The Impact of Age in Youth Wrestling
The relative age effect, according to Science for Sport, is a phenomenon in which children born in, or close to, a critical age cut-off period may have an advantage in both athletic and academic endeavors. In other words, when put into age group categories, those born later in the year appear to be at a disadvantage because they are typically physically, emotionally and cognitively less developed than other children.
This is also known as “birthday bias” and was highlighted in greater detail in the 2008 book “Outliers” by author Malcolm Gladwell. In that book, Gladwell highlighted a Canadian hockey study that showed an overwhelming amount of elite Canadian hockey players were born in January, February, and March. Those born earlier in the year were physically or emotionally more developed than same-age athletes born in November or December of the same year. Because of this, they performed better than their peers, made the best teams, received the best coaching, and when all was added up, their relative age advantage (birthday bias), led to greater opportunity for success.
While there is a relative age effect in all sports, wrestling included, there are many variables that go into an athlete’s long-term development, says Danny Struck, head coach of the Jeffersonville (Jefferson, IN) High School wrestling team. Struck is also an assistant football coach and strength and conditioning coach at the school and works with boys and girls in all sports.
“There is no doubt that being older makes you physically more mature than others,” Struck says. “You can see this immediately in the pee-wee age group. When a kid enters wrestling at 4 years old, they can be wrestling 5-year-olds. That 5-year-old is often 20 percent older than them.”
Throughout one’s athletics and wrestling career, however, there are several factors that ultimately make a greater impact than the age a wrestler was born. Good coaches and parents recognizing and understanding this at an early age can make or break whether a wrestler stays in the sport, thrives in the sport, or quits the sport.
In 2018, USA Wrestling had 12 World Medalists. Of those 12 medalists, according to research provided by Mike Clayton, Manager of USA Wrestling’s National Coaches Education Program:
- 5 were born in the first quarter of the year
- 0 were born in the second quarter of the year
- 2 were born in the third quarter of the year
- 5 were born in the fourth quarter of the year
Several factors outside the relative age effect come into play here, Clayton says.
“The numbers alone don’t really mean anything as far as I see it,” he says. “Did any of these athletes get “grey-shirted” in younger age levels to get them a year more maturity and experience? Did they stay in their same age range and just “manage” to make it? Knowing if these athletes were held back a year or if they competed at their normal age group would be very interesting to find out.”
Struck uses kids in eighth grade, who, depending on their date of birth, wrestle either 14U or 16U (formerly Schoolboy and Cadet, respectively), as an example.
“I’ve had eighth graders wrestle Cadet, and they spent their whole spring wrestling freshman and sophomores,” he says. “Those with a strong mental attitude and good understanding of what was going on may have took a beating, but went into their freshman year much more prepared. Others couldn’t handle losing, and it hurt their mindset and confidence.”
At the same time, Struck says he has coached eighth graders who wrestled Schoolboy, and were still wrestling sixth and seventh graders during the spring. Some excelled and became state champs. But as they entered ninth grade, they struggled because they faced weaker competition in that offseason transition period between eighth and ninth grade. For a few others, success enhanced their confidence, and they came in as freshman ready to excel at a high level.
“Relative age makes a difference,” Struck says. “But how the coach and parent guide the kid through it makes a bigger difference. Kids need constant reassurance of what is taking place, and to be shown the positives of the situation, regardless of what is taking place. I see it in the weight room, on the football field, and on the wrestling mat. How you address the kid makes the biggest difference.”
One would be naive to assume a difference in age would not matter especially at the younger ages/levels, says Steve Richardson, Kids Director for Michigan USA Wrestling, and Director of the Michigan Matcat Wrestling Club.
So Michigan USA Wrestling has tried to get creative with their age group bracketing. The Michigan USA Wrestling folkstyle leagues use these age groups: 5/6, 7/8, 9/10, 11/12, 13/14. Michigan USA Wrestling Spring Freestyle league offers flipped ages: 4/5, 6/7, 8/9, 10/11 and so on.
“What this creates is a year where a child will be older in one season and younger in the other,” says Richardson. “This provides equal opportunities to see different competition and be the older and younger competitor in the same year.”
But there are factors well beyond birthday, age, and age group bracketing that determine an athlete’s development, says Richardson”
“We all know kids don’t mature at the same rate,” Richardson says. “Another key factor is their home environment. If an 8-year-old is the youngest sibling with two or three brothers that play hockey, baseball or wrestle, the child’s environment helps them to mature into that sport with an organic education and mindset that are key to their performance. However, if they are the oldest sibling or an only child, they may not have that sports culture in home (or siblings to influence them).”
Parents also play a role, whether they realize it or not.
“Being in this sport as long as I have has taught me that parents are the key contributor or hindrance to a child maturing in competitive sports,” Richardson says. “There is a fine line between holding hands too much and not enough. Let’s face it, children are products of their parent’s actions. I’ve found that parents who allow their child to fail have athletes who mature at a faster pace. Those parents that make excuses, dodge tough competition or don’t reinforce the fundamentals of the sport have children that struggle to mature, grow and develop.”
In a 2017 USA Hockey article on relative age effect, Ken Martel, technical director for USA Hockey’s American Development Model, points out that the relative age effect is most noticeable at younger ages and then maybe again at 12U or 14U if the kids born early in the year happen to hit their growth spurt sooner than younger peers.
“The interesting thing is it all shakes out in the wash when everyone goes through puberty,” Martel says. “So it’s critical to keep kids involved in the sport as long as possible and not have them quit early because of what may have transpired. At a young age, it’s impossible to predict who is going to be a great player. The Sidney Crosby’s of the world who are really good, who turn out to be superstars, they’re an aberration. That’s not the norm. What’s a lot more common is the 10-year-old who didn’t look like much at age 10, but through patient coaching and a good development environment, turned out to be among the best players on the team the age 18.”
Clayton admits, relative age can certainly get a young athlete recognized at an earlier age, and positioned for advanced opportunities in competition and training. But coaches and parents need to understand each wrestler and athlete develops at different stages of their career, and to never overlook a kid simply because they may not have success at a young age. They also shouldn’t put too much pressure on a kid because of early age group success.
Ultimately, these factors play a bigger role in the development of wrestlers, says Clayton:
- Technical ability
- Physical ability
- Mental ability (emotional control)
- Strategic advantage (how you work your match strategy)
“How coaches develop a wrestler’s skills is likely a greater determinant of success,” adds Clayton.
An athlete might go 26-0 as the oldest and most physically mature athlete in the age group. The next year that same athlete might go 17-9 as one of the younger athletes in the age group.
“What really helps these athletes is when coaches and parents understand the proper developmental concepts by the age of the athlete, or our Athlete Development Model (ADM),” says Clayton.
Following the ADM can also mean that a more mature athlete can “train up” a level. If this athlete understands all the key developmental skills for their current chronological age, they can start to work on skills that are best suited for their relative age (or the age in which they are currently able to train at due to early maturity). Some athletes may have physical maturity above their chronological age but not emotional capabilities—or the other way around.
“Knowing the athlete is the key to ensure we teach the right skills at the right time,” Clayton says.