November 18, 2007

August’s child is full of grace and may even play for Ireland

Posted in Ireland · 12 comments ·

The month in which your child is born can determine how successful he or she is in later life.

The other day, watching an under-sixes soccer match, as the children ran around after the ball like a swarm of demented bees and a poor coach kept telling them to ‘‘keep their shape’’, I wondered what made a good footballer. Was it talent, practice or both?

We used to be told that a child was very ‘‘talented’’, and when you spoke to football scouts, they normally referred to a ‘‘unique talent’’ when referring to a great footballer. The understanding was that the talent was God-given and was special, simply a one-off with no rhyme or reason.

If this is the case, great players must have little else in common and, where they do, it must be circumstantial and coincidental. Yet when you examine some of the best footballers playing in these islands, something does bind them together. What do you think Roy Keane, Wayne Rooney and, currently Ireland’s most consistent players, Richard Dunne and Kevin Doyle, have in common?

Apart from skill, drive, talent and physical presence, what else is there? Oddly enough, they were all born in August or September. Why might this be the case? Is there a compelling reason why so many of our top soccer players should all be born after August 1?

There is a good reason and it is pretty straightforward. When I was a kid, children who were born in August had a natural advantage over other children. Because the cut-off date for age groups in much of Irish football is August 1, a boy who is born on August 1 will be almost a full year older than a child born on July 31, yet they will both be on the same team.

So, for example, an under-eight Leo will be eight when the football season starts, while an under-eight Cancerean will be seven. At such a young age, the year will make a huge difference in terms of physical presence. Because the average Leo (and those born in the months of autumn and early winter) is older, he is more likely to make the team.

Interestingly, this is where the talent part of footballing prowess is contended. The co-author of Freakonomics, Steven Levitt – drawing heavily on Swedish research into ability and talent and whether practice or innate ability determines careers – suggests that this post-August effect is crucial.

The Swedish research (by Professor Anders Erickson) discounts raw talent and produces ample evidence to indicate that practice makes perfect. This is obviously the sort of stuff your mother told you when you were young but, having tested thousands of people, the Swedish investigation concludes definitively that if you stick at something, set targets, draw encouragement and push yourself, anything is possible.

If this is the case, why aren’t we all Roy Keanes? A possible answer is that the study also concluded that we excel at what we love. We love what we are good at and vice versa. This is where the August effect comes in.

The reason so many good footballers are born in August – or just after – is that they are better at football at a younger age . They get picked for the team. They are rarely the last kid selected, not just because they are innately better, but largely because they are muscularly bigger. They then think that they are good at football. They begin to love it. They practise more, get more encouragement and the virtuous cycle takes hold.

So chance and serendipity have huge roles in determining soccer success. Something as arbitrary as your date of birth can have a profound implication for whether you are good at sport or not. Obviously, the closer you are to August/September/ October, the better chance you have of making it. In contrast, the July, June and May children need to be pretty special to have a chance.

But all is not plain sailing for the August child. A fascinating new report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies in Britain finds that the August child is also at a great disadvantage in school.

This is because in England (as in Ireland), the academic year runs from September 1 to August 31. So the child who is four in August is likely to start school a full year earlier than the child who is four in September.

This makes a huge difference. The British study found that this has profound detrimental long-term effects on the academic performance of the August child.

More significantly, the difference endures throughout all their schooling, although the gap narrows as the children progress into their teens. The British research set certain targets for children and then assessed the different levels of academic achievement for girls and boys born in August and September.

‘‘August-born girls (boys) are, on average, 26.4 (24.9) percentage points less likely to reach the expected level of achievement than September-born girls (boys) when they are five,14.4 (13.9) percentage points less likely to reach the expected level when they are seven, 8.3 (9.1) percentage points less likely to reach the expected level at 13, 5.5 (6.1) percentage points less likely to reach the expected level at 16 and 2.0 (1.7) percentage points less likely to reach the expected level at 17,” according to the study.

Like the footballers, the most crucial aspect was not absolute age, but your age relative to your classmates. In academic terms, the youngest children are too small, they don’t understand what is going on and they fall behind relative to the older ones.

As anyone with young children knows, at four, five and six, a year’s difference in maturity is huge and, when the younger ones fall behind, they can get disheartened. Although they catch up, they have to work harder to do so. This can dent their confidence and their enthusiasm for basic academics and might explain why they never catch up fully.

If you are thinking of conceiving in the next few weeks, ask yourself do you want a footballer or a doctor? Go now and your chances of a future Keano increase. Go later – just after Christmas — and Grey’s Anatomy awaits.

  1. Darren

    This is an interesting and plausible thesis. I’d be curious to know if the corresponding effect takes place in southern hemisphere countries. Here the school year starts in February, so the ‘uniquely talented’ sportsmen should all be Piscians (particularly the swimmers ;-)

  2. Shane Quinn

    I thought the same thing Darren, would be a good query to put to the AIS, they’d have all of the data and an interest in researching it.

  3. vince

    Aah, David, sure, you are thinking football and and and spit socaar. Where size and age at that age matter. But and here is the but, there is another game where with the crisp aid of ones father -or better, mother- a lump of Ash is a God send. When, the times when the pretty use of a knife and fork just will not cut the mustard, and a little further education in the use of tools is a necessity. When hearing that sound of Ash on the ten inch taller person advancing and an ability to sweetly jab and dig with the hilt of the caman, can do much to equalise age difference. Teaching the sprog, that the well wielded boss on a overhead back-swing can provide a lovely crunching sound on enamel. While the lean and slash can topple the longest.

