The Relative Age Effect. Is your child a late bloomer? Follow my 5 steps to help reach their full potential.

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I recently came across a blog post where a mother concerned with her 10 year old son’s sports experience wrote “I am not afraid that my son will quit sports by the time he is 13.  I am afraid that he will be denied the opportunity to play. My child is coordinated and coachable. He LOVES sports, we can’t even have a conversation without throwing a ball back and forth! He is not, however, tall, strong or particularly fast. He is young in his class and his father was a late bloomer.” Sound familiar?

There are many parents wondering what to do with their son or daughter who may be a late bloomer. They see their child struggling not because of a lack of skill, but because they are falling behind physically simply due to being the last child to grow and mature.

Anyone who has been around a team of 13 year old boys know that some of them look like 10 year olds, and some are young men.

These differences are all part of the Relative Age Effect (RAE) in youth sports. Simply put, the RAE is the correlation between arbitrary age cutoffs in sports and the statistically high success ratio of children with birth dates within a few months of those cutoffs.

“He was a little one. He couldn’t run. Had asthma. No strength or power. No athleticism. No endurance.” This is how coaches at Manchester United described one of their most successful players of all time, Paul Scholes, as a youngster. Had Scholes not  been involved with a club as forward thinking as Manchester United his future as a footballer could have been very different? Lucky for him the coaches didn’t prioritise winning today over developing longterm potential tomorrow.

His story is no different from that of many other youngsters involved within sport. Children develop physically and psychologically at different rates, that often have no bearing on final ability.

One of the biggest problems in youth sports is that they are organised chronologically instead of developmentally. While this certainly makes it easy to organise and segregate classes and teams, it puts our pre-adolescent children (ages five to thirteen) into situations where some may have a head start, or be denied one, because of birth month.

Yes, two children may be seven years old, but there may be eleven months of additional development for the child born in January. That difference can be huge at a young age.

When we segregate our youth athletes too soon (age 7-10 is fairly common across team sports) the effects are amplified. As a result, studies in nearly every sport indicate that athletes born in the first three months after the calendar cutoff are over represented, and those in the other 9 months, especially the last three months, are under represented. For example, in the English Premier League youth academies, a huge 57% of children are born in the first third of the soccer year!

We then take those “top” athletes and give them the best facilities, the best coaching, better teammates to play with, and stronger opponents to play against. From a very young age, these elite kids are given a special advantage that other, often slightly younger kids are not.

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Many talented young athletes are funnelled out of the developmental pipeline far too soon, and then quit because they perceive their struggles to be a lack of competence instead of delayed physical growth. This system can eliminate almost 50 percent of potential elite performers because of the month they were born. It is crazy! But please, do not lose hope!

Size matters or does it? Pele, Maradona, Messi, George Best, Andres Iniesta, David Silva, Sergio Aguero, Frank Ribery, Juan Mata, Carlos Tevez, Ezequiel Lavezzi, and Eden Hazard. Can you guess what they have in common? Besides being some of the best football players in the world, they are all 5’8″ or under, less than the 25th percentile for men’s height.

What is a Parent to Do?

The good news is that many sporting organisations are trying to address relative age in athlete development. If you have late bloomers here are five suggestions to give them the best chance of continuing in sport and reaching their potential.

1. Find the Right Youth Sports Organisation 

Organisations that are obsessed with segregating players into A and B teams at very young ages (sometimes as young as 7 or 8 years old) may not be the place for your child. Some of them do an excellent job of providing equivalent levels of coaching and player development across entire age groups for the critical developmental years through age 13, and these are great clubs to be in. Others are results driven, and give far more resources and provide top coaches to only the A team at these ages. This is not a good place to be. The longer an organisation waits to place athletes on different developmental paths with varying levels of resources and coaching, the better the chance they will develop the late bloomers.

2. Be Patient

Recognise that early sport success is not a great predictor of later success. You should be far more concerned that your child is in an environment that is promoting a lifelong love of the sport, and is surrounded by coaches that are positive mentors and role models. Physical differences usually even out by the later teen years, and then skill and the ability to think creatively become the predictors of success, so keep focused on those.

3. Educate your child

Help them understand that it is far more important to develop technique, and that in all likelihood the physical piece will even out eventually. Teach them to be gritty, to compete hard, and overcome challenges. Teach them that sport development is not a sprint but a marathon, and help them see areas that they can control to become better (skill development, attitude and effort) and not get too caught up in size and strength. Use being a late bloomer to their advantage!

4. Ensure they get Playing Time

Kids quit when they don’t get to play. Coaches and organisations that are overly results focused oftentimes do not allow kids to play. Young players must play significant minutes in games. Being selected to the A team and not getting to play is not helpful to a young child’s development, and this often happens with coaches who believe that your child is not athletic enough to help get the win.

5. Love Watching them Play / Perform

While I recommend you tell all young athletes how proud you are and how much you love watching them play, it is perhaps most important to let the relatively young kid know this. They can often struggle physically, and psychologically, when competing against bigger, faster and stronger kids, and its up to you not to let them get discouraged. Be sure you separate your love of them from their sport performance, and focus on praising them for their ability and courage to be able to compete against these older kids.

We live in a sport culture that selects and promotes the best children at far too young an age. In reality, we are very often not selecting the best kids, simply the oldest and most physically developed ones.

If your child is a late bloomer, by following the 5 steps listed above you may give them the best chance of developing at their own pace, and reaching their full potential.  If they can overcome the “Relative Age Effect,” they are quite likely to perform at a very high level later on!

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