The oldest track & field blog on the internet

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Matthew Effect

Previously I had referred to a post in The Science of Sport blog on the Matthew effect. What the heck is it? It's an observation, made by Malcolm Gladwell, that an enormously high percentage of high-level players in most sports have their birthdays between January and April. Why?

Any attempts to explain why a phenomenon occurs takes our on biases into account. For example, we hear that the highest incidence of suicide is right around Christmas, and we blame the stress of the holidays or unfulfilled expectations of familial bliss, whereas it's entirely possible the extreme lack of daylight might be more important. Nevertheless, the explanation of the Matthew effect seems pretty straightforward. In age-group sports, athletes who are the same age in years but significantly older in months (and presumably more physically mature) have a big advantage in making the cut, and for any of a myriad of reasons get ahead.

Now, I'd be interested to see how this lines up in the USA with sports that are broken down not by age but by grade, and whether those with late-summer birthdates have a similar advantage. My birthday comes with only three weeks of school left, and it likely put me well behind as a high school sophomore and junior. I also wonder if such an effect is noticed academically; my household does not bear this out (I was a National Merit Scholar with my late birthday, and my Ph.D./prof wife didn't turn 18 until exam week of her freshman college year).

A part 2 post about the Matthew effect takes on ways to counteract it, theorizing that innate talent is most likely born equally throughout the calendar year and further theorizing that those who do can maximize the available talent pool. I personally don't care about this so much as I wonder: does the Matthew effect exist in track & field?

I doubt it. There is no inherent advantage to being better than others at a very young age. Track is not based around age-group travel squads, and one of our sports peculiarities is that "starters" and "reserves" can both get just about as much competition as they want. There's an advantage to being good as a high school sophomore and/or junior, as most scholarship offers are on the table before the senior season hits the meaningful competitions, but besides that the effects of being less competitive are basically only mental.

Now, scientifically speaking, that's putting the cart before the horse. First you determine whether a pattern exists, and then you explain its existence (or nonexistence). But, as I mentioned before, Malcom Gladwell knows quite a bit about track. That it's not one of the sports he refers to makes me suspect no such pattern exists in it.

1 comment:

Coyote said...

I've been enjoying your blog.
Thanks for putting some thought into your posts.

It would be great to have you hanging around athlinks.

Keep up the good work.