I am currently reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s a fascinating book. It has a byline of “The story of success” and investigates why successful people achieve so much more than others. Gladwell argues that circumstances can play just as important a role as talent.
In the first chapter he looks at the reasons why certain sports players are more successful than others. Is it all down to inate talent or are other factors just as important? An analysis of Canada’s top hockey players reveals that birthdate, more than any other factor, determines which teams and eventually which opportunities and what type of training players receive. He found that seventeen of the twenty five players in the top Canadian team were born in January, February, March or April. This distribution is way outside the normal expected pattern.
“The explanation for this is quite simple. It has nothing to do with astrology, nor is there anything magical about the first three months of the year. It’s simply that in Canada the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey is January 1. A boy who turns ten on January 2, then, could be playing alongside a boy who doesn’t turn ten until the end of the year – and at that age, in preadolescence, a twelve month gap in age represents an enormous difference in physical maturity.”
So I decided to look if this also holds for sport teams closer to home. I am a big fan of Munster Rugby so I looked at the birth dates of the 34 Irish raised players in the current Munster squad. I found a distribution completely different to the Canadian Hockey team. But again what I found was a very unequal distribution. And what I found was staggering. Only 18% of the players were born in the first six months of the year with 82% born in the second six months. Did this completely contradict Gladwell’s theory? No. Because the eligibility cutoff for Irish underage rugby is July 1st. Looking at the breakdown of the birthdates, 7 players were born in July with only 1 born in June. No players at all were born in January with 8 players born in October.
Munster Rugby Team
So in underage rugby in Ireland, a player born in July is seen as more mature and co-ordinated than a player born in June (as he’s almost a year older). Because of this, he then gets chosen for the under-12’s or under-13’s and gets better coaching and he practices more and gets more confidence in his ability. At the younger age the advantage isn’t much but as time goes on the advantage increases and the players really are better.
I don’t know if there is a solution to this situation. I suppose there is a need of a cutoff at some fixed date sometime in the year. But what if the arbitrary cutoff date for underage rugby was January 1st and not July 1st. If this was the case, we would probably have a completely different makeup of the Munster team. The stars of the current team may not be playing rugby at all now, as their bigger and more coordinateted peers would have superseded them in the underage teams. And maybe men who now play at lower standard teams or do not play rugby at all would now be the stars of Munster rugby.
I find this really interesting. An arbitrary decision of a date in a rulebook has played a huge role in determining the life and career of the players and also in a way the life of the supporters.
Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Published by Allen Lane.