How many smaller and younger players have been overlooked because of the misfortune of being born at the wrong end of the athletic year? I am sure that if we are honest, every coach will put their hand up and admit it has been a thought as they put their team together, but have we really treated younger and smaller players fairly? Have we shot ourselves in the foot and missed out on some hidden potential, giving more time to bigger and faster players who can win games? How can we ever find a David if all we ever look for are an army of Goliaths?
What happens to the smaller players if they work harder to improve but the coach never notices simply because they are still smaller? Do they keep going? Get discouraged? What happens to the bigger, faster players who don’t feel competition to keep their performance up? Do they continue to work as hard? How are they being pushed and developed?
There is a name for the bias of age, and the resulting extra months of development being a factor in selecting players for teams. It’s called the relative age effect. The chart below shows a distribution of strength, endurance, and technique across children born in different quarters.
A youth coach is there to develop and give the skills for future wins, and while it feels good to win, this is not the primary goal. At least, it shouldn’t be. The tough part for the coach and the parents of the players is to realise that development of a team sometimes means sacrificing results, losing some games, and investing in the future. For some parents and players who want instant success, especially if the player is already performing at a high level, waiting for others to catch up can be frustrating.
Here are the three take aways for today:
1 – If you are building a team, think to the future of your team, club, and the players. What happens in later years when the coach puts out the strongest team and gives all the playing time to those blessed by being born at the right time of year, or are naturally bigger and stronger at a younger age? What is the future for a club, especially a smaller one, that focuses on winning with bigger and stronger players at the cost of development?
2 – What are the traits you would prefer in your team? Would you prefer them to be bigger and stronger than their peers on a temporary basis, or would you prefer smaller kids, the ones the table above shows develop stamina and technique to make up for the strength that will one day come?
3 – Why do you want to win? Is it because it shows development? If so, Cruyff may disagree there. Ego? Maybe. Nobody likes the feeling of losing. The real question is this: What do you consider winning to be? If it’s a trophy or can be seen on a scoreboard, I would suggest that you are missing the point.
What does the future hold for the coach and club that puts the bigger, faster players out to get wins, and sacrifices the future Messi while they are at it? The promising smaller players went to another club, or gave up on the sport because they couldn’t compete, a complete loss to the sport. The bigger, stronger players became average sized players who peaked young and didn’t develop their technique or stamina because they had the fortune to be born at the right time. How does this serve the goals of anyone? Is this really winning? Winning games is important, but if it is done the right way, it will take time to arrive, and it is never the destination in youth sport, simply a marker for how you are doing on the journey.
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Table: Raschner, C., Müller, L., & Hildebrandt, C. (2012). The role of a relative age effect in the first winter Youth Olympic Games in 2012. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 46(15), 1038.