The Relative Age Phenomenon in Sport: A Replication and Extension with Ice-Hockey Players

By Boucher, Jacques L.; Mutimer, Brian T. P. | Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, December 1994 | Go to article overview

The Relative Age Phenomenon in Sport: A Replication and Extension with Ice-Hockey Players


Boucher, Jacques L., Mutimer, Brian T. P., Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport


An extensive body of literature has underlined, over the past 60 years, the importance of relative age in academic achievement (Bigelow, 1934; Reynolds, 1962; Uphoff & Gilmore, 1986). Some studies have shown that even a few months difference in chronological age may be linked to a significant difference in achievement test scores (Diamond, 1983; DiPasquale, Moule, & Flewelling, 1980; Sweetland & DeSimone, 1987). Maddux, Stacey, and Scott (1981) noted that children at the lower end of an age-group are less likely to be labeled as "gifted" than are children at the upper end of the age-group. Furthermore, Gilly (1967) found that those children born in the early part of the year achieve better academically than do students born in the latter part of the year.

Age-grouping in amateur sports is similar to school systems, in which there can be a difference of up to one year in the children's ages in any one grade. The age differences stay with the children throughout their academic careers. Similarly, in Canadian amateur hockey leagues, for example, children born in January play in the same age category as their peers born in December of the same year. In fact, some hockey organizations use 24-month age-groupings, which means that a difference of up to two chronological years is possible among hockey players of the same age-group and on the same teams.

Furthermore, chronological age is a measure of time, not of physical and cognitive maturity. Therefore, the developmental stages of different players might represent a maturational discrepancy of even more than 2 years (Malina, 1990; Malina & Bouchard, 1991). This fact raises the question of whether age-grouping in sport produces results similar to those observed in pedagogical establishments.

Unfortunately, few studies have been conducted on the relationships between relative age and sport achievement. However, those researchers who have investigated such relationships have reported findings that strongly suggest there is a link between relative age and participation on elite hockey teams (Barnsley & Thompson, 1988; Barnsley, Thompson, & Barnsley, 1985; Daniel & Janssen, 1987; Grondin, Deshaies, & Nault, 1984). It was decided to replicate these studies (a) in a new geographical region (Nova Scotia, Canada) to verify their external validity and (b) with similar populations (National Hockey League [NHL] players) in order to see if the findings could be generalized beyond the populations studied.

Given the purposes of this study and the findings of previous research, three hypotheses were formulated: (a) A strong correlation exists between relative age and participation on elite hockey teams; (b) significant differences exist between the frequency distribution of the birth months of Nova Scotian, elite, Minor Hockey League players and the monthly percentages of male births in Nova Scotia; and (c) significant differences exist between the frequency distribution of the birth months of NHL players and the monthly percentages of male births in Canada.

Method

Subjects

The birth records of all members of the elite A and AAA hockey teams in the Province of Nova Scotia during the 1988-89 regular season comprised the first sample for this study. A-level hockey teams comprise the best Novice-Bantam players, aged from 8 to 15 years, while AAA-level teams comprise the best Midget players, aged 16 to 17 years. The cutoff date for both leagues is January 1.

The sample of 951 players, born between 1971 and 1980, covered the following age levels: Novice, 8 to 9 years (n = 68); Atom, 10 to 11 years (n = 213); Pee Wee, 12 to 13 years (n = 224); Bantam, 14 to 15 years (n = 302); and Midget, 16 to 17 years (n = 144). A second sample consisted of all 884 Canadian-born, NHL players who had participated in 40 or more games of the 1988-89 NHL season.

Relative age is defined, for the purposes of this study, as the age difference between male hockey players born in the first and the fourth quartiles of the same calendar year. …

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