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A sporting chance for those less likely to be considered


28 February 2013

While relatively older players get the benefit in the youth stages, younger players 'blossom' later in the higher levels of sport, finds the study.
While relatively older players get the benefit in the youth stages, younger players 'blossom' later in the higher levels of sport, finds the study.

If you are born earlier in the sporting year there is a good chance the elite sports selection process will be biased in your favour.

According to a study published today in the online science journal PLOS ONE, National Hockey League (NHL) draftees born between July and December were on average much more likely to go on to have successful top level playing careers and compared to those born in the first three months of the sporting year who were initially more favoured by the sports' system.

The study titled 'Born at the wrong time: selection bias in the NHL draft' showed, however, while relatively older players get the benefit in the early youth stages of sport, the relatively younger players 'blossom' later in higher level aspects of the sport with sports statistics revealing they have more productive careers.

A team of researchers, including co-author Dr Steve Cobley from the University of Sydney's Faculty of Health Science, analysed the selection process for Canadian ice hockey players, looking specifically at players' performance and the game's age cut-off day of 1 January.

"There's no doubt that drafting professional athletes is an inexact science," says study director Associate Professor Robert Deaner from Grand Valley State University in the USA.

"Plenty of sure-fire first-round picks fizzle, while some late-round picks unexpectedly become stars. But our results show that, at least since 1980, NHL teams have been consistently fooled by players' birthdays or something associated with them.

"They greatly underestimate the promise of players born in the second half of the year, the ones who have always been relatively younger than their peers. For any given draft slot, relatively younger players are almost twice as likely to be successful."

Dr Cobley says he and the research team acknowledge that they don't fully understand the selection bias they discovered but suggests:

"Being many months older than one's peers can be a big advantage as a child or early teen, the relatively older players are more likely to be on most elite junior teams when they are 17 or 18, and scouts might be swayed by that."

Dr Cobley who has also conducted studies on the sport selection process in the UK, says similar drafting programs for elite players exist in Australia. He is now planning to study a variety of sports codes and their selection strategies.

"It would be beneficial to everyone if we can provide an explanation and overview of how scientists and practitioners consider and actually go about identifying and developing youthful talent in various sports."

The research principles could be important and hold relevance to education systems, and in particular selection processes for children in gifted and talented programs.


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Media enquiries: Victoria Hollick, 9351 2579, 0401 711 361, victoria.hollick@sydney.edu.au