In his excellent book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell talks about what makes someone in any field more successful than another. The thrust of the book is that rather than just relying on pure talent, there are several other factors that greatly influence success.
Of these, practice – the amount of time someone spends honing their skill is critically important. In the book Gladwell comes up with the 10,000 hour rule – the amount of time he claims that someone need to perfect their skill, whether it’s The Beatles playing live before having their first hit or, say, David Beckham spending hours every evening with his Dad learning how to take the perfect free kick.
But practice isn’t the only factor he looks at. Crucially, the month even the year of your birth can, he suggests, affect your chances of achieving the highest levels of success. So it’s no coincidence that both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were born in 1955 which made them the perfect age to capitalise on the computer revolution of the mid 1970s. Equally it’s no surprise that the most successful Canadian hockey players were born in January because the eligibility cut off for age class hockey is January 1st.
As Gladwell states in the Outliers: “A boy who turns ten on January 2, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn ten until the end of the year – and at that age, in preadolescence, a twelve month gap in age represents an enormous difference in physical maturity.”
But Canadian ice hockey is not alone in this respect. Studies show that a larger number of professional footballers in the UK are born in September because age group football is played according to school year while the cut-off date in major league baseball is July 31st with the result that more major league baseballers are born in August.
So is the same true in swimming? Well yes – at least in part. Currently under British Swimming’s structure the ‘age as of’ date children compete according to the age they are when the gala takes place. This means that at some galas children find themselves the youngest in the pack, at some the oldest. Clearly all younger children therefore do much better if their next birthday falls just after the data of the gala rather than just before.
Crucially, the most important competition of the year, the National Championships, are usually end of July, although this year they are slightly later (August 3rd). This puts those born just after this date in August or September at a crucial advantage to their peers which explains why a very high percentage of national age group champions are born in August.
And while I haven’t done a scientific survey to see whether senior level international swimmers who were born in August or September are more likely to be successful in the sport, it’s interesting that both of my last two interviewees (Michael Jamieson and Hannah Miley) are August born!
Year of birth
So what will the new changes (back to the system that operated in British Swimming until around a decade ago) mean if children are expected to compete throughout the year according to their birth year.
On the face of it, the new changes could do little to prevent similar problems. Whereas the current ‘age as of’ system means that some kids have their chance to shine – at least in the smaller galas – the new system could well discriminate against those born later in the year. As a document produced by the Everton Amateur Swimming Association (http://evertonsa.com/downloads/British_Swimming_Changes.pdf) states: “There are always negatives in any change and if you are born at the end of the year the new changes will be a negative. However if you are born in May-July this, for the last number of years has been a negative.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom for Autumn-born children. Clearly by delaying the age of competition it is hoped that differences in physical maturity between the months will be minimised. According to the same document, County competitions for the North West of England will be from National Age 11 years and above while only those aged 13 on 31st December 2015 will be able to compete at Regional and National Level next year. Currently 9 year olds routinely compete at County level while it’s not unusual for 10 year old to make a regional qualifying time.
Finally, another interesting factor is the effective abolition of National Qualifying Times which can favour swimmers of a particular stroke more than others, depending on the number of qualification times. Instead, the Top 30 swimmers per age, per event will be eligible to take part in the British Championships with the next 30 eligible to compete in the English/Welsh or Scottish nationals. This should mean more opportunities for swimmers to compete at the highest level, hopefully irrespective of the month of their birth.
You can see the full raft of changes here: http://www.goggleblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/New-Competition-System-Consultation-Summary-Document.p
You can Read Part 1 – Why slowing things down isn’t a bad thing here: http://www.goggleblog.com/features/2667/changes-to-the-domestic-competition-structure-why-slowing-things-down-isnt-a-bad-thing.html