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The following post is taken from ‘Relative Age Effects on Performer Participation and Development’ written by Chris Chapman, sports coach UK’s Development Lead Officer (Talent & Performance Coaching), and Kevin Till Senior Lecturer of Sports Coaching at Leeds Beckett University.
Many sports use the academic year (1 September to 31 August) as the registration dates for entry into school, community, governing body talent pathways, and some professional competitions within the UK. While mirroring the educational system, these specific annual-age groups provide consistency for friendship groups and continuity for youngsters, and attempt to avoid large differences between children within sport to try to ensure equal competition and opportunities.
However, this structure still leads to some children being almost one year older than others within the same annual-age group (eg a September birth compared to an August birth). This difference in age within an annual-age group is defined as relative age, with the consequences being the Relative Age Effect. The Relative Age Effect results in participation and selection differences favouring the relatively older participants and occurs in most youth sports, including football, rugby league, rugby union, basketball and tennis (Cobley et al, 2009). This means that a greater number of players born closer to the ‘cut-off’ date of 1 September participate and are selected for teams, clubs and competitions. However, being relatively older may not be an advantage for all sports, with no Relative Age Effect shown in golf, and reversed Relative Age Effects favouring the relatively younger individual apparent in sports such as gymnastics.
Relative Age Effects are evident in grass-roots sport from as early as the under-sevens age category through to the professional sporting arena. It is therefore essential that all people engaged in youth sports, from parents to coaches to talent pathway managers, are aware of the Relative Age Effect and the impact it can have on a participant’s development. Increasing awareness and educating all involved in the sporting landscape would enable more participants to firstly engage and secondly develop the skills necessary to be successful within their chosen sport(s).
What follows is a consideration of the second of three developmental periods in relation to the growth, maturation and development of children - Adolescence (13–16 Years).
Top tips on raising awareness of the Relative Age Effect and how to limit the effects associated with it (eg limited participation and [de]selection) are included.
Adolescence (13–16 Years)
Important for: coaches, parents, talent identification staff (scouts), talent pathway managers and performance analysts.
During the adolescent period, the Relative Age Effect can become more pronounced due to the effect of maturation. Performers advanced in age are usually also advanced in maturation. In males, maturation usually occurs at approximately 14 years of age, and in females, occurs at 11–12 years of age, but the timing and tempo of maturation can vary considerably between individuals (+/- 2–3 years – Lloyd et al, 2014). During this period, coaches must also consider the maturation of participants, as well as relative age.
For example, a performer born in September could have an age at peak height velocity (PHV, commonly known as the growth spurt) at 13.5 years of age compared to an August birth date with an age at PHV of 14.5 years. This means although these performers may be one year apart in chronological age, there is actually a difference of two years in terms of their maturation. Alternatively, consider a performer born in September whose age at PHV is 14.5 years and a performer born in August who reaches PHV at 13.5 years – these performers now have a very similar maturational age.
Research suggests that the older, bigger and earlier-maturing participants have advanced selection opportunities in many sports (Meylan et al, 2010). Therefore, it is important for those involved in the identification, selection and development of young people in sport to be aware of the Relative Age Effect and maturation in their coaching practice, structure and selection of squads and teams.
Click the links below to read top tips for the remaining two developmental periods.
Download Relative Age Effects: Implications for Performer Participation and Development.
As well as ConnectedCoaches more information on the Relative Age Effect is available on the Talent Coaching section on the sports coach UK website.
Cobley, S., Baker, J., Wattie, N. and McKenna, J. (2009) ‘Annual-age grouping and athlete development: a meta-analytical review of Relative Age Effects in sport’, Sports Medicine, 39 (3): 235–256.
Meylan, C., Cronin, J., Oliver, J. and Hughes, M. (2010) ‘Talent identification in soccer: The role of maturity status on physical, physiological and technical characteristics’, International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, 5 (4): 571–592.
Lloyd, R., Oliver, J., Faigenbaum, A., Myer, G. and De Ste Croix, M. (2014) ‘Chronological age vs biological maturation: Implications for exercise programming in youth’, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28: 1454–1464.
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