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30 November 2006 PR 06/134

Research confirms higher prevalence of ‘older’ children in many sports

Research by experts at Loughborough University has revealed that youngsters born in the autumn are more likely to be involved in junior and elite level sport than children born later in the school year.

The findings have reaffirmed the existence in many sports of a phenomenon known as the ‘relative age effect’, which appears to show that children who are the youngest in their class or peer group are much less likely to go on to achieve high-level sporting performance.

The study also revealed that while the relative age effect exists for girls in some sports, it is especially apparent for boys, being endemic across both team and individual sports.

The work, undertaken by Drs Mary Nevill and John Morris from Loughbroough’s Institute of Youth Sport, provided the basis for discussions at the first meeting of Sportnation, the new national sports think tank, chaired by Steve Cram. Sportnation’s ensuing report – A Sporting Chance – was published on 29 November.

For the study, the Loughborough researchers combined previously published material with new data they had collected.

“In the junior and senior elite squads of several sports, including football, athletics, swimming and tennis, there is an over-representation of children born in the autumn, compared to what would be expected based on normal birth rates,” says Dr John Morris. “It would appear that the relative age effect, certainly in some sports, crucially influences the opportunities to achieve high-level sporting performance.”

As part of the study, Loughborough’s researchers used existing data to develop a theoretical model showing the difference between an imaginary 14-year-old boy born at the start of the school year (‘Boy 1’) and the same boy if he had been born at the end of the year (‘Boy 2’). ‘Boy 1’ is 7cm taller and 5.7kg heavier than ‘Boy 2’. In this hypothetical scenario, despite the boy having the same talent at the two stages of his development, the teacher does not select Boy 2 for the school football team, believing him to be not good enough.

The report claims that the relative age effect is widespread in schools, clubs and sports organisation. It also suggests that young people who have missed out on early selection, also miss out on access to more coaching and further development.

As part of the project, Sportnation also investigated people’s experience of school to find out how they felt about sport in their early years.

More than a third of the adults polled, and 48% in inner cities, said they had been unfairly treated by teachers. More than half, and 64% in inner cities, felt teachers had favoured the biggest and oldest children in class.

The poll also showed that by the age of 13, 58%, and 62% in inner cities, had given up hope of being successful at sport.

In light of the research, the Sportnation panel – which included former Loughborough students Guin Batten and Fiona Neale, and the University’s Professor of Sports Science Clyde Williams – made a series of recommendations to encourage and help the national governing bodies of sport tackle the issue and look seriously at practical measures that will give every youngster a sporting chance to develop their potential and succeed.

The recommendations are:


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Notes to editors

Sportnation is chaired by Steve Cram, former athlete and chairman of the British Institute of Sport, and involves some of the most influential thinkers in British sport, business and academia. It aims to radically change views on key issues in sport in the run up to the London Olympics in 2012. It is supported by the Lucozade Sport Science Academy, part of GlaxoSmithKline plc.

A Sporting Chance is the first report to be published by Sportnation.

The Sportnation panel was:

Guin Batten (first woman GB rowing Olympic medallist)
Charlie Beauchamp (Access Sport)
Steve Cram (Chair)
Patrick Duffy (sportscoachUK)
Gavin Hastings (Lions and Scotland rugby captain)
Pinda Jagdev (East London school sports director)
Dr Rod Jacques (English Institute of Sport)
Tim Lamb (Central Council of Physical Recreation)
Mike Lee (London 2012 bid)
Chad Lion-Cachet (Sportsworld)
Andy Martin (Youth Sport Trust)
Sir Robin Miller (EMAP and former Sport England regional chair)
Lord Moynihan (British Olympic Sssociation)
Fiona Neale (Paralympian swimming medallist)
Mike Riley (Premiership Football referee)
Professor Clyde Williams (Loughborough University)

The full Sportnation report and an executive summary are available online at www.thelssa.co.uk/lssa/sportnation

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