Identifying Age or Potential

Originally published by Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, January/February 2009.

My first organized sport was soccer. In kindergarten, I joined a soccer club sponsored by my church. My teammates were mostly 1st graders. With a late September birthday, I started school late, so I was older for my class. However, youth soccer had a January 1 cut-off date, so I played with the children in the grade ahead of me.

I felt that I had an advantage playing with the older kids. I played on a good team and was an average player. Initially, I played the midfield, usually on the right side, but I fought to play as a central midfielder. I liked to control the action and cover the whole field as I could run all day.

Ken, a friend in my class, played competitive/club soccer. He tried out and made the big club team in our area and traveled to tournaments throughout the west coast. At school, our soccer skills and athleticism were even. However, he had a February birthday, so while I played in the u-12s, he made an under-10 team. We were even at recess, but our competition away from school differed because of our birthdays.

When Ken joined the competitive team, we were basically equal. However, after several years of competitive soccer, he was a better player. While I played soccer from August – November, he played year-round, and he played against better competition. He had soccer coaches, while we had parent volunteers coaching our team.

When we got to high school, Ken made the high school team while I did not try-out – the best player from my team did not make the high school team during the previous year, so I did not think that I had a chance. Every player who made the high school team played competitive youth soccer, except the back-up goalie who looked around on the first day of try-outs, decided he was not good enough as a field player and tried out as the only goalie in the freshmen class.

As one of the oldest kids in my class, I had the advantage of age and physical maturity during elementary school. In basketball, a sport which I played with school teams, I was one of the taller players, so I had an advantage. However, in soccer, I was on the wrong side, as I played on teams with kids who were eight or nine months older, so I was an average player, not a candidate for a club/competitive team.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites a study by a Canadian psychologist which found that “in any elite group of Canadian hockey players, 40 percent of the players will have been born in January, February and March.” Canada uses a January 1 cut-off date for junior hockey. Coaches identify talent at young ages and shepherd the talented players onto the elite teams.

When coaches looked at me playing with my soccer team, I did not stand out. My friend, however, was bigger, faster and stronger than most of the kids that he played against. Even though our recess games were even, his size and speed helped him make a competitive team. The coach did not identify talent, but the advantages of birth. With a February birth date, he was older than most of the other players who tried out, and at 10-years-old, a five to six month age advantage can be a big deal. When coaches choose the select or all-star teams, “they are more likely to view as talented the bigger and more coordinated players who have the benefit of critical extra months of maturity,” (Gladwell).

Even on my recreation team, the best players had birthdays in January and February. The better players also played forward, goalie and sweeper. The worst players played outside fullback or outside midfield. This happens in every sport: the best baseball players pitch and play shortstop, while the worst plays right field; in basketball, the best player plays point guard and the worst player plays post. Unfortunately, when coaches distinguish the best and the worst, they distinguish the older and the more coordinated, not the most talented or those with the most potential.

In the beginning, the differences are small. Ken and I were similar as 10 and 11-year-olds. On my team, the forwards were basically the same as the midfielders and fullbacks; they were a little faster and a little bigger. However, as the inherent age advantages decreased, the differences on the pitch were more pronounced. Barnsley [the Canadian psychologist] argues that these kinds of skewed age distributions exist whenever three things happen: selection, streaming and differentiated experience.

If you make a decision about who is good and who is not good at an early age; if you separate the “talented” from the “untalented;” and if you provide the “talented” with superior experience, then you’re going to end up giving a huge advantage to the small group of people born closest to the cut-off date (Gladwell).

Because Ken made the competitive team, he had access to better coaching, more practice and better competition. Over several years, these advantages helped him develop his skills far more than I did with my recreational team. Even though I was older,  his competitive experience gave him a greater advantage.

We have a poor understanding of the road to success or excellence, and without a better understanding, our ability to evaluate and identify talent diminishes. When ranking players, choosing teams or identifying prospects, we need to look deeper than size, speed and strength, as those characteristics tend to balance as players continue to develop and all the players go through puberty. What we see as talent at an early age is often not talent, but age. Rather than choose and develop the older players, we need a system by which we identify true talents or we need to wait to identify “talent” and differentiate training until the advantages of maturity disappear.

When we identify talent at an early age and then provide the talented with a better training experience, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy, which sociologist Robert Merton defines as a situation where “a false definition, in the beginning…evokes a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true.” At 10-years-old, Ken was not more talented. By making the team and going through years of better training, he became a better player. Rather than credit the different experience which developed him into a better player, we credit his natural talent.

Because I was an average soccer player, but a pretty good basketball player, I spent more time playing and practicing my basketball skills, while Ken trained for soccer. I chose the sport where I had an age advantage, while he chose the sport where he had the age advantage. Neither of us made a conscious choice to pursue an activity where we were given a slight advantage; instead, we gravitated to the sports where we found early success, even though we played both sports until high school.

As a society, we believe that if you have ability, the vast network of scouts and talent spotters will find you, and if you are willing to work to develop that ability, the system will reward you (Gladwell). However, as Barnsley’s study illustrates, those born in the last half of the year have all been discouraged, or overlooked, or pushed out of the sport. The talent of essentially half of the athletic population has been squandered (Gladwell).

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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