Being the best and brightest is of utmost reward in society. From an early age we identify cut-off periods to which we group children for both sports and academics. However, a phenomenon has been recognized — those born closest to the cut-off are at an advantage. This phenomenon is known as the Relative Age Effect (RAE).

The Guardian recently released their list of the top 60 players in world soccer, born in 2001. As you can see (right), 50 percent of these players were born in Q1 (January-March) with the numbers dropping as you move towards Q4.

Why does this matter?

The Relative Age Effect (RAE) is evident all around the world, at all levels of the game, and is a particularly common issue that plagues youth soccer. At Hotspurs, it’s one we are keen to address.

RAE often plays a massive part in both the success of youth teams and in the success of individual athletes. Unfortunately, it isn’t an easy problem to fix although there are current initiatives within U.S Soccer which seek to minimize RAE.   

Why does this happen?

These Hotspurs players are 6 months apart in age.

Scientists haven’t yet fallen back on the obvious conclusion that being born in January, February or March means you will be more talented. Before the age groupings changed a few years back, Q1 would have been September through November and players born in those months, were still the most successful. Therefore, there must be another reason.

Players born in the early part of the year, are obviously the oldest (chronologically) in their age group. Now, every person grows and develops at a different rate. Some go through Peak Height Velocity (PHV) early on (11-12 for girls and 12-13 for boys) whereas others hit PHV in their later years. Therefore, we can also consider a person’s biological age, as well as their chronological age.

As a person matures and becomes older (biologically), they develop physically, emotionally and cognitively. In soccer terms, a more mature player is able to perform better technically, dominate physically and understand more tactically.  

While it’s not a given that a player born in Q1 will be more mature than a player born in Q4, when there is a chronological difference of up to 12 months between two players, the older player has a much better chance of being at a later stage of development.  

The knock of effects

Bigger, faster, stronger — typical traits of the ‘best athletes’ — does not shine through at the very top level of the game. (The best player in the world currently and possibly ever, stands at 5’7”.) However, in youth soccer it is all too common to see the most successful teams, achieve that success through physical dominance. More so, through biologically older players who can win physical battles, but also have those technical, tactical, emotional, and cognitive advantages.  

One of the next dominoes to fall is that these players who have the physical advantage can so often get away with poor technique or slow decision making because they can make up for it by simply being faster and stronger. For most, they will lose this advantage as they get older and the playing field levels out maturationally. How would these players then fare when they can no longer rely on size and strength?  

Another huge effect is in talent identification and selection. At a tryout, you may have two 13-year-olds. One has a biological age of 15 and the other, 11.

The likelihood is that the player with the biological age of 15 will look like a better player at a tryout. They will likely score more goals, win more duels, make more tackles, cover more ground and so on and so on.  In most cases, that will mean the biologically older player will be selected for the team over the younger player. It makes sense. However, who is to say that the younger player doesn’t have more potential? The younger player may be a better technical player and have more awareness of their surroundings. Unfortunately, they just don’t have the physical capabilities to deal with the player standing a foot above them.  

With the selection, the older player gets access to better facilities, more/better coaching, better teammates and better competition. Therefore, it is only logical to suggest that they will become a better player in the end, than the biologically younger player that they beat to the spot all those years ago. However, was that player more talented? Who knows what the younger player could have achieved, had they been given the same opportunities.  

The reality of it is, that a biologically younger/smaller player has to be exceptionally good, to get an opportunity. It can be so difficult to look past the early success that an older player may have.

What are we doing to address this?  

At Hotspurs, we have started to implement our testing days, which cover technical skills and some sport science components. With this, we use the Khamis-Roche method to work out the final height of our players.

Now, we don’t do this simply to know how tall a player is going to be, but rather to find out where they are currently in as a percentage of their final growth. This can give us an indicator as to why a player may be having success, or not. Of course, this isn’t the sole reason a player can be successful but it does help. Some of the other ways in which we are working on this include:

  1. Differing criteria for tryouts: We are developing a different set of criteria to evaluate players on at tryouts. Things such as, is the player scanning regularly, is the player able to travel through space in different directions with/without the ball, does the player interact well with teammates, is the player able to see spaces and gaps as well as people? These skills are better indicators for the ability of a player, and potential ability, regardless of whether they can win a 1v1 duel at 11 years old. 
  2. The phase model: The phase model we have implemented at Hotspurs provides that players work with a different group of coaches through a 3 or 4 year period. Being involved in a phase means that all the players are subject to the same education, information, and access to the same coaches. Furthermore, with different sets of eyes on all the players, we are better able to notice when a player is in need of a greater challenge or some more help — quite often due to biological maturity.
  3. Bio-banding: Part of our winter programming is a 5v5 in-house league. Knowing the biological age of our players allows us to group them in a different way than simply by age and ‘ability’. We are looking to try something new and test out the impact it has on the players. This approach to grouping is known as bio-banding.

Bio-banding: The solution for everyone?

To minimize RAE, bio-banding is being looked at on a larger scale. It is the concept of grouping young players based on their biological age, rather than their chronological age. A player who is 12-years-old chronologically but 14 biologically, may play in a team with a 15-year-old who is still 14 biologically.

Players can be grouped together if they are within the 80-85 percent of their final growth. This doesn’t mean that each and every player is going to be the same height and weight. The key is that players will be at the same maturational stage and thus, not benefitting from the advantages associated with being more or less biologically developed.  

U.S. Soccer recently appointed James Bunce as their High Performance Director. James Bunce was previously employed by Southampton Football Club in England and was a pioneer in the bio-banding effort. Since his appointment, Bunce has started the wheels turning with the bio-banding initiative in the U.S.  Currently in its infancy, the initiative is being trialed through some development academy events.

Check out more on the bio-banding initiative in the U.S.