Psychology of Sport

From the games of youth to the big leagues

Athletic Outliers

Why not start sixth grade as a 15-year-old?

Malcom Gladwell's Outliers highlights the role that age cut-offs can play in the advancement of elite hockey players. Youth sport athletes born between January and March are at a competitive advantage from an early age because they are the oldest players in their cohort. They experience this advantage each year as they progress through various hockey programs and approach the elite level. It's actually striking when examining the rosters of elite Canadian teams listed by Gladwell. Players with winter birth dates dominate these rosters. Is this a good thing or not?

A growing number of high school hockey players in the United States are waiting longer to apply to college in an effort to leverage their age and physical maturity to increase chances for admission and scholarship to a Division I school. A few years in Canadian Junior Hockey League or United States Hockey League offers opportunity to accomplish this goal. Because the NCAA Division I age limit is 24-years-old, athletes can play in these leagues for several years and actually start college as 21-year-old freshmen.

When examining the rosters of several Division I hockey programs it is compelling to see how many players are coming from these semi-professional leagues. And it certainly makes sense from a performance standpoint that older, bigger, stronger, and faster players with more experience make for, in most cases, a better college hockey player. In fact, for most Division I sports, perhaps with the exception of sports like gymnastics, starting college later makes sense for most athletes, at least from a performance level.

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But does it make sense that the average 18-year-old freshman regularly competes with the 24-year-old senior? Won't this eventually lead to college hockey teams becoming progressively older? And where will this take college sports in general? College athletes will start school at 21-years-old, while the rest of the student body starts at 18? Will high school athletes who are interested in pursuing their studies have to delay their college experience in order to play college sports? Will this lead to athletes being even more sequestered from the rest of the student body? As competitive levels rise in collegiate sports, is this age increase inevitable? One has to wonder whether this pattern will continue to trickle down to the Division II and III levels, to high school sports and beyond. Why not start sixth grade as a 15-year-old?

Having an age-limit of 24-years-old at the Division I level allows a broader range of students the opportunity to take less traditional paths to ultimately gain a college education. Yet, it seems to open Pandora's box as to how far it will go? When do we consider other factors such as the importance of balance in a young person's life, including the opportunity for a variety of same-age friendships, educational, experiences, and a broad range of interests?

Thanks to Gladwell's attention to the role age plays in athletic advancement, we have the opportunity to evaluate how to address this potential trend in athletics. Perhaps we need to even the playing field to protect our youth from seeking extremes to attain the competitive edge and outlier status. Without stricter limits, who knows how far this will go?

 

Dr. Richard D. Ginsburg is co-Director of the Sport Psychology Program and PACES Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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