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How to combat the Relative Age Effect

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Relative Age Effect (RAE) is the term used to describe the suspected effect that month of birth has on achievement and attainment. Various research has shown how those born earlier in the academic year are more likely to succeed.  For more information on RAE, click on some of the links below, or google Relative Age Effect.

 

In football:

FA plans to overcome RAE

In sport:

How to build a champion: Be born at the right time

RAE in sports: It’s complicated

In academic achievement:

How does month of birth affect your child’s future?

 

Most football coaches will know about RAE, although few will have sought to tackle it. This blog post looks at what we can usefully do to overcome the effect - to help make football more inclusive and to give us all a better chance of producing more great footballers.

Ministry of Football runs weekly skill development classes with expert coaches for 5-11 year olds in north London. I am a football coach and director of MoF, and a consultant statistician. I have previously worked on the government’s Gifted and Talented education programme analysing educational attainment by month of birth.

1. Measure it

The first thing to do is to measure the scale of the problem. Get a list of all children on your programme and divide them according to what month they were born. Do you have a problem with RAE or not? It is a good idea to set goals for your programme in terms of % of summer-born children you want to include, and to monitor this as one of your Key Performance Indicators.

At MoF, we aim for at least 30% of children on the programme to be summer-born (May-Aug). We have achieved this for 16 of the last 18 termly programmes we have run, and for all of the last 12 termly programmes we have run.   In the last 4 terms, over 34% of children on the programme were summer-born. (Importantly, we have achieved this not by excluding children who are born early in the academic year, but by seeing each child as an individual learner and not defining them by their month of birth – as you will see later).

We also analyse % summer-born in the different groups we run - so we look at % summer-born in our higher-ability groups v our lower-ability groups, and our younger children v our older children etc. What we want to see is that the % of summer-born in each group is roughly similar. We know we have an issue if we have a large % of summer-born children in our lower-ability groups and a small % in our higher-ability groups, or if we have a high % summer born in younger children but a low % summer-born in our older children (the latter may indicate a drop out of summer-born children, which would need to be investigated).

2. Increase the intake to allow all children to join

A key issue for summer-born children is that they don’t get a chance to join teams or clubs. Many teams and clubs select children at trials, and typically they will be most impressed by older children who may be physically more developed, or with better ability.  The problem here is that many children who may potentially go on to achieve and enjoy great moments in football are excluded from the outset. For the sake of the children, they all need to be able to enjoy and grow in football; And for the sake of football, we need to include as many as possible as we cannot predict how each will grow and who will be the world-beaters of the future.

It is a shame that so many programmes – especially the pseudo academies that seem to be popping up everywhere – are only interested in teaching the ones who can already play. At MoF we feel it is our responsibility to give all children a chance. We are regularly and very pleasantly surprised by children who make rapid and unforeseen progress over short spaces of time. Often the child who is the “best in the school” at age 8 is surpassed by age 11 by a child who was hardly competent with a ball a few years before.

3. Don’t group by age

Children need to be defined by more than their age. Grouping by age does them a disservice as it doesn’t take into account their real learning needs.

At MoF, we group children by the 4 As: Ability, Athleticism, Attitude and Age. We do not measure ability, athleticism or attitude in a formal way, rather our experience of coaching a child determines which group we think they need to be in to learn best (and to provide the best learning environment for other children in that group too). Importantly, our set-up allows us to experiment by trying different children in different groups in order to find a place where they are best suited (see point 5 below).

Of course the problem with not grouping by age is that leagues require you to submit teams that are U11 or U12 etc. We have decided to tackle this by running our own in-house leagues. Our 4v4 Mini-Leagues allow children to play with and against friends who are in school years above and below them. We help form teams and try to put children into the correct teams and leagues for their ability and learning needs. (Bizarrely, this means we cannot get small-sided league accreditation from the the FA, as they require us to group children by age in order to obtain this).

4. Define success in terms that are not governed by winning games or winning leagues

Success, Competition and Winning need to be defined in football such that it is possible for every child to feel successful regardless of their team’s scores and match results. That does not mean that we need to make football easy and shower children with praise; it just means that we need to understand that often match results are not a true representation of progress, and we need to find better barometers for learning.

“Where are the May to August kids? The simple fact is that adults have voted them out of the game because of our desire to pick bigger, stronger, faster players.”

