Relative Age Effect is the bias that athletes at the top level of their sport are older. Particularly, born in months earlier in their sports relative cut-off period. For instance, a hockey player born in January of the same year as a hockey player born in December is almost a whole year older, and arguably more biologically, physically and emotionally mature. Research has widely concluded that athletes born earlier have a higher chance of success when it comes to sport. They will be competing against others who are much younger but born in the same year.
Older athletes tend to be over-represented in sports where there is a talent selection process, which means the system lacks fairness and an overall acknowledgment that younger children are often less biologically mature and should be given an equal chance.
To examine Relative Age Effect in children, Müller, Hildebrandt, and Raschner (2017) studied young athletes at the 7th International Children’s Winter Games in 2016. The study looked at 572 participants (365 males and 207 females) from 22 different countries ranging from 12.1 to 15.0 years. Three birth years (2001 to 2003) and birth months were used to establish twelve groups of relative age quartiles, and the participants were divided into three maturity groups: late, normal and early maturing.
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The different sports were also divided into three types – strength-, endurance-, and technique-related sports. Alpine skiing and hockey were categorized as strength-related; biathlon, cross-country skiing, and speed skating were categorized as endurance-related; and figure skating, snowboarding, and freestyle skiing were categorized as technique-related.
Strength- and endurance-related sports were based on the power and endurance of the participant. Technique-related sports were determined by judging points. There was an over-representation of athletes born at the beginning of the first eligible age group and an under-representation of athletes born in the last relative age quarters.
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The likelihood of selection for the International Children’s Winter Games was 3.5 times higher for an older athlete than from the last relative age quarter. For male athletes, the likelihood was 3.1 times higher, and for female athletes, the likelihood was 4.2 times higher. The results of the study revealed that the majority of younger athletes only had a chance for selection if they were early maturing, while older athletes had an increased likelihood of selection regardless of their biological maturity.
Further research would benefit by looking at a wider range of sports, especially group sports where individuals are explicitly up against each other. It would also be beneficial to be more specific in terms of types of sports. One example is individual strength-related sports vs. group strength-related sports, etc. The winter sports selection process should not discriminate against younger athletes. It needs to incorporate fairer selectiveness by considering relative age and biological maturity status.
Müller, L., Hildebrandt, C., and Raschner, L. (2017). The Role of a Relative Age Effect in the 7 International Children’s Winter Games 2016. And the Influence of Biological Maturity on Selection. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 16: 195-202.