Brett Leader Looks At “Relative Age” in Age Group Swimming

Braden Keith
by Braden Keith 41

September 24th, 2013 Club, News, Training

Below, Brett Leader, the head age group coach of the Victor Swim Club near Rochester, discusses an extension of Malcolm Gladwell’s famous idea of “relative age” as it pertains to swimming. Leader took the idea a step further and examined how this played out in his local LSC, Niagara Swimming.

Several months ago I read a book titled Outliers: The Story of Success written by Malcolm Gladwell. The book explores and, to an extent, disproves the notion that success is the results of hard work and determination alone. Rather, the book argues that a very specific set of circumstances relating to factors ranging all the way from one’s date of birth to who one’s great, great-grandfather might have been, play a large role in the success of any high level achiever. There is a section of the book that discusses “relative age”, which is a phenomenon that was first discovered by a Canadian psychologist named Roger Barnsley in the mid-1980s. Barnsley discovered that over a broad spectrum of elite level age group hockey programs in Canada, nearly without exception, about 40% of all players were born between Jan-Mar, 30% between Apr-Jun, 20% between Jul-Sep, and 10% between Oct-Dec. (Gladwell, 2008) Such a large representation of this phenomenon could hardly be chalked up to coincidence, and so Barnsley sought to explain why these proportions held across such a large sampling of elite level age group hockey players. What he came up with was the idea of “relative age”. The cutoff for age group hockey leagues across the nation is Jan. 1. What this means is that a child born on Jan. 2 2002 can literally be 363 days older than a child born on Dec. 31 2002 while still competing in the same 10 year-old age group this year.

As swim coaches, we probably realize better than most what a huge difference nearly an entire year of development can have on the ability of an athlete to perform at the age of 10. It accounts for an extra 10% of physical development. In and of itself, the phenomenon is not terribly surprising. The age cutoff is an arbitrary date, and those who happen to be born on the right side of that date enjoy an advantage over their “peers” for the first several years of competition until the biological spectrum normalizes. However, the surprising and disconcerting aspect of Barnsley’s discovery was that these trends held true even at most senior levels of hockey when they players were between the ages of 16-20. In theory, once the biological gap closes, the players who were at an initial disadvantage should be on a level playing ground with those who enjoyed that early advantage shouldn’t they? If you know anything about the way age group hockey is run in Canada, then you might be seeing a slight problem with this supposition. At the very early ages of 9-10, those players who are the beneficiaries of the extra months of development are deemed to be the best, most talented players, and are selected to travelling rep-squads, all-star teams, and special clinics. These are similar to Zone teams and regional select camps in swimming, but are much more permanent placements. As described by Malcolm Gladwell;

“And what happens when a player gets chosen for a rep-squad? He gets better coaching, his teammates are better, and he plays fifty or seventy-five games a season instead of twenty games a season like those left behind in the “house” league, and he practices twice as much or even three times as much as he would have otherwise. In the beginning, his advantage isn’t so much that he is inherently better but only that he is a little older. But by the age of thirteen or fourteen, with the benefit of better coaching and all that extra practice under his belt, he really is better, so he’s the one more likely to make it to the Major Junior A league, and from there into the big leagues.”

Barnsley identified three factors which facilitate this phenomenon; (1)selection, (2)streaming, and (3)differentiated experience. These factors are described below by Barnsley.

“If you (1)make a decision about who is good and who is not good at an early age, if you (2)separate the “talented” from the “untalented”, and if you (3)provide the “talented” with a superior experience then you’re going to end up giving a huge advantage to that small group of people born closest to the cutoff date.”

