In describing the “age” of young athletes, typically the first thing to come to mind is that child’s chronological age, or the date and year that they were born.
Numerically, this is the only indication of letting us know how long that person has been on this earth, which of course, we need to know when “grouping” athletes on teams and sports.
However, a youth athlete’s chronological age can overlook to other aspects of age that are crucial in their physical development, and the selection process utilized by most coaches today:
Relative Age and Developmental Age
Breaking It Down.
Relative age is used to determine a kids age in relation to his or her peers that they play sport or are in school with.
For instance, Zach and Jon are both 10 years old and play on the same Lacrosse team, however, Zach is 9 months older than Jon, and they still are on the same team.
This is a significant factor as relative age can, and does usually, play a large role in coaching decisions:
Essentially, this means that a child born on January 1st can be on the same team as someone born on December 31st of that same year, despite it almost being a years difference.
It has been well documented that “relative age” has a significant impact on the athletic selection.
Research has proven that athletes who were born early in a selection year are more likely to be chosen by coaches and organizations verses those born closer to the cut off date.
With more time to have developed physiologically, these athletes are fundamentally more advanced because of the physical traits that they developed before the “late bloomers”.
This in turn gives the early selected athletes a bigger advantage in terms of competition, while the others who are closer to the established cut off dates are at a disadvantage.
The somewhat unfortunate side (in the case of the underdeveloped athlete) is that athletes chosen early tend to be larger, stronger, and more skilled than younger players, causing uninformed coaches to believe that they are overall better players, when in truth, the younger ones just haven’t hit their spurt yet.
Older kids in the same cut off year have a developmental advantage.
The biggest misfortune are what the kids with developmental disadvantages have to endure, not being able to participate or make team cuts only because of their lack of physiological age.
Sociologist Robert Merton initiated the term the Matthew effect, which describes a situation in which kids given early developmental advantages through sports are more easily set up for success.
Because athletes who mature later than some of their counterparts lack the developmental advantage, they can be seen as less “skilled” in their respective sport because of lack of a “physical” presence.
The resulting circumstance is a lack of quality coaching and programming which can hurt their chances of fully developing their skills.
However, if late maturing athletes can withstand these deterrences, then they would actually have an advantage over the more mature athletes once they finally hit their spurt.
Proper training, coaching, and programming throughout the late growing phase will teach younger athletes the fundamentals of hard work while also preparing them mentally for the demands and challenges of their unique sport and competition.
Athletes who mature early and did have a competitive advantage over their peers are sometimes at a disadvantage because they don’t need to practice as hard since they are more developed strength and skill wise than than the others.
When a late bloomer does come of age however, the constant practice and skill development will be an additional asset to their physiological maturation.
While it is very important for ANY athlete of any age to partake in a proper training program, it is especially important for the underdeveloped youth athlete to be apart of one for a few reasons:
Firstly, beyond the actual physical development of training is the psychological aspect.
Kids get left behind, discouraged, and lose self esteem if they are not on the winning end of the selection process. As mentioned before, coaches can sometimes put too much focus on those athletes who are more developed at the expense of investing the attention needed for those kids who are not.
This can ultimately lead to kids quitting sports altogether and feeling inadequate.
Coaches and organizations, especially at the middle school and high school level should know how to properly identify the developmental and relative ages of athletes so that they can take the right measures in developing the athlete, and creating effective long term training programs that will get him ready for the next phases in competition.
Identification and proper training measures are key in not only preparing younger athletes to be competitive within their sport and age group, but also in creating a sound and confident all around athlete.
The long term effects of which will be beneficial well beyond competition.