Darwin, Skiing, Chess & 250,000 Swedes.

The Fittest of the Selected?

What has Darwin got to do with X-Country Skiing, Alpine Skiing, Call of Duty, Chess and almost 250,000 Swedes?

A recent paper from researchers at Umea University in Sweden looked at how younger athletes fare in individual sports for both physical and non-physical sports and across most age groups and both sexes.

Darwinian Selection Discriminates Young Athletes: the Relative Age Effect in Relation to Sporting Performance


Key Points:

Massive study across many individual sports (n=244,560)

It contrasted physical sports with cognitive ‘sports’. (Cross-Country Skiing, Alpine Skiing, Athletics, Orienteering, E-sports & Chess.)

RAE found in all sports in children and for both sexes.

Some evidence that the more physical a sport then the more RAE.

RAE highest in younger age groups. Declines till 20.

RAE reversal in adults in e-sports.

No correlation between Birthdate and Performance at Elite or Recreational levels.

Discusses the impact on elite teams - skewed player ID to early borns

Discusses the potential negative impact on participation and public health

WARNING: Those wacky Swedes deal in Tertiles (3x 4 monthly) divisions and not Quartiles.

The authors state ‘Age-group division benefits relatively older athletes, while increasing the risk of injury and early dropout from sports among children born later in the season.

You mentioned Darwin?
It seems that Nolan & Howell first mentioned Darwin with reference to Relative Age Effect in 2010. Essentially they asked, ‘Why should we worry about RAE?’ It is just an example of Darwinian Selection of the Fittest.

But due to the over selection of early born athletes who will never ‘make it’ and late born athletes, who could of ‘made it’, that are not given the opportunity, the authors state ‘it can be concluded that [the] “survival of the fittest” in sports is skewed by [a] less-than-optimal selection system and “fittest of the selected” [is] a more appropriate term.’

In cricket, Jones (2019) uses the term ‘Survival of the Fittest’ to describe how RAE continues from the pathway into super-elite batsman (and spinners) in international cricket. He also uses the term ‘Evolution of the Fittest’ to describe how late borns (Q4) can overcome the difficulty of the pathway to, relatively, reach higher levels than early borns (Q1). 

RAE and a Moral Standpoint

The study also references the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). This is a legally-binding international agreement setting out the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of every child, regardless of their race, religion or abilities. The authors state ‘…being omitted from sports participation due to [Early talent selection, self-determined dropouts, or parents’ decision not to enroll relatively younger children in sports, or RAE] violates the CRC, stipulating that the best interest of every child should always be in focus.’

Rob Reed
Rob Reed

Interested in Relative Age Effects & Maturation in Player Id & Development 🏏 #OneMoreSummer