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Maybe the World Cup Wasn’t the Best Example

In our recent New York Times column, we talked about what makes people good at what they do.

As one example, we conjectured (based on some academic work done by others) that people born in the early months of the year would be overrepresented on World Cup rosters. The underlying theory is that in 1997, FIFA made January 1 the cutoff for determining ages in all international soccer competitions. If this rule had an important impact in determining who made the national youth soccer teams, then these early selection rules would play out to more long run success at the highest levels of soccer. The academic evidence is that these national teams are overwhelmingly made up of players born early in the calendar year, even on the age 21 and under teams, where a few months of physical development isn’t likely to make a big difference. A commenter on our blog, Bill Loyd, has done some hard work to gather data and argues that for past World Cups and for a few of the 2006 squads that he found, he doesn’t see the pattern we predict.

Why might this be the case? For the earlier World Cups, it might not be very surprising that no pattern is there because the FIFA rule didn’t come in until 1997. More fundamentally, the FIFA selection rules and the rules that different countries use for play within the county differ.

For instance, as many readers have emailed us, in the U.S., the age cutoffs tend to be in the summer. In Germany, the within country age cutoff is August 1. Thus, in soccer there are two different competitive pressures at work: one pushing towards more players born in the early months and the other towards more players in the later months. Much of the study of birth-date timing focuses on the cutoff rules within countries, virtually all of them finding important effects.

In light of this difference between FIFA and country rules, the example we gave of the World Cup might not have been the best one, even though the age effect is very strong in the national youth squads that feed many World Cup teams.

This shouldn’t distract from the important fact that the evidence in the literature overwhelming supports the basic point — that across many activities, you can identify long-term effects of essentially arbitrary age cutoffs early in life.

Perhaps a better example than the World Cup would have been the N.H.L. Here is one graph that I found on the web of the birth month of NHL hockey players versus Canadians and Americans more generally:

The black-and-white dots are the NHL players, who are much more likely to be born in January and February and much less likely to be born September-December. This is the sort of pattern that appears over and over in these sorts of studies.

Some other readers have offered a clever, very Freakonomics-y alternative explanation for these age patterns: the parents are lying about their child’s birthday. If the parents want the kid to be a star, they take an older kid and change his date of birth to make him eligible to play with younger children. While I don’t think this is actually the primary reason for what people find in these studies, is definitely worth thinking about.