1/18/10 - birthdates

In today's excerpt - the effect of birthdate on athletic performance:

"If you visit the locker room of a world-class soccer team early in the calendar year, you are more likely to interrupt a birthday celebration than if you arrive later in the year. A recent tally of the British national youth leagues, for instance, shows that fully half of the players were born between January and March, with the other half spread out over the nine remaining months. On a similar German team, 52 elite players were born between January and March, with just 4 players born between October and December.

"Why such a severe birthdate bulge? Most elite athletes begin playing their sports when they are quite young. Since youth sports are organized by age, the leagues naturally impose a cutoff birthdate. The youth soccer leagues in Europe, like many such leagues, use December 31 as the cutoff date.

"Imagine now that you coach in a league for seven-year-old boys and are assessing two players. The first one (his name is Jan) was born on January 1, while the second one (his name is Tomas) was born 364 days later on December 31. So even though they are both technically seven-year-olds, Jan is a year older than Tomas—which at this tender age, confers substantial advantages. Jan is likely to be bigger, faster, and more mature than Tomas.

"So while you may be seeing maturity rather than raw ability, it doesn't much matter if your goal is to pick the best players for your team. It probably isn't in a coach's interest to play the scrawny younger kid who, if he only had another year of development, might be a star.

"And thus the cycle begins. Year after year, the bigger boys like Jan are selected, encouraged, and given feedback and playing time while boys like Tomas eventually fall away. This 'relative-age effect,' as it has come to be known, is so strong in many sports that its advantages last all the way through to the professional ranks.

"K. Anders Ericsson, an enthusiastic, bearded, and burly Swede, is the ringleader of a merry band of relative-age scholars scattered across the globe. He is now a professor of psychology at Florida State University, where he uses empirical research to learn what share of talent is 'natural' and how the rest of it is acquired. His conclusion: the trait we commonly call 'raw talent' is vastly overrated. 'A lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with,' he says. 'But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it.' Or, put another way, expert performers—whether in soccer or piano playing surgery or computer programming—are nearly always made not born."


Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner


Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should by Life Insurance


HarpersCollins Publishers


Copyright 2009 by Steven D. Levitt


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