The (Un)Love Triangle Between Travel Sports, School District Cutoffs & a Birthday

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school cutoff and sports

In the world of travel sports you often get exposed to more than you bargain for – the schedules, the money, the tryouts, the late nights, and of course, the travel (as duly noted right there in the name of the game).  And even though us travel parents may complain here and there, I’ll bet most of us don’t mind going the extra mile to see our kids involved in an activity that they love. I will say that I never quite expected that my daughter’s birthday and school district cutoff dates would effect participation in a travel softball team, but that’s exactly what happened this summer.   

No Christmas in July

I know it’s mid-summer, but can we talk about December for a minute? My daughter has a December birthday. December 25th in fact – because if you’re going to be a few weeks early, you might as well be born on the biggest holiday of the year. Even 11 years later, I still think it’s hilarious, but I’m glad that she absolutely loves it. Our school district has a December 1st cutoff, meaning that a child has to be five years old by December 1st in order to enter Kindergarten. As a late December 2007 baby, my daughter did not meet that criteria and needed to wait until the following year to enter Kindergarten. Except for the cost of an extra year in preschool, it was no big deal to be in a grade with 2008-born babies. It was all of 7 days, which made virtually zero difference in the scheme of things. That is – until the world of travel sports came upon us.

My daughter is 11 years old and just finished up 5th grade. To provide a little background on her sports journey, she started playing soccer in Pre-Kindergarten. By the end of 2nd grade they were already speaking travel sports, which was a foreign language as far as I was concerned! Tryouts were based on the calendar year and as a result, she would not be trying out with other 2nd graders. She would be trying out with girls born during the calendar year 2007. The majority of the babies were in 3rd grade already – except for those born in December due to the school cutoffs. She was in 2nd grade and trying out with girls who were in 3rd grade. Hmmm….that’s a bit of a disadvantage, no? If you are a grade ahead in school, you could have had another year of playing under your belt – so of course they had a leg up on my daughter already. She went for the tryouts and did not make the team. 

Simultaneously, she was playing her first season of softball and decided to call it a day on soccer at the ripe old age of 8. Sure she could have continued on with recreational soccer, but even at that young age, the interest and enrollment in recreation soccer dwindled as most girls were headed to travel teams. Luckily, softball has been a much better sport for her and has solely been playing this one sport consistently. She played through the fall and spring seasons, and winter clinics, as well as the 10U (A team!) travel teams last summer and last fall.  

The plans were to try to do the same this summer. Her date of birth had other plans, as the travel sports tryout rules read:

10U if you are 10 or younger on December 31, 2018.
12U if you are 12 or younger on December 31, 2018.

The 7 Day Itch

Crap. She was already 11 by December 31, 2018. She’s too old for 10U. By 7 days. Isn’t it supposed to be a blessing to born on Christmas?! As there was no 11U in this league, my daughter had to try out for the 12U team. A mere 7 days upped her to 12U and she had to try out with girls who could be a full 2 years older than her. Girls who are in 6th and 7th grade. Did I mention that due to the school cutoff, she was is in 5th grade? And therefore plays with 5th graders?

Here we are again. The December birthday coupled with school cutoffs is a detriment. She tried out for 12U and she did not make the team. The feedback was that she was not developmentally ready. Of course she’s not – she’s never played on that level! She is not in 6th grade and she doesn’t play with 6th and 7th graders. It’s a different game – the ball size is bigger and the distance from the mound is bigger. Again, if she made the school cutoff to begin with, she’d already be a grade ahead and playing with these older girls and may have increased her skills because she’d have one more year under her belt. If she were ahead in school, she’d already be playing at the higher grade level. Although she would have been on the younger side, she would have at least known the 12U game.

7 days too old for 10U and not ready for 12U. In the league she played in, she was the only one without a home. I asked around our league. I asked friends in other travel softball leagues. Come on – there has to be wiggle room? She was due to be born in January 2008 – does that help any? There was simply no wiggle room.  

I’m not an everyone gets a trophy type girl, but…here we are summer season and her spring teammates/friends are playing on an age appropriate 10U team. They are practicing, playing, gaining confidence, enhancing their skills and getting better – without the pressure of school work and homework and having to wake up at the crack of dawn for the school bus. All while my daughter is basically benched because she is 7 days too old.

The Matthew Effect

So when all else fails, I turn to Google for the scoop. I find a bunch of articles** and posts, including The “Matthew Effect”: The Impact of Birth Date on Baseball Success, which led me to Malcom Gladwell’s book “Outliers” where he speaks of environmental factors effecting success, such as relative age. The gist of the Matthew Effect, according to Gladwell and this article, is that within a few years, a slight age advantage turns into a significant ability gap – not because the players born in January or February were naturally better athletes than the December birthdays, but because they had greater opportunities.  

The cutoff dates of a league can simply determine success in a sport – here’s why: The travel sports teams take the best, even starting at a young age. They are viewed as the most talented and coordinated. The travel sports teams get better coaching and the teammates are better. The travel player plays 50 to 75 games a season, as opposed to those left behind in the “house” or recreation leagues who play far less. The travel player practices more too. Within a few years the benefits of extra coaching and all that practice, that travel team player really is better and more likely to keep making the teams.

