The Upper V: Open Commentary on the theory and application of soccer development
What is Game Intelligence? - Part 1
It's Time To Eliminate the Relative Age Effect in American Soccer - Part 1
It's Time To Eliminate the Relative Age Effect in American Soccer - Part II
by Robert R. Horn, PH.D. & Michelle Okumura
(originally published in the March-April 2011 edition of the NSCAA Soccer Journal)
In Part I of this article, the relative age effect (RAE) was defined as:
"the overall difference in age between individuals within each age group,
and the resulting (often significant) differences in development and athletic performance/ability."
Noted issues and areas for concern because of RAE include:
• When looking at major sports experiences (national training center opportunities, youth world cup teams etc, generally 7 out of 10 players selected to these programs come from the first 4-6 months of a given age band / birth year.
• When players begin competitive soccer between the ages of 6 and 16 the majority of players on a team are those who represent the first half of the birth year.
• These findings are specific to “invasion” sports like hockey, football and soccer. Fielding and net sports like baseball and volleyball don’t seem to have the same trends that follow players and their time of birth in relationship to their selection and standing into the team.
• Players that represent the latter half of a birth year often are left unselected and may fall to programs that may not have the same opportunity as the best athletes in the 1st half are afforded.
• The selection criteria is most noticeable (and the most difficult for 2nd half players) when they face enormous physical opposition to those athletes in the first half of a birth year (ie: the 10 year old that is almost twice the weight as a younger player or the 14 year old who is 6 inches shorter, 35 pounds lighter and lacks the strength and power of an older team mate).
In the second part of this article, we'll offer potential solutions to mediating the impact of this societal and organizational pressure.
Steps Towards Reducing the RAE in American Soccer
Past research has presented some potential ways to reduce the RAE. For example, Mushc & Grondin (2001) have suggested grouping players based on their biological age (as indicated by markers such as height and skeletal maturity) rather than chronological age. Similar to the use of equal weight classes in football, this would put players of similar height and weight together. This would “level the playing field” in some ways, but there are many different markers of development, and players often will have different developmental levels based on different criteria. Musch & Grondin also have suggested rotating the cutoff date each year to avoid systematically discriminating against the same group of children. In hockey a Relative Age Fairness Cycle (Hurley et al., 2001) was devised to rotate the cutoff by three months each year. Also to avoid discrimination, Barnsley & Thompson (1998) suggested the use of age quotas such that competitive teams must be made up of players born in all phases of the year. It could be argued that these approaches miss the point of social injustice in the RAE: We want to avoid any bias toward children in youth sports. Shifting the cutoof dates simply rotates who is victimized by discrimination each year. Meanwhile, changing cutoff dates simply permanently transfers the RAE to different times of the year, as has been shown in countries such as England, Australia and Belgium 9see Colbey et al., 2008) Lastly, ensuring that teams are made up of players born in all phases of the year still is discriminatory because coaches may have to cut good players if too many players were born in a specific time of the year.
As we have outlined, the RAE is socially constructed. Therefore, changing the way we organize youth soccer will minimize its effect. Presented below are four potential ways to reduce the RAE in U.S. soccer.
OPTION 1: Delay the Start of Competitive Soccer
The data in Figure 3 indicate that waiting to put players in highly competitive environments almost certainly will reduce the RAE. Coley et al. (2009) have suggested that delaying the processes of player selection until after puberty (15-16 years old) could b effective. We agree, but suspect that such a dramatic change to the U.S. system is infeasible. Instead, we suggest that the most effective step that clubs may take to reduce the RAE is delay the start of travel soccer. For each year that high-pressure competition is delayed, the RAE should diminish. Rather than place players on travel teams at ages 8 to 11, clubs can form developmental academies where players aged 5 to 11 years develop skills and game intelligence. The environment can become increasingly competitive within the academy, but without the permanent selection of teams, the RAE should be greatly reduced or not present at all. The academy should not be confused with a recreational program. Instead, the time spent in practice can be comparable to or exceed that of travel soccer, and the coaching is of a high level. The relative age effect is called “relative” for a reason: it becomes smaller with increasing age. Figure 3 shows how relative age differences (shown as the difference between the start and end of a cutoff cycle in months/age in months as proportion of a child’s life) become less each year. (For larger clubs that do not want to embrace the delay of travel soccer, the RAE will be present, but could be greatly reduced by using Option 2 to 5.)
