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Birth month affects perception of athletes’ abilities, researchers say

By Jessica Clement  [1]

BELLEVILLE – Young hockey players born between July and December have been tackling an invisible obstacle for decades.

Players with birthdays in the first six months of the year are statistically more likely to be viewed as better athletes than those with birthdays in the second half of the year, according to studies [2].

But the assistant coach of the Wellington Dukes, Derek Smith, said that young hockey players can overcome that unfavourable perception.

“Kids that are born in January or February are going to have a distinct advantage over kids that were born at the end of the year just because they have more time to develop,” he said.

The phenomenon known as the relative-age effect originally drew the attention of Canadian psychologist Roger Barnsley in the mid-1980s. According to the theory, at a preadolescent age the developmental gap between a player born at the beginning of the year is likely to be at an advantage over a player born in the later months of the year due to physical maturity. This is because players have to be a certain age to qualify for each level of the sport – for instance squirt, aged nine to 10, or peewee, aged 11 to 12 – by Jan. 1, the cutoff date for most Canadian hockey leagues.

The same concept has been found to be true in other sports, as well as academics in youth.

Author Malcolm Gladwell [3] explains in his book Outliers that players slightly older than their peers have a better chance of being viewed as bigger or more co-ordinated. And the advantage probably follows players throughout their hockey careers, he says.

Smith said that the relative-age effect may make a difference for some players.

“It’s definitely beneficial for a younger player to make a rep team early in terms of skill development,” he said, as making the jump from house league hockey to a rep team offers more games, practices and level of perceived challenge.

With the benefit of these extra factors, over time players’ skill levels will be significantly raised, continuing the cycle of opportunity, according to psychologists and sociologists. Gladwell argues that relative-age effect may be a large factor in some players making it to the top tiers of the sport, which is why team ratios often weigh in favour of those born between January and June. This can be seen a study conducted by QNet News looking at the birthdates of every 2017-18 American Hockey League player. Reporters found that 80 per cent of teams in the league have a majority of players born in this six-month window.

However, researchers found that the age effect is smaller now than in previous years, according to an article on the National Center for Biotechnology Information website [2].

“When you’re looking back 10 to 15 years ago it may have had a bigger effect,” Smith said.

“Kids grow up and they eat, sleep, breathe hockey – and parents today are giving them all of the resources to be successful. It’s definitely shown in today’s game.”

Kids have access to a wide variety of resources to build on their skills in the sport, such as hockey schools, camps, mentorship programs, training centres and much more offered by organizations like Hockey Canada [4]. Smith said these may help players at the age disadvantage balance their skill level with those born earlier in the year.

Ottawa fitness trainer Matt Leduc, a Loyalist fitness graduate, former player and hockey fanatic, says that as someone born in January, he may have been one of the children who had the advantage of the age effect.

Leduc never made the jump from house league to a rep team, but said he had opportunities to.

“Admittedly I could have gone further with it. I was always one of the biggest guys on my team. Maybe it had to do with my birthday being in January. I’m not sure.”

Leduc said he learned early on that in order to be a good hockey player, you had to be good at overcoming obstacles.

“Maybe you’re smaller or you’re slower, but if your level of skill is higher than the other guy, none of that other stuff matters as much.”

There have been efforts to put forth public policy to tackle the relative-age effect in past years, such as a proposal to reduce age discrimination in Canadian minor hockey in 2001. No major changes to league policy were made. Smith says it’s mostly up to the players.

“If you changed the cutoff date to June 1, let’s say, the kid born June 2 is going to now have the advantage over the one born in January. I don’t think that changing anything will make much of a difference,” he said.

“It just gives that much more motivation to the kids born at the end of the year to know they have to work a little harder to catch up with the skill development.”

And Leduc said although the relative age effect probably does affect the odds of players excelling, it’s not something that coaches or players give much thought to. According to him, it’s just one more obstacle to overcome.