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Relative Age Effect

By Kevin Till

Q: How do we group young people in sport?

A: By age, into chronological annual-age groups. In the UK we commonly use the 1st September as the selection start date

This may be a simple question and a simple answer but this annual-age grouping process that we are all familiar with can have big consequences on the sporting opportunities a child can receive. This annual-age grouping process leads to children within an age group being older than others within the same age group. For example, somebody born in September is 12 months older than someone born in August, but they still train and compete in the same age grouped team. This difference in age is referred to as Relative Age. So what? Well, a range of research in various sports has shown the consequences of this age grouping process, defining this as the Relative Age Effect.

'Relative Age Effect (RAE) is defined as the immediate and long term consequences that effect participation and selection in youth sport.'

In the early stages of my PhD, which focused upon talent identification and development in youth rugby league, I decided to investigate the Relative Age Effect  in rugby league across a range of playing levels. Previous research had mainly focussed upon ice hockey and football and I thought it would be interesting to see the affect that relative age could have upon participation, selection into a talent development programme and at the professional level within the sport.

Findings showed that the Relative Age Effect was evident at all levels. Therefore, an individual's birth date, can affect whether they play a sport, whether they are selected at youth levels and the long terms effects that may affect whether they progress to being a professional player. These findings are consistent in most team sports, especially within physically demanding sports.

Lets put this into context. A 8 year old born in August may not start playing a sport such as rugby league as they are smaller than most of their peers, therefore affecting the number of participants in the sport. If this player did start playing the game, the opportunities he may get may be limited within training and competition possibly leading to dropout or lack of opportunities to progress. Another example, may be a 13 year old football player who is not selected to an academy programme due to lack of size and physical characteristics. This individual will therefore have reduced opportunities to practice and compete, while not receiving enhanced coaching, services and facilities offered within such an environment.

Therefore, when an individual is born can impact upon participation and selection within youth sport. It is important that all individuals are given equal opportunity to play and develop within sport and therefore coaches should understand the impact an individuals birth date can have on opportunities within sport. For more information and some tips to help you address these issues - see the Relative Age Effect guide.