Dr Ed Coughlan: How do we overcome the sporting edge given to kids born early in the year?

Many of the world’s leading sports scientists gathered in Montreal to debate, amongst other things, a peculiar GAA phenomenon — the relative age effect, writes Dr Ed Coughlan.

The view from atop the Montreal Tower in the centre of the Parc Olympique in Quebec, Canada is awe-inspiring.

Forty years after it hosted the Montreal Olympics, it recently welcomed sport scientists from all over the world for a special seminar on sport expertise that preceded the annual conference of the North American Society for the Psychology of Sport and Physical Activity (NASPSPA).

I was there representing the Department of Sport, Leisure, and Childhood Studies at Cork Institute of Technology to present my work on the development of expertise in elite athletes through my research on the application of the theory of deliberate practice.

Researchers and practitioners convened 175m above street level to present their work and have it discussed openly to determine ways to apply their findings and ensure their efforts resulted in a meaningful impact on athletic performance.

Following a conference like this, it is imperative to take time to reflect on the huge amount of information that one is confronted with from one day to the next. Interestingly, a recurring theme throughout the conference was the impact of reflective practice and self-regulated learning for coaches and athletes alike. Consistent with my own findings, researchers in Canada have found that a key factor for continual improvement in athletic ability is to engage in the process of self-regulation. The positive effects of planning, monitoring, and evaluating performance and indeed all aspects of training are undeniable. Such processes are not costly and are barely time-consuming, yet the reasons athletes choose not to self-regulate are difficult to pinpoint.

Critical to effective self-regulation is to act on what you uncover. It can quickly become a box-ticking exercise unless action is taken to address an identified shortfall in your process. Self-regulation encourages athletes and coaches to keep pushing for better and actively engage in the challenge of continual improvement. Athletes and coaches are no less insecure than anyone else, yet those who actively challenge themselves and the conventions they meet as they develop, emerge from periods of discomfort freer than ever before. Youth talent identification is one such place where athletes and coaches face one of the greatest challenges to development. Incredibly, as a result of sport science research, it was uncovered that children selected to progress in their sport ahead of others are more than likely to be born in the first quarter of the year.

This phenomenon is known as the relative age effect. For example, now in 2016, if you have a child involved in the Under-8s in your local club, they’ll be playing with kids born between the first of January and the 31st of December 2008. If you were to ask the coaches of these under-8s to identify the best players at their disposal, the evidence tells us that, without fail, over half of the players they choose will be born in the first three months of the year, with a rapidly decreasing number of those chosen born in October, November or December. All because most of the ‘talented’ kids, are almost a year older than their ‘less talented’ friends. Which at eight years of age is a lifetime.

Yet the research on the relative age effect has been mentioned far beyond the often unread sport science journals and has made its way into newspapers and documentaries across the globe. But still it wreaks havoc in the development of so many potential late-bloomers. As a result of the poor uptake of the evidence over the last decade by sports governing bodies and their administrators, sport scientists have become more creative in their research design to reduce the impact of such bias in childhood sport development.

Recent evidence from Canada, Holland, and the UK suggests positive effects from the implementation coach awareness programmes in clubs and sports in general. Apparently, the bias of the relative age effect is reduced when coaches are at least aware of its impact. In addition, practical solutions such as age-ordered bibs being worn by kids during their formative years has also shown to radically reduce this bias of selecting players ahead of others whose only failing was they were born at a different point on the calendar.

Promising evidence has emerged from long-term studies that for those few kids who manage to survive the difficult time of misinformed judgement of coaches and scouts emerge as more skillful players who enjoy longer and more successful careers at the elite level. A message to parents is to support your kids with evidence-based words of wisdom to help motivate them to rebound from an early knock to their confidence.

Of course one cannot attend a conference rooted in psychology without hearing evidence further promoting the impact of motivation on individual performance. A recent addition to the importance of motivation is the OPTIMAL theory by Gabriele Wulf and Rebecca Lewthwaite, which combines the idea of focus of attention and motivation for optimising performance. For decades, the evidence has guided coaches everywhere about how best to train skill development. The fundamental requirements suggest focusing on the target and adopting an external focus of attention.For example, Ronan O’Gara focused on a spot far behind the goalposts while standing over a kick for club and country.

In addition to external focus of attention, OPTIMAL theory views the athlete as a critical stakeholder in the skill development process. Feedback is only provided by the coach when requested by the athlete, and highlights of performance are magnified and errors are mostly ignored. Autonomy and self-efficacy of the athlete is boosted by an ever-growing confidence generated by motivating the correct focus and preferred outcome during the learning cycle. In other words, when working with an athlete who wants to improve, ensure your interaction with them fosters increased intrinsic motivation and confidence in their ability to overcome challenges that lay before them.

Such challenges are endless in the pursuit of consistent elite performance. But it is encouraging to see sport scientists from Germany, Australia, and Canada provide evidence-based solutions to answer the most complex of athletic questions. None more so than the age old query about how to train decision-making, anticipation, and spatial awareness in skill-based sports such as rugby, football, and tennis.

The conference provided fascinating evidence from Jocelyn Faubert on the effectiveness of the NeuroTracker training device. It trains cognitive skills like decision-making and spatial awareness in a lab setting that transfers onto the field of play. The primary difference between this work and previous lab-based perceptual-cognitive training is the addition of context to increase the fidelity of the experiences of the athlete in the lab in line with those in normal performance environment. This could prove essential in keeping the eyes and brain developing while the body recuperates from injury.

A takeaway from attending a global conference like NASPSPA is to have connected with world-leading sport scientists who practice what they preach. They all appear to be in a constant cycle of self-regulation, discovery and learning and are not afraid to challenge convention in the pursuit of better.


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