OPTION 2: Reduce the Age Bands for Younger Players from One Year to Six Months
The reduction of peer-age bands was first recommended by Brewer et al, (1995) and some researchers have presented a nine-month cutoff system (the Novem System; Boucher & Halliwell). Figure 3 shows that by using a six-month cutoff, relative age differences for each age group are of course, cut in half. For example, a 10-year old player born just before the cutoff date in a one-year age band is disadvantaged by being 10 percent younger than a player born just after the cutoff. The same player born just before cutoff in a six-month age band is disadvantaged by being only 5 percent younger. This simple change could reduce the RAE in the United States by 50 percent. League committees should discuss an initiative to reduce age bands to six months. Reducing age bands to six months may prove difficult for travel soccer in smaller clubs, because it necessitates two teams in each one-year age division. Nevertheless, in travel and recreation soccer, this simple change can be made easier by using small-sided games.
OPTION 3: Design Tryouts Differently
In many clubs, the tryouts for the youngest players are the most poorly organized. Yet this may be the defining moment in a players’ career! For young players aged 6 to 9, direct player-against-player competition in tryouts maximizes the relative age advantage, especially in large-sided games (8 v.8 and above) in which younger players many not touch the ball at all. Tryouts should include players demonstrating basic skills without competition, and small-sided games (3 v. 3) where younger players will get many touches on the ball. Evaluators should judge younger players based on potential to play and respond to practice and experience, not just on their current level of play. Finally, depending on how many players are trying out, the sessions should be organized to have players divided into two to three separate age-bands within the year.
OPTION 4: Equalize the practice experience of players that do and don’t succeed at tryouts
Players that fail to make a travel team are even less likely to make the team a year later because their disadvantage has been made worse by a difference in playing experience in the year following the tryout. To minimize this effect, clubs should ensure that younger players that do not make travel programs get comparable practice experience in terms of time and quality of coaching.
What steps can you take to reduce the RAE in your club and state?Before taking action to change the organization of your club, you should examine the extent of the RAE by collating the birth dates of all your travel players. Clubs that are highly competitive are most likely to see the RAE. Those that don’t see a significant effect (i.e., no more than 55 percent of the teams are made up of players born in the first half of o the selection year) across their age groups should not be concerned. Those that do see an effect may want to consider the suggestions listed above . At the state level, associations should compile data from clubs and examine the organization of those that have minimized the RAE. States should aim to develop guidelines for clubs to follow to minimize the effect statewide. Finally, further research is required to compare the RAE in response to different styles of organization in youth soccer, as well as better understand its nature. In particular, we need to better explain why the RAE is so much stronger in soccer for boys than girls.
CONCLUDING COMMENTSFrom the small soccer club competing against clubs with more players to the National Team competing against world soccer power-houses, all teams could benefit from the availability of 30 to 40 percent more high-quality players. Neutralizing the relative age effect could foster the development of these players. The way that we organize youth soccer in the United States for players 5 to 10 years old creates obstacles that deny potentially talented children the opportunity to develop into highly skilled players.
The National Association for Sports and Physical Education has developed a Bill of Rights for Young Athletes that promises them “the right to participate at a level commensurate with each child’s developmental level.” The fact that the RAE exists violates this right. We would not accept discrimination in sports based on gender or race, so why do we continue to accept it based on the month that a child is born?
It is time for more action to eliminate the RAE.
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