The North Harbour Rugby Union are right to remove junior rep rugby but I am not sure that they fully understand the reason why or that they are potentially on the cusp of something very good – maybe even society changing.

In his brilliant book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell describes “The Matthew Effect” something that is frighteningly alive and well in New Zealand sport and just as alive and detrimental in New Zealand schools – in academics, the arts and sports. Gladwell writes about a pattern in Canadian Ice Hockey; “in any elite group of hockey players – the very best of the best – 40 percent of the players will have been born between January and March, 30 percent between April and June, 20 percent between July and September, and 10 percent between October and December.” Why? The deep reason is that this is a result of fixed mind-set, “gifted” ability, type thinking. It comes from scouts/coaches/teachers thinking that their job is to discover “talent” as opposed to develop ability in every young person.

In practical terms what was happening in Canada? The cut-off date for annual rep-hockey selections was January 1 and rep teams started being selected at around 9 – 10 years of age. Those selected were, as a pattern, bigger and more co-ordinated – traits that were strongly correlated to being up to 12 months older. What then happened was that these players then got the best coaching, had many hours more of high intensity training and game time … and became better. The effects on the following years are obvious.

With Rugby in New Zealand the main issue may not be birthdays per se but, due to the physical contact nature of the key contests within the sport, early maturation has the huge effect. With the same follow on effects as specified above for hockey. North Harbour say their focus is on participation and it sounds like on of those “let’s not keep the score” moments. They would be better to promote the change as the very best means to develop a much wider group of young people through providing high quality coaching and late season opportunities for all and to genuinely develop those that grow later. This may not please a small group of parents living vicariously through their children but no important change will be without detractors.

There is a huge issue highlighted here that New Zealand schools (as well as other sporting organisations) should address to improve broad outcomes also. Many children come to school ahead of others – a situation that has very little to do with natural ability (gifts) but is through early environmental advantages. As schools are supposed to have a “gifted” programme – guess who generally gets into those.

As Gladwell states – processes based on clear selection bias result in a very unjust “differentiated experience”. He states: “If you make a decision about who is good and who is not good at an early age; if you separate the ‘talented’ from the ‘untalented’: and if you provide the ‘talented’ with a superior experience, then you’re going to end up giving a huge advantage to that small group of people.”

We also need to reconsider what we mean by a “good” teacher, coach, school, or sporting organisation. Their key role is developing the ability of each young person. The traditional process of “talent identification” should be a thing of the past. Stick to your guns David Gibson and the North Harbour Union.


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