Can date of birth ensure on-ice success?
Published Wednesday, January 4, 2012 11:18AM EST
If the theory that the best hockey players are born early in the year scores points for accuracy, it would seem to put the rest of the sport's aspiring stars in the penalty box. But one researcher insists there's no need for the youngest aspiring NHLers to give up their dreams.
According to the "relative age" theory, which circulated for decades before being popularized in Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 book "Outliers," hockey players whose birthdays fall in the first quarter of the calendar year are the most likely to reach the highest levels of their chosen sport.
Indeed, of the 22 players on Canada's World Juniors team, six are born in the first three months of the year and fifteen celebrate birthdays in the first six months.
Kelly Lockwood, an assistant professor in Brock University's Department of Kinesiology who's studying the subject, says there are many reasons the ranks of elite hockey are dominated by players born early in the calendar year.
"When a child is born, how they develop, their rate of development or who they have to compete against is something beyond our control," Lockwood said, explaining that these universally age-related factors really come into play on the ice.
"It's compounded by the fact it's a very physical game, so the kids that grow faster are bigger, faster, stronger, and a little bit more co-ordinated when they are young get noticed," she told CTV's Canada AM on Wednesday.
A 14-year-old player born in January, for example, would have an 11-month head-start in terms of growth, weight, knowledge and training compared to his linemate born in November of the same year.
And at that age, Lockwood said, it can mean a significant physical disparity.
"You're dealing with a boy versus a young man and they have to compete on the same playing field."
But the relative age effect plays out even earlier than that, Lockwood noted, suggesting it could begin from the very first years young players are hitting the ice.
"If you're noticed at five years old, you get selected for a select team, you get better coaching, you get more ice time ... and all of a sudden you get pigeonholed as a triple-A athlete," she said.
Those older players' advantages then become entrenched as they make their way though hockey leagues' age-based divisions, Lockwood added.
The problem, in her view, comes down to misconstruing a maturity advantage for superior skills. And while that might not seem a problem -- after all, talented players continue to rise up the ranks -- it can feed a cycle that sees the latter-year birthday players discouraged and disadvantaged.
While the age-advantaged children are encouraged, Lockwood said, those born later in the year can turn their relatively poor initial performance into lowered confidence and self-esteem that ultimately sees them quit the game.
But Lockwood says the purpose of her research is not to spell doom for players born in months that end in -er. In fact, she believes there are many ways for aspiring athletes to counteract the relative age effect.
"We can train their physicality, we can teach technique, we can teach them how to skate," Lockwood said, rhyming off a list of performance-related factors within any athlete's control.
Hockey Canada is already doing well, she said, with its focus on early skills development.
"Laying the foundation of skills young, early and continuing to work at it as they develop through the ranks" is key, Lockwood explained.
"If you've got a stronger, larger athlete and you've got someone who is very skilled -- they can compete. But if that skill level isn't there it's going to be a lot more difficult."
And one note of consolation to all the December babies hitting the ice this season: goalies seem exempt from the relative age advantage.
"They're a beast of their own," Lockwood said.