An example Gladwell uses is in reference to an elite group of hockey players where 40% of all the players were born between January and March. The rest scattered throughout the year, but only 10% between October and December. As the cutoff for hockey is January 1st, you’ll have a January 2nd born player in the same league as someone born on December 10th. As the January 2nd player is almost a full year older, he/she gets “picked” for those travel sports opportunities at a very young age more often because they were seen “better” because they were bigger and stronger.

This trend has been shown in other sports, particularly in American baseball (July 31st cutoff) and English Soccer (September 1st cutoff). Players born closest to the day after the cutoff date are the most likely to reach the highest level of competition into adulthood, not just in youth sports, because of the Matthew effect. Starting a sport early can have a huge impact on future performance, but really only if a player is born shortly after the cutoff date for the league. This shows that the results are similar. Those born right before that end cutoff date clearly have disadvantages. Although I know this isn’t an end-all-be-all, the numbers don’t lie. 

This phenomenon of relative age is fascinating and relates to what my daughter could be starting to experience. December babies are in a disadvantaged position. The kicker for my girl is that her disadvantage is heightened due to our school cutoff, as she is a full school year behind the other girls born the same 2007 calendar year. And as a result, she is simply not on the same level sports-wise because she does not play the other 2007 born girls. These girls might also have an extra year of playing experience. But these are the girls she needs to try out with/against?  Why yes! Because that make a whole lotta sense. She is in a grade with 2008 born girls, as per school cutoffs, and plays sports with these 2008 born girls, as per recreation team rules, but needs to compete with the older girls for the travel team. 

Nope, Not Over It

Yeah, yeah, yeah….life isn’t fair, hard lessons to learn. Get over it. There has to be a cutoff somewhere.

Bleh. I don’t want to hear it this time. 

After the tryouts for summer, I had conversations with the league representatives. Overall the response was, “Yea, it sucksm” or “It happened to my son too.”  Um, I don’t care. Fix it. Go to bat for them – pun intended. What the league doesn’t see is the girl and how it affects her as an individual player.  What they don’t see is what this can do to her confidence, interest, motivation, and not to mention the potential of lost playing time – reality being that the only thing she really has against her is that she was born 7 days too early.  

The recommendation was to have her practice more to improve enough to make that 12U team for the fall. OK – sure! Easy peasy. But wait – how and where? Because there is no place for her to play for a league she’s been playing with for four years. Totally thinking with my heart on my sleeve here, but can’t help feeling some disappointment and lack of support from her current recreation league. Would they rather lose a player down the road instead of supporting her, even a bit more?  

Full disclosure is that they offered my daughter the opportunity to “practice” with the travel team, as practices aren’t “formal” nor dictated by the travel team organization. Not ideal, but my husband and I encouraged her to accept this offer. Ultimately she declined. Forcing was not an option. There was nothing we could do or say to convince her – and we went elsewhere for a summer clinic and luckily she was offered 12U travel opportunity with another town.

Two Strikes Against Her

August is here and tryouts for the upcoming fall travel sports season are fast approaching. The scenario will be exactly the same. Sure, we could explore the other travel league again, but I have a hard time believing that this is how it has to be. And if she doesn’t make travel 12U here, there’s always recreation, but let’s not forget what Gladwell says about what potentially happens there.   

Not only does she have the relative age thing against her – she has the school cutoff thing too! Is she good enough to play for the long term? I don’t know. Next year she will be going out again for the 12U, but this time with her friends, schoolmates and fellow teammates who were on the 10U team this year (those 2008 babies). They’ll be on even playing field then, right? And if she doesn’t make it it’s because of her skills. True – to some extent. Because let’s not forget about the extra playing time her friends have on her due to their further travel experiences.

Although it wouldn’t be a benefit to my daughter, but maybe the recreation league for a certain sport should at least match the same cutoffs as the associated travel league they play in. Or at least if school years matched? December babies get screwed. Aged down for school. Aged up for sports. Pick one universe. You don’t get both.

Please don’t take my story as one where I’m trying to portray my daughter as a superstar. She’s not. She’s good, she’s strong, has passion – but has plenty to learn. But good enough for that 10U travel team she’s 7 days too old for? Absolutely. 


Further articles about Relative Age and Sports:

Birthday Bias: Understanding relative age effect in youth hockey

Why Many Olympic Athletes Have Early Birthdays

Relative Age Effect: Is when you are born more important than how good you will be?

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Melissa is a Bronx native who moved to Westchester County after she and her high school sweetheart got hitched in 1997. She and her husband live in Mount Kisco with their son Corey (2004) and daughter Mia (2007). Melissa spent many years working in Human Resources and currently works in enrollment and marketing for a child care organization. Melissa is a two-time survivor of Postpartum OCD. She initially became interested in writing to raise awareness for perinatal mood and anxiety disorders but has discovered that writing is a newfound aspect of her life that she thoroughly enjoys. Melissa is excited to write with the Westchester County Mom team and hopes you’ll enjoy her stories of the trials and tribulations of a born-n-raised city girl raising teenagers growing up here in Westchester.