Talent ID & Management Part 6: The Relative Age effect

16 Feb 2016 Posted by

I’ve been on a “home nations” tour (Rugby reference) of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales for work, and Renee Anne Shirley did the honour of writing a guest opinion piece last week, so it’s been a while since the last video in my Talent ID & Management Series, which looked at Early vs Late Specialisation.

But I’m back today with Part 6 of the Talent ID series, and this episode looks at the Relative Age Effect.  It’s another topic many would be familiar with thanks to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, and much like the 10,000 hour concept, it’s one that “hooked” a lot of people into a very simplistic way of thinking about Talent and how we manage it.

The message was simple – when you look at junior representative sport, you see that a disproportionately high number of people are born in January, February and March.  And on the other end, very few who are born in November or December make those teams.

Without going into the explanation (you can see it in the video below), the message from this is that we incorrectly select based on abilities that are confused with maturity.  The result is the creation of future inefficiencies on one end of the calendar spectrum, where children are chosen in high numbers because they are relatively older than their peers, having characteristics that are advantageous (size, speed, strength etc) as children, but which will be eroded after adolescence.  By selecting them, we “place the bet” that they will be successful one day, but it’s a misguided bet, driven only by our bias towards those attributes in the present.

On the other end of the calendar spectrum, for children born in Q3 and Q4, there is a vacuum where children are overlooked simply because they are relatively younger, and thus more likely to be “disadvantaged” compared to their peers.

When those resources (Remember the definition – see Episode 1) are given disproportionately to children because of this “accident of a calendar”, it undermines the fabric of the entire Talent ID system.  Again, refer to Episode 1 – the fundamental concept of Talent ID and management is that somewhere in your country is a 12 year old child, who in 15 years’ time you hope wins you a World Cup or Olympic medal.  Where is that child?  What are they doing?  That’s Talent ID and management, and the risk introduced by this relative age effect is that the child will never be picked, because they were born in Q4 (December, for example).


The catch – relative age, efficiency and effectiveness

At least, that’s the story as per Gladwell, Syed and co.  There is, as usual, a little more to it than this!

And that’s where efficiency and effectiveness come in.  Now, I’m still working towards showing you the OTHER side of the relative age effect, so it’s not directly part of this video, and will come later in this series.  But I’ll say this for now:

The evidence says that the relative age effect is pretty large in junior sport.  But when you get to adult level sport, it DISAPPEARS.

Mull that over for a moment – the relative age effect as you’ve read about it is gone in most adult sports.  In other words, there is no longer an advantage to those born in Q1.  If anything, the advantage shifts – ice hockey seems to say that Q2 and Q3 score more goals and have more successful careers.

IF THEY GET THERE!  The key, as you may have recognised as a recurring theme, is that we must keep as many people viable for as long as possible, in order to take advantage of this possibility.  Nothing in sport can ever be known, but the more you shift the decision BEFORE that key watershed of adolescence, the less certain you can be.  So, the solution is to design a system that is, in effect, noncommittal for as long as possible.


Why doing “the right thing” may not be “the best thing”

So what we have then is a very important concept – we want our talent ID and sports systems to be equitable, to give everyone an equal shot at getting to the top.  But here’s the catch – it may be that our desire to maximise the EFFICIENCY (that is, giving the highest proportion of the whole population a viable shot and getting them through the system in volume) actually undermines the EFFECTIVENESS (the quality of the outputs) of the system.

Point is, we have to be careful to avoid an overcorrection that seems theoretically sound, and which gives all children equal opportunities (resource allocation), because it may be that the inefficiency that is introduced by things like the relative age effect (and biological differences between children) actually contributes to improving quality of the “end product”.  It may be that the relative age effect HELPS, rather than hinders those children who still make it in despite the inefficiencies.

There’s a balance, then, that has to be found between simply fixing what looks broken, and letting that ‘blemish’ potentially contribute to an advantage.  Little is as it seems!

That’s a concept that I introduce in the video below, and hopefully the pieces come together as I move through the presentation.  If not, bear in mind that you’re seeing instalments rather than one, continuous presentation, for which I apologise!

Anyway, without further delay, here’s the sixth part of Talent ID and Management.  The prezi is below that.


Thanks for watching.  Here are the posts from Parts 1 to 5 of the series!

  1.  The strategic and tactical fundamentals of Talent – the budgeting decision
  2. Acceptable inefficiencies
  3. Ineffective tools and the unbearable uncertainty of the “bet”
  4. The 10,000 hour rule, talent and false dichotomies
  5. Early vs Late specialisation


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