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Children Young people

Understanding the Relative Age Effect and Selection Processes

An extract from Ben Oakley’s book Podium - What Shapes a Sporting Champion?, exploring the Relative Age Effect and selection processes. Evidence suggests that mental skills are crucial to success

The question of who should be selected in junior squads is a hot topic for coaches, parents and young people. But what thinking sits behind the selection process?

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the National Basketball Association’s all-time leading point scorer. Born Lew Alcindor, he was off the scale in terms of early maturation, reaching 2.0m (6ft 7in) by the age of 13.

Reaching 2.18m (7ft 2in) in his college years, his dominance was such that the college rules were changed for nearly 10 years to outlaw the slam dunk. By contrast, Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman only made it to the top after much later growth spurts.

Maximising early development potential

We’ve all seen different versions of the maturation process and most of us have experienced the rapid progress of early bloomers.

But early development needs to be combined with mental tools and self-awareness. Without this, young athletes who make it to the top rapidly can often fall as quickly as they have risen when everyone else catches up and they can no longer rely on stature or strength alone.

Usain Bolt also matured early, achieving world junior success aged 15. Interestingly, he took another five years to achieve senior success. His early development no longer conferred an advantage.

Psychologist Craig Sharp explains what can happen when an athlete matures early.

“Those who enter the growth spurt early often do very well in age-group athletics, so become used to success without training very hard. In their later teens, when their slower-growing peers catch up, they are unused to being beaten and often drop out of the sport.”

This situation is similarly tough for people who don’t develop early.

“Equally, many late developers may feel hopelessly underpowered from the start and simply believe they are no good at sport. Both ends of this normal distribution should be spotted and counselled accordingly.”

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UK Coaching Team