Young Athlete 1[4]We’ve all seen the “early bloomers” in youth sports. Those kids who just seem more physically gifted at an young age allowing them to dominate their leagues. They fill up the rosters of the best teams and can discourage other players from sticking with their sport until their development takes off. Now, new research from Indiana University shows that it can be worth the wait and investment to stay focused with good coaching and perseverance.

In his book “Outliers”, author Malcolm Gladwell pointed out a little known anomaly in youth sports that is known as the “Relative-Age Effect.” He reviewed the research of Canadian psychologist Roger Barnsley, who found that a disproportionate percentage of elite hockey players had birthdays in the first quarter of each year. Indeed, 32% of the NHL players studied had birthdays from January to March, while 16% were born between October and December. Gladwell included studies from other sports, including baseball, football and soccer with the same uneven pattern.

Barnsley, as well as Gladwell, attributed this to the cut-off dates set for each sport’s age groupings. For hockey’s January 1 cut-off date, a player born in January could be as much as 11 months older than another player from the same age-group born later in the year. At age 8 or 9, those extra 11 months could be make quite a difference in physical size and motor skill maturity. Hence, the theory goes, the older and bigger kids get picked more often for the elite, travelling teams setting them up for years of better coaching, better competition and a faster development pace.

As with most theories, there are certainly exceptions (Sidney Crosby has an August birthday) but it does provide some insight on how players are chosen and developed. Robert Chapman, professor of kinesiology (and former cross country coach) at Indiana University, and his graduate student Joshua Foss wanted to find out if early athletic success led to similar results and improvement at elite levels later in an athlete’s career.

First, they reviewed the career performances of 65 male and 64 female finalists at the 2000 Junior World Championships in track and field, looking at their subsequent competition results for the next 12 years to find their career best peak.

Next, they looked at a different set, but same number, of athletes entered into similar events at the 2000 Olympics, as a representative of the highest possible level of success for track and field. Results from their competitive meets 12 years before and 12 years after the 2000 Olympics were analyzed, again to find their upward trajectory to their personal best marks.

Chapman and Foss found that:

  • “Senior athletes performed best at a significantly later age than their junior counterparts in all four men’s event groups and three of four women’s event groups.”

  • “Compared to the star junior athletes, the senior athletes showed a significantly greater percentage of improvement in lifetime best performance compared to their best performances as junior athletes in six of eight groups.”

  • Less than a quarter of the junior athletes studied went on to medal in the Olympics.

  • Less than one third of the Olympians studied won medals earlier in their career while competing in the Junior World Championships.

“You see it in a lot of sports,” commented Chapman. “Elite performers in senior sports tend to be the ones who mature later. But it’s hard to measure, particularly in men, the rate at which they mature. I had a very successful runner grow 4 inches in college while he ran for me.”

While many youth sports programs have a “win now” mentality, parents and coaches should point to examples like this and encourage kids to stay with their sport for the long-term when their practice and technical development will trump their opponents who rely only on size and speed.

Dan Peterson writes about sports science and skill development for young athletes at Sports Are 80 Percent Mental. You can follow him on Twitter and Google+.