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Is Age Discrimination Real?

 Are we really creating equal opportunity for all? 

Are some kids being overlooked?

The science of human development is vast and very well researched. In fact there have been numerous models created that outline the systematic process of cognitive development, skill acquisition and the distinct chronological periods where training certain characteristics are optimized.

In sport, we progress through the developmental system, we try to provide equal opportunity for all who participate. But within many sport models there is a hidden factor that can greatly sway favour in one certain direction providing opportunity for a select few and disregard for many others.

That hidden factor…your birth date!

It’s an unintentional age discrimination called Relative Age.  Canadian psychologist Roger Barnsley brought relative age to light in the 1980’s and pointed out that any developmental organization that has an age related cut-off date for grouping subjects is at risk for the dramatic effect it can have on development.

If we take a sport like hockey as an example, there is an age-class system for grouping athletes with a January 1st cut off. In this system, if a player turns 12 on January 2nd he/she can be playing with kids who don’t turn 12 until the end of the year and this is where the problems begin.

You basically have a player who is months older or even a full year older than the other kids in the group. Just by age related factors alone, the older player is often perceived as more talented than the younger players on the team. A younger player may have the exact skill set but may not have the size or the maturity which months of extra growth can provide.

So the older athlete, due to his age alone, is deemed a better player and gets picked for a rep team with more ice time and better coaching, playing and competing with better players and we start what sociologist’s call a “Self – Fulfilling Prophecy”. The athlete who was erroneously defined as more talented due to his age now enters an environment where he actually becomes better due to the advantages gained by entering a higher stream of development.

The players who are younger at the cut off date may have the same skill set and often have a higher ceiling of potential but they are brushed aside due to this breakdown in the evaluation process.

And it happens more often than you might think.

Without fail, this is what Barnsley found in Canada at any ELITE hockey program;

  • 40% of players were born between January and March
  • 30% between April and June
  • 20% between July and September
  • 10% between October and December.

And not just in hockey, in any sport with an age-related cut off day. In fact if you check out the Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) plan for Baseball Canada there is an alarming example of the impact of Relative age in that sport: Go to Baseball Canada pages 15 & 16

The relative age phenomenon is NOT exclusive to sport either. It has revealed its ugly influence in schools, music programs and anywhere age is used as method for grouping subjects.

So should we begin to strategically plan the birth dates of our future sporting stars, virtuosos, or valedictorians?

Maybe not such a bad idea in development systems with an age cut-off.

But to even the playing field and provide each subject with equal opportunity a better solution would be to group subjects based not on age but on TALENT level and ABILITY.

Understand that each of us will learn, respond, apply and develop our skill sets at different rates so the key to equality is not to engineer the birth dates of our children, we simply need to understand skill development and create a system where everyone has an equal chance of reaching his or her potential.

Remember This – research has shown us that late developers go on to the highest levels of performance much more often than those who are  “gifted” at a young age…

But that is a conversation for another day.