Does Bigger Really Mean Better?
A woman gives birth to a baby boy on January 1st, 2022. 11 months and thirty days later, on December 31st, 2022, she gives birth to another baby boy. Doesn’t happen very often but it is possible, right?. By the time the second baby boy is born, the first baby boy is probably close to walking and eating solid food. And while it is possible that the second baby boy may eventually catch up or even surpass the first baby boy in some or all development milestones like height and weight, the reality is that the first baby boy will always have almost one full year more of the experience of living than the second. And yet they will be put in the same grade at school and they will be put on the same sports teams within the same age group.
Like school, sports use cut-off dates to determine what players get grouped together. That date in both school and sports tends to be December 31st. So the end of one grade level or sport age group is December 31st and the start of the next one would be January 1st of the new year. In sports then, being born closer to the cut-off date gives you an advantage — an 11 month advantage for a player born January 1st over a player born December 31st of the same year. And in youth soccer, that advantage often shows itself in bigger size, speed and strength as a result of the opportunity to have had a longer time to grow. The end result is that the physically bigger, stronger and faster players often get picked for teams, while the smaller players don’t. In sport this is known as the Relative Age Effect.
Do you coach a high level youth competitive team, like Premier, PEI FC or Provincial? If so, check the months of birth of your players. How many players on your team are born in January, February or March? How many are born in the first six months versus the last six months? If most of your players are born in the first half of the year or worse in the first three months of the year then you have a Relative Age Effect problem. You may not be the one responsible for starting it but at some point some coach identified the players you now have as “better than” others that you may never have even seen or heard of before.
When we pick teams based on size, strength and speed that comes from early development, we are showing a bias towards those characteristics. And just like any bias, it means that there’s preference towards something. In this case one player over another. We are unfairly representing the ability level of the player who is born late in the year and/or the late developer. We’ve known for a very long time that in the long-run late maturers grow more than early maturers and yet many coaches still get fooled and at the younger ages where size is all over the place, pick the bigger more aggressive kid over the smaller more timid kid. Because at the younger ages, when skills are still in their infancy, size matters. In youth soccer, size can win you games.
And then smaller/less developed kids that aren’t picked go to a lower level program where the competition they get isn’t as good and neither usually is the coaching. In the meantime, the players that were picked to the higher level reap all the benefits of that level. The next year, when tryouts are on again, the gap between those two sets of players is even larger. Not only were the players picked bigger, faster and stronger they also got to get more skillful while the smaller players did not. Even if the smaller kids do show a growth spurt, they may still not have the same skill set or game understanding that the player selected to the higher level team benefited from.
Imagine what happens, then, if that cycle repeats itself for the smaller players. First year U11 tryout…cut. Second year U11 tryout…cut. First year U13 tryout…cut. How long are those kids going to stay involved in something they keep being told they’re not good enough at? Whoops sorry, I should say how long will most kids stay involved in something they’re told they’re not big enough for yet to help the team win.
Is it any wonder then that starting at U13 kids leave soccer, and youth sports, in general, in droves?
Here in the Ramblers Soccer Club, that’s one key reason why we are taking a different approach to organizing our U11 and U13 age groups. We can make sure that no player gets left behind by providing every single one of them regardless of size or skill at the least with high quality coaching at practices and games. We can be aware of the Relative Age Effect and work to ensure that smaller players are protected.
Having coached for a very long time, I’ve seen young kids who were touted as very ‘talented’ early on and then turned out average by their teen years. Conversely, I’ve seen ‘untalented’ kids turn into very good players. I have a pretty good idea of how the story ends. The older and/or early maturing player gets the advantage in the short-term. They use the gifts that their maturity has given them. They go out and boss the game. They don’t really develop skill. Why do they need to? They just run faster and push harder which helps them get to the ball first and then keep the ball.
The younger and/or late maturing players can’t boss the game using their physical assets. They have to learn to play with skill to escape the giants. And then one day, for example, the late maturer, catches up or even surpasses the early maturer in physical traits. And now that former small player is not only as big or bigger but is more skillful. Meanwhile, the former bigger player can’t use their size any more to boss the game.
Like Aesop’s famous fable of the Tortoise and the Hare, persistence is key. However, it is up to us — coaches, club organizers and parents — to create an environment that will allow persistence to pay off, not be a no-win situation. We need to focus on development first while striving to win, not winning first while striving to develop. And that means every player is given the opportunity to grow and improve in the game regardless of skill or size.