Hockey is not the only sport in which this occurs. In non-school American baseball, a similar age cutoff is on July 31. In 2005 there were 505 American born players in the majors with August birthdays as opposed to 313 born in July. In European soccer, the cutoff is September 1. At one point in the 1990s there were 288 players born between Sep-Nov versus 136 born between Jun-Aug. Both of these sports are set up similarly to the age group hockey leagues which were the initial point of study for Barnsley. (Gladwell, 2008)

After I read this book I took an immediate interest in this phenomenon and became very curious as to how it might relate to our own sport, swimming. At the outset, I hypothesized that swimming was probably immune to this phenomenon because it did not meet all of the criteria laid out by Barnsley. Although there is certainly a degree of “selection” because our Zone teams are populated by the fastest swimmers in each age group, in my mind there was very limited streaming and a negligible degree of differentiated experience since, outside of those several weeks the top level swimmers spend with Zone teams and the like, swimmers are all free to decide which program and coach they ultimately swim for. Therefore, in my mind, I decided that since the “talented” were not being separated from the “untalented” for more than a week or two every season, and that they have essentially the same experience within their own clubs, there would not be such a pronounced overrepresentation of those swimmers born directly after the cutoff dates. After I developed my hypothesis, I set out to do some informal research to test it. The fruits of my labor surprised me greatly.

Allow me to preface this section by saying that I am not a sociologist. Nor am I a statistician or mathematician. I am merely an age group swimming coach who has developed an interest in a phenomenon which I believe might affect American Swimming at its grassroots level.

I decided on several basic parameters to make this endeavor feasible for me given my available time and resources. The overview is limited to Niagara athletes because it is the only LSC for whose athletes I was able to access dates of birth. It is also confined to girls because I believed they would better illustrate the point of the study. One would expect there to be a greater biological gap between more developed and lesser developed age group girls at meets like Zones, and would also expect that biological gap to have lessened considerably, if not closed completely, by the time female athletes are 16-18 as they generally are at meets like Speedo Sectionals. Finally, for the sake of conciseness, I focused only on Short Course participation at the Age Group level because it is by far the better-attended Age Group meet in Niagara.

One major difference between USA Swimming and the aforementioned sports which have been the subjects of similar studies, is the notion of a cutoff date. In other sports there is a single date which determines the age group those athletes will compete in throughout an entire year. In swimming, the swimmer’s age on the first day of any one meet determines which age group they will compete in for that particular meet. I decided that the most practical cutoff date to use when analyzing age group swimming is the first day of the Zone Championship, being that it is the most elite level meet available to Age Groupers. Therefore, April 1st will effectively act as the cutoff date for the SCY season.

Between the years of 2010 – 2012 Niagara had a total of 82 girls participate in the SCY Zone Championship. Here is how they broke down by month of birth:

May

20

24.39%

Jul

12

14.63%

Apr

9

10.98%

Sep

9

10.98%

Jun

8

9.76%

Oct

7

8.54%

Dec

5

6.10%

Feb

4

4.88%

Mar

4

4.88%

Aug

2

2.44%

Nov

2

2.44%

Jan

0

0.00%

 

If we look at the 3 month period following the cutoff date (Apr – Jun) those athletes account for over 45% of all Zone qualifiers. If we add the following month (Jul) that number increases to nearly 60%. In contrast, if we look at the 3 months leading up to the cutoff date (Jan – Mar) those athletes account for less than 10% of all Zone qualifiers, and only 16% if we add the previous month of December. Obviously at the age group level this is to be expected because as mentioned earlier, those athletes born directly after the cutoff date do enjoy the biological advantage over those born before the cutoff date. Where this becomes a concern is when these trends still hold after the biological advantage has disappeared.

Between August 2011 and March 2013, Niagara had 98 female athletes qualify for the Speedo Sectional Championship. Below is how they broke down by month of birth:

May

17

17.35%

Jun

13

13.27%

Jul

11

11.22%

Mar

9

9.18%

Dec

9

9.18%

Sep

8

8.16%

Feb

7

7.14%

Oct

7

7.14%

Aug

6

6.12%

Nov

5

5.10%

Apr

4

4.08%

Jan

2

2.04%

 

 

Again, if we look at the three month period that directly follows the Zone cutoff date (Apr – Jun) those athletes still account for 34% of all Speedo qualifiers, and nearly 46% if we add the following month of July. And, once again, if we look at the three month period leading up to the Zone cutoff (Jan – Mar), those athletes account for only 18% of all the qualifiers, and only 27% if we add the previous month of December. At this point in a swimmer’s career, particularly a female swimmer’s career, we would have expected the biological gap between the athletes to play a much more minor role than it did at the Zone level. And yet, these trends continue to show themselves. The question we need to answer is why this appears at all levels of competition. The answer may be in something referred to as the “Matthew Effect” named after a verse in the bible which reads; “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance. But from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” Essentially, the “Matthew Effect” refers to society’s tendency to reward those who are successful with a series of advantages which lead to further success. (Gladwell, 2008) The “Matthew Effect” is closely tied to the three factors initially identified by Barnsley which facilitate this phenomenon. I believe that most of our focus needs to be given to the third factor, which is a differentiated experience.

