Do Birthdays Create Olympians?

Birthdates May Determine Athletic Success

By TSC Analyst/Contributor DANIEL URBAN 
LOMBARD I am reading a very interesting book called "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell. The book has a great chapter on the importance of birthdate in creating top caliber athletes. The book takes an in-depth look at players in the highest levels of Canadian amateur hockey (many of whom eventually go the NHL). The story goes something like this: 
Author Malcolm Gladwell was at a senior level Canadian amateur hockey tournament and was looking through the tournament's program at all the participating athletes. The program had a bunch of information on all the players that included their birthdates. After looking at the program for awhile, he suddenly noticed that an astounding number of players were born in January and February, and hardly any players were born in November and December. 
After rolling this information around in his head for awhile Gladwell came up with a theory. In Canadian amateur sports, just like in all amateur sports, there is a cutoff day that determines what age group a particular player plays with. That cutoff day for little league hockey in Canada is January 1. For example, if you are born on December 31, 2005, you play in an age group with all the players born from January 1-December 31 in 2005. If you are born on January 1, 2006, you play with all the kids born from January 1-December 31 of 2006. 
This cutoff day becomes very important because the person born on December 31 has to play against players who are up to one full year older than him. The person born on January 1 gets to play against kids who are up to one full year younger than him. 
In a child's early years a few days or months can make a huge difference in development, and a full extra year of development is a huge advantage. Even for two kids with identical predispositions for athleticism, the child born earlier with extra development time will likely be bigger and better than the child with less development time, especially during the first few years of their Little League athletic careers. 
These small differences in age and development become even MORE important when one considers that athletic ability is usually identified early in a child's life. Kids as young as 4 and 5 years old are placed on different athletic tracks based largely on these initial observations. 
For example, in Canadian amateur hockey kids at age 5 are either selected to play with the AAA league teams or AA league teams. Players in AAA have more practices, play more games, have better coaching, and face better competition than the AA players. After a few years of playing the players in AAA really are better than the players in AA because of superior training and more practice. After a decade of playing AA players cannot even compete with AAA players. 
Because of this system, the players born earlier in the year have a big advantage over players born later in the year because the older players have a precious few extra months to grow and develop in time for league selection at age 5. 
A similar dynamic exists in the world of amateur softball in America. For ASA softball a player's age on December 31 determines which age group they play in. So the cutoff date to play softball with the younger crop of kids, much like in Canadian amateur hockey, is January 1. Players born on January 1 are more likely to be bigger, faster, and have better athletic ability than players on their teams because they have had more time to develop. 
A child recognized as bigger and athletically superior compared to her peers is more likely to receive positive feedback from her peers about her athletic ability, and is more likely to be entered into the upper level leagues as she grows up (equivalents of Canadian AAA little league hockey). When that player reaches high school and college level she is more likely to be physically better than her peers because of the extra attention and development she received as a youngster. 
Now for the test! Most Team USA players have played softball at some level for their entire lives. There is a national organization governing most amateur softball in the US and it has a birthday cutoff date of January 1. Most Team USA players played ASA. Did birthdate and the ASA cutoff date have an effect on them earning a spot on the best softball team in the world? Does Gladwell's hypothesis hold true for Team USA? You be the judge; here are the birthdays of the players on the 2008 Olympic softball team: 
1. Monica Abbott: 7/28/1985
2. Laura Berg: 1/6/1975
3. Crystl Bustos: 9/8/1977
4. Andrea Duran: 4/12/1984
5. Jennie Finch 9/3/1980
6. Lisa Fernandez: 2/22/1971
7. Tairia Flowers: 1/9/1981
8. Vicky Galindo: 12/22/1983
9. Alicia Hollowell: 2/29/1984
10. Lovieanne Jung: 1/11/1980
11. Kelly Kretschman 8/26/1979
12. Lauren Lappin: 6/26/1984
13. Caitlin Lowe: 2/6/1985
14. Jessica Mendoza: 11/11/1980
15. Stavey Nuveman: 2/26/1978
16. Cat Osterman: 4/16/1978
17. Jenny Topping: 5/30/1980
18. Natasha Watley: 11/27/1981 
I think the answer is yes! 
If birthdate was not a factor, we would expect that on a team of 18 players 1.5 of them would, on average, be born in any given month. But that is definitely not the case here. Of the 18 players on Team USA 6 were born in January and February—fully 1/3 of the entire team is born in the first two months of the year! 
Plus there are only three players, Vicky Galindo, Jessica Mendoza, and Natasha Watley, who were born in November and December. Team USA has half the number of players born in the final two months of the year than would be expected based on averages. 
The players born in November and December are also some of the most athletically gifted players in the history of Olympic softball. So for them the effect of being several months younger than their peers may not have been as much of a factor. These players' natural ability showed through despite being born in two unfortunate months. 
It's also interesting that two of the "Big Three" in Olympic softball, Jennie Finch and Monica Abbott, have birthdays from later in the year (July and September). Much like the extremely athletic bunch from November and December, Finch and Abbott are very tall individuals and would have been recognized as having athletic promise early in their lives no matter what month they were born in.

But for players not as gifted athletically or at tall as these players, birth month may have been a factor in them being able to reach the highest levels of their sport. 
I think the results show that your birthdate plays an important factor in reaching your full potential as an athlete, and that being born earlier in the year does give you an athletic advantage over your peers. So if you are planning on creating the next generation of softball superstars, try to shoot for an early birthday! Read more.