Is it time for a rethink of elite sport pathway structures?

The competition for junior talent between sporting codes has never been tougher with more options available to young athletes than ever before. More athletes than ever are switching codes if their chances of making it big their primary sport start to fade...but what about the ultra-talented young people who never get a genuine chance to excel?

Outliers Book Cover

I've just finished reading a fantastic book titled Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell - a book that asks:

Why do some people achieve so much more than others?

Most people will think that traits like hard work, determination, skill and maybe genetics all play a significant part and Gladwell doesn't argue that these attributes are in any way unrelated to success. But what Gladwell does argue, and very successfully in my eyes, it that opportunity is one of, if not the biggest, influence on future success.

My favourite chapter discusses how date of birth impacts the opportunity for success in sport. Young people that are born within 4-6 months of the cut-off date for underage representative teams have a much greater opportunity to develop into elite athletes. This makes sense, 6-8 months can see huge differences in strength, size, coordination and maturity among young people. Those born soon after the cut-off date may have up to a 364-day advantage over the youngest in the same age group.

Gladwell goes on to provide an example of a world-beating Czech underage Ice Hockey team that had more than half of the squad born in the 3 months after the January 1 cut-off date. The eldest in the age-group are more likely to stand-out amongst their peers, get selected for representative teams and then benefit from the additional high-level coaching and training that comes with selection.

I've witnessed this transformation myself, as young guys would come into senior cricket, say as a very talented spin-bowler but possibly lacking in other areas of the game. Given 12-months in a state training program, their batting and fielding would improve significantly, as well seeing great improvement in their primary skill.

Those born soon after a sport's cut-off date may have up to a 364 day advantage over the youngest in the age group.

This all sounds great in theory, but a single example of a Czech Ice Hockey team seems a pretty small sample size. So I decided to do my own research. Below is a table showing the number of players born in each month from the 2017 U19 National Cricket Championships. Keep in mind the cut-off date for cricket is the 31st August, except in the NT where they play a winter season and the date is 1st Jan.

Birth Month of U19 Australian Cricketers

Expected - completely balanced distribution, Actual - birth months of U19 cricketers, AUS% - ABS data of births

A completely equal distribution would result in each month having 8.33% of annual births. It is logical to assume that as some months have more days than others and that other factors may also have an impact on birth timings, that not all months would have exactly 8.33% of births. This is true; ABS data from 2005-15 shows that the highest number of births take place in March and October, 8.6% of births occurred during each of these months in the 11 years to 2015. The lowest month was February with just 7.9%, but clearly there is not a significant difference in Australia between the month of birth. The table above shows that in Australia between 2005-15, 33.3% of births occurred between September and December and 49.4% between September and February - only slightly more than a completely equal monthly distribution.

We can now see a clear advantage for cricketers born between September and December - in fact 48% of players in the U19 Nationals were born in this 4-month period and 60% were born in the 6 months after the August 31 deadline. This increases just slightly when NT, Vic Country and ACT/NSW Country players are taken out of the calculation; it seems that the birth month is a little less important for players from regional areas. This may be a product of the greater opportunity or expectation for country players to compete in adult competitions once they are capable. So there is a slight discrepancy from the norm, but this alone is not necessarily indicative of a clear disadvantage to those born later, so let's look at the 2017 U17 National Championship for cricket now.

Birth Month of U17 Australian Cricketers
Summary of U17 cricketer birth dates

The U17 Nationals show an even stronger advantage for those born within 4-months of the cut-off date. More than half (54%) of participants are born within the first 4 months after the 31st August and 73% are born within 6 months of this date. It seems the advantage is stronger at the younger age-group, perhaps because it is more likely that these players are still playing in junior rather than senior competitions. Players born in July and August need to be super talented to get a look in at this level. This data clearly shows that Cricket Australia is potentially missing up to 40-50% of the age-group that may be equally talented, but are over-looked because they are not standing out in their age-group.

Think about that! Up to 50% that may be changing codes or giving up sport altogether because they are not recognised by the talent pathway. Not to mention the players that may never play for their state or country, but give up the sport simply because they struggle against, bigger, stronger and more advanced players. These players could have become stalwarts at the community level if they had stayed with the sport. After all, who wants to spend 6 hours in the field not getting a bowl and batting at 8 while older players dominate? Is it any wonder the attrition rate between junior and senior competitions is well over 50% in most clubs, most seasons?

We have seen a clear trend in underage cricket, but what about at the elite level? Does this carry through to Test cricketers representing Australia? It certainly does - Steven Smith is a freak and a clear exception to this trend (b. 2nd June). But look at the birth months of the 13 players that represented Australia in the recent Ashes series. Once again, more that half (54%) of players were born within 4 months of the end of August while nearly 70% were born within 6 months. If you are born in August, you can almost give up your dream to wear a Baggy Green!

Australian Test Cricketer Birth Months

Summary Australian Test Cricketer Birth Months

Returning to the title question; given this information, it is time to rethink our elite pathway structures? We now know the problem, but what is the solution? Well, there are several possible options that Cricket Australia, state associations and other NSOs could look at, as it should be noted, that further investigation would likely find similar statistics across many if not all sports.

Option 1 - Create B Teams

Create B teams for representative squads that are solely for players born more than 6 months after the sport's cut-off date. This will provide that cohort of athletes more opportunities to gain elite level coaching and training. Games or even carnivals can be arranged for B teams to keep these talented players involved and help them to develop to the next level.

Option 2 - Vary cut-off dates

Steve Smith bucks the trend - but he is a freak!