I am a nerd.
It is my curse that I am obsessed with meaningless statistics. I could literally reading league and team financial statements for weeks on end until I had all the information memorized. I have a folder on my computer called ‘To Read’ that contains nothing but articles on the Australian sports industry – it’s almost like a sickness. So you can imagine how ecstatic I was when I found out that no one had looked at AFL players birthdays yet.
Let me explain.
I recently read a book called ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ by Malcolm Gladwell (mind-boggling, at some points – check it out if you like to be mentally challenged) and he talks about sports where the majority of the players are born at a certain time of year. It started with elite hockey teams in Canada, when someone realized that most of the players were born in January. But it’s also true for baseball players in the USA (who are mainly born in August) and soccer (I’m sorry, football) players in South America. Of course I had to know if it were true for the AFL and I started at my favorite starting point: the Sydney Swans and GWS Giants.
Gladwell explains that the reason for the discrepancy starts during childhood. There is an age cutoff at a certain time of year (usually coinciding with the beginning or end of a school year) when children are allowed to play for a specific team (in the case of AFL, the under 9s, under 12s, etc). Therefore, those who are born immediately following the cutoff date will be the older, bigger and stronger ones the following year. They won’t have MUCH of an advantage, but it will be noticeable enough to be chosen over those who are 11 months younger. As a result, these children get more attention and more practice, which makes them even better players who are then chosen for even more competitive leagues. This cycle continues until they are old enough to be drafted into the professional league. Understand?
I thought this was interesting because people always want to attribute it to talent… but maybe not? Maybe it’s this completely arbitrary factor. Wouldn’t that be amazing?
So in Australia, the cutoff is (I believe) 31 Dec. Therefore, the kids born in January are considered the better players. I guessed that this would result in most AFL players being born in January, like in Canadian hockey (or at least in the first few months of the year).
They weren’t that impressive. I analysed four sets: The current GWS Giants, the current Sydney Swans, all previous Swans players (since the 1980 season), and all current AFL players. The numbers are below. The first sets show the break down by month, the second show the break down by quarter and the thrd shows the break down by halves of the year.
|GWS Giants||Sydney Swans||Swans from 1980||All Current AFL Players|
|1st Quar||14||1st Quar||17||1st Quar||97||1st Quar||163|
|1st half||30||1st half||29||1st half||181||1st half||390|
As you can see… there’s a slight difference – more players are clearly born at the start of the year for the individual teams. But once the pool gets bigger (in columns 3 and 4), it pretty much evens out. That’s kind of depressing. I wanted to find something amazing! It is noteworthy that there are hardly any players born in November and December… although October tends to be a toss up. What does this mean? Not very much… but if I were a recruiter, I wouldn’t waste my time on a player born in November or December unless I heard he had wings. Odds are, he’s not that great
There’s only one thing I can think of that can cause these results: access to play. This is the reason from Gladwell about why this isn’t true for basketball players in the USA – you can access the resources needed to increase skills at any time, and at low cost (comparatively). It is easier to grab a basketball and go down to one of the many courts, than it is to buy skates, pads and helmet and access one of the few skating rinks that is set up with a goal. The same applies for AFL, as I see it. It is not difficult to get a ball (even if it’s not a Sherrin – you can get a decent one) and walk to a field, which are all over the place in Australia. Hell, you don’t even need a field. I’ve seen boys practice by trying to kick through a door in the house – over and over and over – to practice their aim (you know who you are!). It is interesting, though, about the very few players are born in the last two months of the year. That can be attributed to the initial theory.
I think I’m going to look at all the Brownlow and Coleman Medalists (and maybe runners-up?)… that should be an interesting comparison. Maybe the All-Australian team and Rising Star noms/winners? Is it weird that this is actually exciting? I’ll probably get it done tonight.
What do you think? Are you surprised? Or are you a November-baby and lamenting that you’ll probably not make it to the big leagues?