ADRIAN RUSSELL: When destiny is an accident of birth

AS our little country feels the bony fingers of the IMF on our shoulder and the cold winds of financial oblivion against our grubby face, we are often lectured – throughout the media – by so-called ‘self-made men’.

These millionaire business people, known to us all, proclaim to have pulled themselves from nothing, leaning on no-one in the journey and boasting no early advantage. This, of course, is nonsense.

Every one of us has enjoyed a certain leg-up (education, interested parents, opportunity, privilege, whatever). None have arrived at this current destination in an empty carriage.

Even if you don’t scan the star signs at the back of the daily paper, it is true that in sport, your birthday is one hidden factor in success – or indeed failure. Here’s a random passage from a match report this paper carried after the Ireland U19 team’s recent 1-0 defeat to their English counterparts. However, for our purposes, I’ve substituted the players’ names for the months of their births.

“Ireland started the second half positively again looking to make their dominance count on the scoreboard. The Irish back four of March, July, March and January comfortably dealt with England’s attacking threat.

“January was again involved and he came agonisingly close in the 48th minute, when August played a quick corner to January but his first-time shot whizzed to the right of the post.”

Notice anything? Don’t worry if you didn’t, no-one did for a long time.

I met two UCC researchers this week over a cup of coffee in the college’s Student Centre who say that footballers born in the early part of the year are more likely to be selected to play at an elite level.

Robbie Butler of UCC’s Department of Economics and his younger brother, David, a final-year Commerce student in the college pushed pie charts and bar graphs which depict a dramatic bias towards those born earlier in the year, across the table.

“Where it originally came from is schooling,” Robbie, who plays with Waterford Crystal in his hometown, says, “Guys started to look at when kids went to school. Obviously school starts in September – so kids born in June are probably older than kids born in November that just turned four or five. So they found that kids that were older, just by a few months, were better at school. But the strange thing is that over time it lessens and levels off – and the reason they think that is because school is compulsory. And because you’re not allowed to leave what you see is a convergence – people actually start to catch up with each other.

“But the problem with sport is that it’s very, very easy to leave. Something that you find initially difficult because a guy on the opposing team is so much bigger, is easy to walk away from.”

So how does this affect the country’s kids on a Saturday morning?

Most athletes begin playing their sports when they are quite young. Naturally enough, since youth sports are organised by age, the leagues impose a cut-off date. The soccer leagues of here and across Europe use December 31 as the fateful day.

Now, imagine that you coach a team of kids and are assessing two players for the centre-forward position. One was born on January 1, the other on December 31. Both technically, the same age – let’s say nine – but actually one year apart. And at that age, an extra 12 months growth confers a huge advantage.

So though you’re seeing maturity rather than real ability, it doesn’t matter much if you’re aiming to win the district league or avoid relegation. It’s not in the club’s or coach’s interest to pick the skinny kid who might just be a star given some extra time and coaching.

Thus the cycle begins. The younger kids on the sideline in the rain drop out eventually and pick up a hurley or guitar, and the slightly older lads – or those naturally big anyway – keep on kicking and rushing.

The brothers presented their findings to interested members of the FAI last week.

“We spoke to High Performance Director Wim Koevermans and John Morley (U16 manger) and we admit no matter when the cut-off is you’re going to have bias towards another period in the year. But the trick is to try to reduce it,” explains David, who coaches underage teams himself.

“Now the biggest problem in soccer in this country,” adds Robbie “is that we expect kids to play on the same size pitch as the World Cup final this weekend. And it’s ludicrous.

“Therefore if you’re big and strong there’s a reward. You can kick the ball far and you’re facing a 4ft keeper in a goal that’s 8ft-high. And these big kids start to think – hey, I’m a good player; it’s called the Pygmalion effect. So we said you have to change the environment; make the pitches smaller and the goals smaller.

“If you do that – there’s still going to be a bias, it’s still better to be bigger, of course – but the advantage is considerably reduced.

“And the FAI are great at coaching camps and lovely little drills but then you get out onto a pitch and you might as well be playing golf – it’s a completely different sport. It’s a coordination problem – the coach wants to win – we all do. The U11 league decider against the old enemy, with parents on the line or whatever.

“But this needs to be about development.”

The pair are full of theories and ideas about this fascinating problem, which they have identified so expertly. But we break up the chat as I’m off to play a five-a-side game.

“What month were you born again?” jokes Robbie. December, I answer. “Well you have your excuse now.”

And a few of the solutions too, of course.

adrian.russell@examiner.ie Twitter: @adrianrussell


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