5-year-old outliers

What I learned coaching my first youth soccer match

Soccer practice was canceled this week in the aftermath of torrential downpours. The fields were soaked. That means we had just one chaotic meeting before our first gameSaturday.

I’ll admit, I was nervous.

The morning arrived and I woke Clara up and dragged her out of bed. I put her shin guards on over her socks, which I later found out was the improper method.

We drove 11 minutes to St. John’s the Evangelist. I don’t have a lot of experience with youth sports, and I’ve never seen so many fields filled with kids and spectators.

I made my way over to the U6 fields and tracked down the coach from the other team. It was his first game ever too. He apologized that his team had “only” three practices so far and was still figuring things out.

After some confusion over which was Field A and which was Field B, we lined up our five starters at midfield.

The coaches doubled as refs, so as the game (match?) got underway I mentally reviewed anything I could remember from previous World Cups I watched. Pretty much all I recalled was posting #USA! memes on Twitter.

About 30 seconds in, I realized I didn’t have much to worry about. That’s when one of the kids on our team expertly stole the ball from the other team, dribbled down the field, and easily kicked in a goal.
Then they did it again. And again. And again.

Suddenly, this was going too well, even after we rotated in all of our players in different combinations. I was feeling bad for the other team.

I jogged up to the other coach after it was quickly 5–0 and told him we would play down one player to try to even things out.

When it was 8–0 the other team finally got on the board — one of our players accidentally kicked it into our own goal. I don’t think they were used to having the ball on our side of the field.

As official timekeeper, I took a few minutes off the 10-minute quarters in the second half. I made calls to get the ball to the other team as much as possible.

When the dust settled and my iPhone timer went off for the final time, we had our first victory in the books by a wide margin. Final score: 12–2.

It wasn’t until after the game that I found out that our team was actually a year older than the other team, which was a 4K squad.

Suddenly, it all made sense — the size of our kids and their advanced skill level. I realized that some of our players pretty much towered over everyone like a redwood forest.

I thought of the chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers where he talks about the Relative Age Effect and its outsized influence in youth sports:

Consider this: Two-thirds of Canada’s pro hockey players were born in January or February. The same holds true in college and high-school all-star teams. It turns out that youth leagues in Canada organize kids by age, based on the calendar year. Children born in the first two months of the year are inevitably larger and more coordinated than teammates six to 10 months younger. So they get more ice time, more coaching, and more chances to excel.

So let’s recap. I barely know how to coach, we’ve only practiced once as a team, and I don’t even know how to properly put on shin guards. And yet, our team DOMINATED our opponents.

I don’t mean to diminish the skills and hustle of the kids on our team, because some have clearly put a lot of work into becoming quality soccer players. But there was something else at play on this day.

As they ate their orange slices and reveled in their victory, I don’t know if our kids learned a lesson. But I certainly did.

With U6 soccer, as in life, a lot still comes down to the lottery of birth and the luck of the draw.

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