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Too young for stardom: What creates outliers in youth sports?

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(Photo by Ross Dunn under CC BY-SA 2.0)


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AUGUST 21, 2022

Malcolm Gladwell’s New York Times bestseller, “Outliers: The Story of Success,” is a staple for nonfiction summer reading in many high school classrooms. Gladwell analyzes what it means to be an outlier, or someone that “does things that are out of the ordinary,” and excels tremendously in at least one area.

Throughout the book, Gladwell emphasizes how hard work and dedication pushes people from mediocre to extraordinary. However, in the opening chapter, he identifies an element of success solely determined by luck: Individuals born earlier in the academic year are inclined to accomplish more due to superior physical and cognitive development (While not explicitly stated in “Outliers,” this is formally known as the relative age effect, or RAE).

Gladwell uses an Ontario Junior Hockey League roster to support this claim, revealing that five and a half times as many players were born in January than born in November. The eligibility cutoff date for youth hockey in Canada is Jan. 1, and therefore those born closest to the cutoff date play against boys nearly a year younger than them.

RAE creates a cycle for older athletes to be favored, since differences in physical maturity are likely to be mistaken for extraordinary talent or strength by coaches seeking players to invest time and money into developing.

RAE doesn’t only affect men’s hockey. Until 2006, the youth baseball eligibility cutoff date for Little League baseball was July 31. Tellingly, 12.2% of MLB players were born in August, whereas only 6.4% were born in July. In fact, baseball legends Mike Trout, Roberto Clemente and Ted Williams all have August birthdays.

Another example of RAE occurs in youth soccer. A 2018 study revealed that 50% of the top 60 USA male soccer players born in 2001 had birthdays between January and March.

Changes are happening.“Bio-banding,” an experimental system that groups young players by their maturational stage rather than their chronological age, has been introduced to address this problem. Although only in its early stages, bio-banding seems to have already made a positive impact; research suggests it reduces the physical domination of early-maturing players.

Nonetheless, bio-banding is flawed given the difficulty of predicting a child’s growth patterns, even when taking into account parental height and other maturation predictors.

Furthermore, RAE doesn’t always favor those who are older. In the case of sports in which tall height and significant muscle mass aren’t advantageous, the youngest children are favored over older ones at the youth level.

In women’s figure skating, there has been press regarding the extremely young age at which girls tend to take the Olympic stage.

During the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, both the gold and silver medalists were only 17 years old. Due to controversy relating to performance-enhancing drugs, Kamila Valieva, a 15-year-old who came in at No. 4 but was originally the clear favorite for gold, sparked conversation urging the International Skating Union to change its minimum age to compete at the senior level from 15 to 17. Similar concerns had previously been raised when 15-year-old Alina Zagitova won the Olympic gold medal in 2018.

However, even 15 or 16 could be too old for girls to reach their peak performing potential.

“When I grew, my legs got longer and everything changed. You almost have to relearn a lot of what you have,” said 16-year-old Alysa Liu, implying that puberty was an obstacle in her skating career.

While there have been attempts to counteract RAE, it seems that no matter how cutoff dates are arranged, outliers will benefit, for no reason other than the day they were born.

Leila Rosenberg is a Bear Bytes Blog writer. Contact her at [email protected].

AUGUST 22, 2022

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