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.