  4. Philip

    On average, one twelfth of the population should be good footballers, good academics and good whatevers depending on the month. So for Ireland’s 2M workers, we’ll have 160K really good academics, entrepreneurs and so on – That’s 2 Croke Parks!. In reality, we’d be around 10s of people for any of these classes of folks – and that’s it. What about the 150K plus others in the month of August? Odds are slim either way.

  5. Dónall Garvin

    I don’t get it – but i was born in July so luckily I will never know how dim I am and why I was always picked last for football

  6. Liam Holohan

    Doubt this. UK study just coming up with reasons why their education system is so bad. If the October child is thick as a plank there’s not much you can do besides claiming poor darling has “Dyslexia”. I was born in August and have a phd in physics (not bad at the hurling either…but born and raised in Kilkenny). As ever with these “lies and damn lies” it assumes all other things being equal. Parents emphasis on education in the home I would think counts for a lot more than what size you were in junior infants :-)

  7. Bob Moore

    Hey Liam

    Never knew you could play hurling !!!


  8. Liam Holohan

    Up to minors Bob… did not get try out with county team as was stuffed full of lads born in September / October….or maybe not…digging around on the texaco hurler of the year for stars since 2000

    Henry Shefflin – 1st Nov 1979
    Jerry O’Connor – 25th Jan 1979
    Seán Óg Ó hAilpín – 22nd May 1977
    JJ Delaney – 6th Mar 1982
    Henry Shefflin – 1st Nov 1979 (again)
    Tommy Dunne – 21th May 1974
    DJ Carey – 11th Nov 1970

    Being born at the begining of November and end of May seem to correlate with great hurlers. But based on this sample size, 14% of great hurlers were also born in Fiji :-) !! As you know Bob it’s all about sample size and Correlation does not prove causation. If a correlation can accurately predict based on correlation then we are getting somewhere.

    I predict another great hurler will appear from Kilkenny, be born in August, educated in St Kierans (and will not be me)

  9. Bob Moore

    Well being born in Laois has definitely a negative correlation with being a great hurler unfortunately. The cutoff for hurlers is 31st December.

    I reckon there’s a GAA-sponsored Ph.D in there for someone.


  10. On the education front, I agree. It is not right to put a child who is all but a year younger into a class where the other children are getting progressively older. However, it’s impossible to prevent for obvious reasons and is therefore a fact of life that we have to accept. Why? Because the alternative is at least twelve classes/per age/per subject. A ridiculous notion. As far as I can remember, when I went to school, the cut off birthday was some time around the end of May, beginning of June. So, if you hadn’t had your birthday by then, you would wait another year.

    As for sport, I totally disagree. You have to take into account several other factors, not least the passion someone develops through experience, family connection (a relative who is known for a sport they may compete in themselves,) etc. Also, physicality is another factor (Great runners apparently have bone and muscle structures that are very symmetrical and perfectly balanced (much like a finely tuned race engine.) But it doesn’t matter how much, or how little, somebody likes/loves/is passionate about a sport (or any other pastime or creative pursuit for that matter,) the physicality in itself is still not enough to get to the top of the tree. Hand-eye-motor co-ordination is another, and possibly the most important, factor that comes into play.

    The history books are full of great sportsmen and women who achieved, are still achieving, great things and for a few it may appear to be almost ‘in spite’ of their physicality. There have been great footballers, who were stumpy-legged, awkward, gangly in appearance. A few of the all-time great basketball players in the NBA in America have been short – 5’7″ in one case — which, in a sport of 6’8″ to 7’2″ players, is a massive disadvantage! There have also been short Quarterbacks, Receivers, and Defensive Corner backs in both the American NFL and Canadian CFL leagues. The gifted Doug Flutie was only 5’10″. Positively dwarfed and tiny for a quarterback. There are also many people that have achieved greatness at an age in life that almost defies belief. At one end of the scale, wasn’t Wayne Rooney capped for England at seventeen or eighteen? Lewis Hamilton (yes he worked hard for years in the carting circuit, but then so did his rivals.) Steven Redgrave, rower and four time Olympic gold medalist, who won his last gold at an ‘old’ age people thought was impossible. The same goes for many other people in many other fields.

    Only a few sports have annual cut-off dates for entry, so I think for the most part, this argument is reaching just a little too much David. Steven Levitt and the Swedish researchers need to open their eyes a little. Success in sport clearly takes into account a multitude of factors. Nothing can be so cut and dried. And that’s without including other more tenuous factors such as ‘timing’, ‘nepotism’, ‘special treatment’ and (not forgetting) plain old ‘luck’. And let’s not forget those factors come into play in the business world too.

    Finally, in reference to ["the study also concluded that we excel at what we love. We love what we are good at and vice versa...."] I know a lot of people that are very good at their jobs and maybe 2-3% love doing them absolutely, while the majority accepts their ‘lot’ and just get on with it. And the remaining minority, potentially aware that their lives should, and could, be different, either dream about, or do something about, changing things. See my blog

    Just because someone is good at doing something, it does not mean that this person will automatically, or equally, love doing it. That is a ridiculous concept and stretching things way beyond common sense.

  11. 100 Wheels

    This is a great theory, and whats more…
    It also works for Autumn born kids who are in class with older children.
    In school I was good at hockey and played with my (slightly older) classmates at Under 12, U14, U16, U18.
    Because I was born in November (after the cut-off based on new school year) I was also able to play for the younger team every second year.
    Double the practice and double the competitive matches!

    Problem was I did bugger all else and had to repeat my leaving. But hey, I was still only 17!

You must log in to post a comment.
× Hide comments