Age before Need: A Flawed Premise?

May 25, 2011
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Ask a teacher or coach this question: When is a special needs athlete ready for competitive sports? The answers may surprise you for they can reveal the coaches’ sports philosophy, personal beliefs, and maybe even hint at a bias about the capabilities of the athletes they work with. Some coaches believe that the earlier an athlete starts competition the better they will be prepared for challenges later in their sporting lives.  Other coaches – myself included – believe that such a decision is best determined by assessing each athlete’s capabilities (physical and intellectual) and their interests in competition; not by their age. I do not view chronology as a good predictor of athletic readiness.

Today, the sports regulations of many organizations require that athletes (including both typical kids and special needs athletes) participate against other athletes of similar age. The premise is that these age-groupings will ensure “a level playing field” with participants having similar physical status, emotional maturity and sporting skills. I believe this premise is flawed and is a reason for some athletes to drop-out of competitive sports.

All coaches will acknowledge that physical, emotional or intellectual growth is not a uniform experience and that there will always be considerable variance amongst participants of any age-group. For example, the exercise physiologist Shepard reported that there can be as much as a 2 year physical difference in 12 year old boys. This means that one 12 year boy may have the body of a 14 year old but could be competing against someone of similar age but with the body size of a 10 year old. This 4 year range of physical difference confers considerable advantages sports advantages for the boy with precocious growth; most notably in strength and advanced skill development. The likelihood that this athlete enjoys more success than his smaller less developed rival will almost certainly enhance the self-concept of this athlete. Successful athletes tend to attract more recognition from coaches; they are also are rewarded with more leadership opportunities than athletes who are slower to develop.

The location of an athlete’s birthday has also been identified as a having a significant influence on achievement (both athletic and educational). Athletes born in the first few months of the year seem to enjoy more success than those born in November and December. One study reported that 79% of soccer players playing in the under 17 and under 20 World Cup were born in the first 6 months of the year. One study (Helsen, Starkes and Hodges, 1998) noted that 12 year old athletes born toward the end of the year were more likely to drop-out of sports than those born at the beginning of the year.

The influence of age and birthdate on sports participation has been termed “The Relative Age Effect.”  It is something that raises some challenging questions about the way that sports are organised. If the purpose of sport is to help all athletes to enjoy and develop their athletic potential, why do we limit it by making them play with opponents who enjoy the advantages of precocious growth?  Surely an athlete who is slower to grow, or has special needs, would find more success with peers of similar needs and not necessarily of same age?

Author: Gary Barber



  • http://www.travelinwheels.com Mhaase915

    My daughter began playing wheelchair basketball when she was 7.  Everyone else on the team, and many competing teams, were much older.  However, they included her and taught her valuable lessons at an early age.  It also taught the older ones about mentoring and fair play.  Sports has change my daughter’s life.  She is now 18 and made Team USA for powerlifting.  She counts many, many friends around the country who have similar goals, all  made possible because of adaptive sports.

  • BobLujano

    In regards to wheelchair basketball, one of the ways to combat age or skill advantages/disadvantages is the developent of prep leagues. This allows for first time youth or under 12 youths to have that first time experience of learning and developing prerequisite skills. This can help minimize any disadvantage once they advance to junior division.