– Nick Levett, FA National Development Manager, 2009

Long term athlete development requires that we take a long-term view of each child. Short-term wins achieved by picking the biggest, strongest children and by physically out-muscling the opposition need to be sacrificed for longer-term goals of helping children understand and enjoy the game and develop the physical, technical and mental skills to continue learning and development long after they will have forgotten this weekend’s scoreline. We need to find a place for each one of them where they are able to perform and practice at their own level. Success is: the development of a long-term love of the game; the acquisition of key age/stage-appropriate skills e.g. balance and co-ordination, ball mastery or game understanding;  a desire to continually improve; and an understanding of how they can learn new skills.

5. Identify ways to respond quickly to changes in individual children’s learning needs

Children grow and learn in unpredictable ways. It is not possible to foresee sudden jumps in confidence or ability. Experienced coaches will have examples of children who just suddenly ‘got it’. When this happens, this child’s coaching and learning environment needs to change to cater for their change in learning need. Unfortunately, very few programmes are able to respond quickly to a child’s sudden growth and development.

Here’s how we do it at MoF, please feel free to copy or feedback: In our skill development centre at MoF, we have two groups (Red and Yellow) in each hour session. Each group has about 12 children: The Yellow group is for higher ability, higher focus and/or higher confidence children and the Red group is for those currently with less ball mastery, less game understanding, less confidence or less focus. We have four hour-long sessions back-to-back, so there are a total of 8 groups.

Children are allocated to a group on the register, say 5pm Red or 6pm Yellow. Each group will be quite different from another, each with its own age/stage mix of children. The aim is to select the appropriate group for each child such that the challenge provided by the other children in that group suits their learning level and need as a learner. This helps them achieve flow (see diagram on right), enjoy the session, and learn to their potential. It also makes it easier for the coach to direct their teaching at the level of the group, as the levels of the children in the groups will be roughly similar. But importantly, the movement between groups is fluid. Here is how we respond quickly to sudden changes in ability, confidence or focus of children:

  • The two groups (Red and Yellow) join together to take part in group activity at the start of each hour session. This allows coaches to see where each child is at that day. It is common for coaches to switch one or two players from one group to another depending on their focus or engagement during the initial activity.
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  • It sometimes also happens that a child is switched from one group to the next in mid-session, thus allowing the child who is dominating the Red group that day to move to the Yellow group for an extra challenge.
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  • Of course, the group registers change week to week depending on feedback from coaches as to which children require extra support or challenge.
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  • Finally, because our sessions are back-to-back with the higher-ability classes coming later in the day, sometimes we ask a child who has done very well in a Yellow group if they want to stay for all or part of the next session with the higher-ability group.

Case Study: “Greg”

Here is an example from the past few weeks at MoF which demonstrates the points above:

Greg is physically-small and now in school year 6. Greg was born in the summer (in June, the same month as Leo Messi). He has been attending weekly skill sessions at MoF for nearly three years. He has always had high levels of focus and enjoyment, but was a bit physically shy and did not have great ball control. Until a few weeks ago, he was in a Red group mainly with children younger than himself. However in the past few weeks he has grown in confidence and has spent many hours practising with a ball. The coaching team recognised this change, and immediately invited him to join a higher-ability Red group. Last Sunday, he was brilliant in that Red group, so mid-way through the session we moved him from Red to Yellow group to give him a greater challenge. He responded very well, and enjoyed the experience and will be on the Yellow group register for next week.

Greg’s experience is typical of young learners. They do not learn in a predictable way. Their own learning journey is unique to themselves. On sport programmes we need to recognise this, and cater for it. However, most other football programmes or clubs:

  • Would not have allowed Greg to join in the first place. If he had trialled for a club or team two years ago, then the likelihood is that he would not have been able to join as his ball control was not good enough.
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  • Would have grouped Greg with other children his own age. This would mean he would be the lowest ability in his age group, and would have struggled in games and sessions. In these circumstances, would he have stayed for nearly three years or would he have dropped out to do something else?
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  • Would not have known that Greg was summer-born, or taken this into consideration when assessing his progress or teaching him. Coaches need to know month of birth information for children in order to plan for sessions and to review progress of individual children.
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  • Would not have been able to change Greg’s learning environment quickly in response to his improved confidence and ability. Usually if a child is allocated to a team, then that is their group for the year. Children’s learning needs can change very quickly, but most programmes are unable to respond to this until the beginning of the new season – which could be many months away.

 

In summary, we owe it to children like Greg to take RAE seriously. Certainly a big part in tackling the issue is making people more aware of it, and hoping that this will change their behaviours. However, there are other things we can do too. I'd love to hear from people who have tried some of the above or who have other suggestions.

 

Mark Carter, September 2014

 

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