I’m still trying to get my head around club soccer’s new “calendar year” age change rule that will officially begin in 2016, but is already impacting my daughter’s practices now.
How much these changes will affect our kids is hard to know just yet. But I got a small taste of what’s to come.
For those of you not familiar, all U.S. Youth Club Soccer teams are moving from a “school year” cutoff (August-July) to a calendar year cutoff (January-December) in order to align with age groups in the rest of the world (See New Rules Here.) In California, these new rules are going to take effect this upcoming season. There are other changes regarding field size and number of players, but I’m going to focus just on the calendar year change for now.
I have two kids in club soccer; one has a May birthday and one has a December birthday. The new rule appears to have the opposite effect for each one. My shy, reserved, seven-year-old gets the short straw. Her December 26th birthday will move her into one of the most undesirable spots on any team – if she makes it – the youngest player on the field. She will be moving up from the U8 to U10 division. She has been blossoming on her current team. She loves her current coach and has made a lot of good friends. She’s learning to be more aggressive and confident … really coming into her own. But with a December 26th birthday, she misses the cut-off date by 5 days that would help her to stay down with the bulk of her team. Had she been born five days later, she would be in the BEST spot as far as birthdays, the OLDEST player on the field. Five days that, if you ask best selling Author Malcolm Gladwell, could make all the difference in the world for her soccer future.
My middle, ten-year-old daughter got lucky. With a May birthday, she will go to U12 next year, where the bulk of her team will go up two age groups to U13. Her current coach ran her new practice today and one of her best friends was by her side – also an ‘05. She also noted that a lot of the girls were from the age group under hers. So it appears at first glance that this change could present some opportunities for her or at the very least doesn’t put her in a tougher position.
My December birthday girl, as luck would have it, is also very much against change. She has been grasping at straws all week – telling me she’s sure her best buddies are also ‘07 birthdays and that they will all be moving up. I’ve tried to explain that I don’t think that’s the case and it breaks my heart each time she tells me of about another teammate that she knows will be practicing with her this day. I finally figured out her confusion – most of her pals are seven years old, not actually born in ’07! She had been gathering false hope asking them their birthday, thinking that her team and her friends would be with her.
When I pick her up from school, she starts in with “I’m not going to soccer.” I try to remain firm but loving. I know she doesn’t like change and doesn’t want to leave her soccer friends. Snacks and a TV show finally settle her down a little. I know I must convince her to go or fear will win. Finally after a lot of discussion, a few bribes and a few stern words, she agrees to go. She puts on a brave face and begins to put on her practice clothes. I watch her; just like she’s done a hundred times over this season, but it’s different now. She is trying hard to fight the tears, her lip is quivering. My heart breaks for her. She will be going from one of the top players on her team, to the youngest player on the field. It’s a transition that she may not be ready to make.
I realize that it’s just bad luck. Before this change, it was the July birthdays in this predicament. I don’t feel anger or any resentment. I just feel bummed. Not that it’s insurmountable, just that it will be a much harder road. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, explains the unique relationship birthdays have to success rates in sports. He uses hockey in Canada as his main example, but his numbers can be applied to any sport. Consider his finding:
- January, February, March birthdays account for 40% of the kids who went on to successful Junior Hockey careers and many into the NHL.
- Those born in October, November, and December, just 10%.
- One year in childhood makes a huge difference in ability and strength on the field. He goes on to describe the spiral effect …”the bigger kids will play better and then be scouted by better coaches for more competitive teams. On those competitive teams, the bigger kids will be given better coaches, more chances to play and practice, and games against other more competitive teams, thereby helping secure their potential for success.”
U.S. Soccer addresses this issue briefly in their announcement “There is a selection bias towards players born earlier in the year because they are more physically mature than their peers”. And suggests via a bullet point, “A balance of players born throughout the entire year is recommended”.
Age and development matter so much in youth sports that there is a rash of parents holding their kids back in 8th grade to repeat the grade, JUST to give them an extra year to mature before high school. (Read Here).
My nephew, a great club soccer player, has been asked to join a few Olympic Development Training sessions. There they split each birth year into two groups for the entire training session. They treat them as two different age groups because there is such a vast difference in skill and size. And when they come together to scrimmage – the older group soundly beats the younger group. Birthdates do matter! With so much data and information regarding birthdate and success in sports, maybe one day measures will be taken to not overlook the second-half-of-the-year kids. No difference in talent necessarily, just that the birthdate gods were not on their side. It seems a shame that there’s not some way to even the playing field and provide the same opportunity to late-year kids to fully develop their talent.
In the meantime, my friends Nick and Alice have their first baby due on December 31, 2015. I’m hoping to see them soon, at which point I’m going to strongly recommend they DELAY the birth at all costs! They probably won’t understand it now, but if their child turns out to have a passion for playing sports and if they can hold off until January 1, 2016, there will come a day when they might thank me!