As mentioned earlier, although there is some degree of selection involved in age group swimming, and perhaps some small degree of streaming I believe those two factors to be barely present and negligible for the purposes of this discussion. This leaves differentiated experience bearing the brunt of the responsibility for these trends. In the age group hockey example, the differentiated experience was a result of “talented” players being physically placed in separate training programs by way of all-star teams and the like. In USA Swimming, however, the experience of each swimmer is largely dependent on the club they elect to swim with. Where, then, does the experience of a successful young swimmer differ from one who is not as successful so much so that it puts them in a better position to succeed at a higher level for the rest of their career? Although it will be extremely unpopular to suggest, the obvious answer is that they are treated differently by their coaches.

I think that we would all like to say that we treat every swimmer who comes through our program, with exactly the same amount of enthusiasm and give them the all the same amount of attention. In an ideal world, perhaps this is the way it would be, but no coach can honestly say that is the case, even if it is their intention. Of course I can only speak for myself with any real degree of certainty, but I think the fact of the matter is that we as coaches pour more of ourselves into those swimmers who reciprocate our effort and enthusiasm. The swimmers who show up excited to be at practice, eager to improve, and ready to listen will generally command more attention than the swimmers who comes in to swim a perfunctory workout every day. This is where the “Matthew Effect” comes into play.

Imagine, for a moment, a 10 year old girl born on May 1st. At the end of the SCY season she qualifies for the Zone team due in large part to the fact that she is up to 11 months older and more developed than most of her counterparts in the LSC. She gets to travel to another state with a group of elite level swimmers with whom she quickly makes friends. She represents her LSC at the meet and makes finals in several events. Overall it is a fantastic experience.

Is it too much to suppose that a young person who has had this type of experience will have a desire to qualify for this meet again so that they are able to travel with their newfound group of friends and be amidst the excitement of a Zone Championship?

Is it too much to suppose that a swimmer who wants to continue to have these types of experiences might work a little bit harder and show a little bit more interest at practice?

Is it too much to suppose that a coach who sees a swimmer putting in extra effort and paying closer attention and showing a greater desire to improve at practice might put a little extra effort into coaching that swimmer?

And is it too much to suppose that a swimmer who receives a little extra attention from the coach every single day is more likely to continue to succeed and qualify for more championship level meets and become even more determined to improve, leading to even more attention and opportunities?

By virtue of their date of birth they are provided with a vastly superior experience over the course of their entire career compared to somebody who might have been born in January or February. This is the definition of the “Matthew Effect”; a series of accumulated advantages which breed further success, even though the initial advantage may have had nothing to do with the athlete themself. It is the reason that 40% of Major Junior A Hockey players have birthdays that fall between January and March, and, in my estimation, the reason that nearly 46% of Niagara’s female Speedo Sectional qualifiers are born between April and July.

Obviously there are many limitations to this informal study, and I certainly don’t pretend to have any final solutions. This is simply something that caught my attention, and became more and more fascinating to me as I continued to look into it. Perhaps these trends don’t exist in other Zones or even in our neighboring LSCs. I have no way of knowing. If it does, then maybe someday there will be concrete data on this topic on a large scale. I think only then, the dialogue concerning how to improve a system which sees nearly a third of its participants grossly underrepresented at championship meets can begin. I hope that at the very least, this article might spark some curiosity and prompt others to look at their own LSCs and their own programs to see if these trends exist elsewhere. Perhaps it will even prompt some to assess their own approach to coaching, especially as it pertains to those athletes who are not fortunate enough to be born in those magical months of April, May, June, or July.

