordination, advanced cognitive efficiency) often exist for relatively older children.
  • Social Mechanisms – Parents appear to register their relatively older children in sport at younger ages. This initial experience results in more practice, competition, and instruction. It has been proposed that such initial advantages lead to later advantages (i.e., a Matthew Effect), including selection to elite teams. Further, it is suggested that parents and coaches place higher expectations on relatively older players, also leading to increased practice, competition, and instruction. These expectations (i.e., a Pygmalion Effect) are then met by players, who show advanced skill development.

Comments: There is some data that parents deliberately do not register their younger or smaller children in sport. Is this due to parental fear of injury, non-competitiveness, or both? If this occurs, coaches may be less responsible for de-selecting younger/smaller children than thought – they are simply “playing the hand they are dealt” when they have more, older/bigger child athletes in their programs.

Relative age effects in sport: A broad-narrow overview based on systematic review and meta-analytical data by Stephen Cobley, U of Sydney

This presentation highlighted RAE prevalence and varying trends across sport contexts. It looked at their magnitude and changing impact; highlighted where and who are most likely vulnerable; how long the effects last; their dynamic nature, and explanations that account for their presence, change or absence. It was argued that RAEs should be considered from an interactional perspective, where multiple factors can potentially account for their prevalence and magnitude.

Comments: The presenter has worked extensively with Swimming Australia. In Australian swimming, RAE is prevalent in younger categories but dissipates quickly…is this due to drop out by “less competitive” swimmers who look at their performance and ask whether to continue?

Through the “H2Grow” program data has been collected from 23,000 swimmers in competition. Software has been developed to create corrective adjustments to evaluate swimmers based on times, rankings, and date of birth to create reference points vs. normative trend lines – “CAP1 software” – and adjust accordingly. According to the presenter the intent is to give the swimmer information on their performance relative to their age and development and thus encourage them to remain in the sport.

Talent Development and RAEs: Looking for More Than One Point in Time by Jorg Schorer, Carl-von-Ossitzky University, Oldenburg, Germany

From the beginning, relative age effects have been considered as an impediment to personal development (see Musch & Grondin, 2001 for a review). While this basic hypothesis implies a longitudinal perspective on these effects, research with a developmental focus is scarce. In this talk, the current state of the science on this topic and new research from our lab focusing on this perspective was presented. These studies focus on findings from elite soccer, national basketball youth development, and German handball talent. Together these studies will demonstrate that a single look at one point in time might not tell us the whole story regarding relative age effects, and that longitudinal research is necessary.

Comments: “In German Handball the effect (still) grows among selected national team athletes. They (the organization) know about RAE since 2009 and the effect still increases” – Jorg Schorer. Jorg presented a thorough investigation of the effect in German soccer basketball and handball spanning a number of research projects and papers. The authors searched for interactions among factors underlying RAE and their expression over time.

Retiring at 10 Years of Age: A discussion of the major trends in organized youth sports today and their association to relative-age-related dropout by Srdjan Lemez, California State University, and Jessica Fraser-Thomas, York University.

A continued interest in investigating how annual age cohort groupings promote ‘relative age effects’ (RAEs) has led to advances in our understanding of the magnitude of RAEs globally. The presentation examined what this important socially constructed phenomenon means for talent identification and development (e.g., Wattie, Schorer, & Baker, 2014). Srdjan’s talk highlighted some of the major trends in youth sports today, such as the emphasis on the performance ethic and the growth of specialized programs (Coakley, 2014), and their association to positive youth development and relative-age related sport discontinuation (e.g., Lemez, Baker, Wattie, Horton, & Weir, 2013). In a broader context, physical inactivity remains a global health problem, so since many psycho- and socio-ecological factors likely perpetuate RAEs, exploring practical avenues to reduce selection biases in youth sport remains a priority.

Comments: There are a growing number of studies showing little difference between early specializes and diversifiers. Is sampling (multisport participation) really just multiple early specialization? Research suggests fluidity of movement between sports is not easy – you can’t easily hop between sports and improve in any or all of them. Harlow et al., 2017 found lots of claims are made for early sampling benefits, but little benefit was demonstrated in their study.

Meanwhile, in baseball, RAE has increased over the decades especially from the 1950s on. A similar pattern is observed in Bundesliga per Jorg Schorer. Once myths are propagated they are hard to fight especially if they are consistent with individual bias…and the idea athletes need early starts, and that bigger body size = talent are such myths. Is the increased interest in unstructured activities such as skateboard a counterculture reaction to traditional sport models?

Late Birthday Benefits? The Underdog Hypothesis by Patti Weir and Kristy Smith, U of Windsor

Relative age effects (RAEs) are assumed to disadvantage those who are relatively younger in a same-age peer group. While accepting this proposition is true in many cases, there is also evidence to suggest that relatively younger athletes may ultimately achieve greater performance success if they are able to overcome a sport system that disadvantages them. The challenges encountered at young ages may ultimately facilitate overall athlete development (e.g., through enhanced skill development, greater resiliency and coping skills, etc.), and may ultimately explain the absence of the RAE at professional levels in some sport contexts. The Underdog Hypothesis will be discussed with reference to qualitative and quantitative findings among Canadian female athletes.

Comments: Relatively younger who remain in sport may have superior results e.g. more career milestones, longer careers in some sports etc. Late matures may have time to develop better skills, or more resilience. See McCarthy Collins et al re: reversal of RAE.

Helping Talent Scouts Overcome the RAE – David Mann, Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam

David Mann discussed recent studies that examine how talent scouts make selections in sport, and potential solutions to help scouts to account for the RAE. He presented recent work which shows the degree to which relative age and maturation influence the selections of scouts when making judgements of talent. He discussed recent studies which have looked to alter the judgements made by talent scouts by presenting information about the relative age and maturation of young athletes. The results show that it is not enough for scouts to simply be aware of the RAE and have access to the relative age or maturation of young athletes, but rather that more pervasive interventions such as age-ordered shirt numbering are required to alter the selections of scouts.

The RAE in youth and elite sport: Did 20 years of research make any difference? Werner Helsen, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven 

In recent decades, this research team (among others) identified obvious participation and attainment inequalities resulting from annual age grouping procedures across varying forms and levels of sport participation, and the relative age effects (RAEs) associated with it. Generally, youth born early in the selection year have selection and attainment advantages over their relatively younger peers. Twenty years ago, Helsen et al. (1998) observed that 37.9% of soccer players who were transferred from lower league teams to first division teams were born in the first three months of the selection year, while only 12.3% were born in the final three months. Almost a decade ago, Baker et al. (2010) observed that over 35% of players in two amateur developmental ice hockey leagues were born in the first three months of the selection year, while less than 10% were born in the final three months. Over-representation of relatively older players have been consistently observed in a variety of sports (Cobley et al., 2009; Musch & Grondin, 2001). Helsen discussed the (dis)advantages in selection and attainment that are considered RAEs (Wattie et al., 2008) and how they have changed (or not) over the past 20 years.


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