 

REFERENCES

1.) Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little Brown &, 2008. Print

2.) Niagara Swimming. “Niagara Athletes.” Niagara Athletes. Niagara Swimming, 11 Feb. 2013. Web. 13 Apr. 2013.

3.) Barnsley, Roger H. “Hockey Success and Birthdate: The Relative Age Effect.” Journal of the Canadian Association of Health, Physical Education and Recreation (1985): 23-51. Print.

 

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James

This is one of those dilemmas that parents always face with children born at certain times. I have a 3 year old daughter born in August. She entered this month a preschool class for children 3 or older. As an August baby, she us at this point in time one of the youngest in the class…though her physical size due to her parents both being somewhat tall is in line with the whole class. Obviously, in two years time we can decide that she is ready for kindergarten and send her off as a recent turned 5 year old. She will compete both scholasticly and athletically with children that could be upwards of 6 months to a year older. Further… Read more »

That’s an excellent observation, and something that is also touched on in the book Outliers. There are certainly implications that touch many aspects of modern society, not only athletics and education. I think the more people can become aware of the fact that these types of trends exist, the better equipped we will be as a society to deal with the potential ramifications down the road.

bb

Interesting article. I would add that another important factor of the “differentiated experience” of the kid who gets the Zone Team travel and exposure is that the swimmer becomes more confident and then “expects” to have that kind of success. That mental jump — which then is reinforced again and again as the swimmer may make additional travel squads or meets — is really important.

And yes — I think that eagerness and confidence would potentially attract attention from a coach.

DDeu

Interesting but probably a bit of a small sample size. Tthis might not apply in other clubs or areas, even if there is an age cut off.
e.g K Ledeckey birthday March 19, R Meilutyte birthday March 17, dont seem to have been held back much.

barbotus

Possibly. But I don’t think so. I attempted to calculate the first part of the equation using the stated methodology for the same period using the entire Eastern Zone. That is, female age group participants in the EZ SC Age Group Championships from 2010/11/12.

Assuming that I calculated correctly, results were pretty consistent with the article. April-May-June birthdays accounted for 42% of participants, with just over 13% in Jan-Feb-March, using all 14U participants. Looking just at 12U the percentages shift to 46% A/M/J and 11% J/F/M.

Sample sizes were 949 using 14&U and 687 using 12&U.

That is excellent information! Where were you able to access that data for the entire Eastern Zone? I’m incredibly interested in the fact that those proportions seem to hold over such a LARGE sample size. The next step would be to see if they held relatively true at the higher level meets such as SPEEDOs. That is where the result of the accumulated advantages should be seen because the biological gap should be nearly closed by the time athletes are developed enough to compete in that level of meet.

barbotus

A quick and dirty look at female participants at 2013 Summer Juniors shows things evening out quite a bit. Although not completely. 660 athletes.
24.7% Jan/Feb/March,
27.6% Apr/May/Jun,
22.6% July/Aug/Sep,
25.2% Oct/Nov/Dev.

Not a statistician so can’t say if the Apr/May/Jun bump is meaningful. One odd note: while May is largest single month with 75 athletes at 11.4%, next is October with 67 and 10.2%. All other months fall between 6.5% and 8.6%.

October births typically starting school a year later having an impact?

LW

My daughter has a March 13th birthday and has achieved all of her champ times at age 10 and many at age 8. Unfortunately for her, her birthday is the day or two before state each year. She will not be able to compete with her peers, but the rules are nice enough to let her come and swim with the 12 year olds where she will likely finish at the bottom as some of them are biologically nearly three years her senior. To add insult to injury, this will always be the case as the dates of state barely shift. So for her, and all the other unfortunate girls with birthdays just before state, they never qualify at the… Read more »

Ben

there are swimmers that as 10 year olds would place in the top of most 11-12 meets… obviously this doesnt hold true for everyone… but looking at a population can give a lot more information than just one individual

Swim Fan

Those mid March birthdays of 3/19 and 3/17 are the best here where the age group state championships are the first week of March.

Ben

Someone should look at the birthdays of all of swimmers in the top 10 Div 1 schools. Perhaps ignoring the internationals (conflicting meet schedules) I bet there would be some interesting results

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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