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Outliers and Outfielders

Practice makes perfect — or does it? Serious youth athletes spend countless hours honing their skills on the field, while their parents juggle their lives to find the time to shuttle their kids to practices and tournaments. It all seemingly comes down to just that: in a word, time.

But what if one of the main factors of athletic success for your child is hinged on one time factor that parents have little control over: the time your child is born. Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell suggests that a young athlete’s birthdate can mean the difference between a brilliant youth sports career and one spent in the shadows.

In his 2008 book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Gladwell questions why some people succeed — and he points to a child’s birthdate as an advantage, particularly for future athletes. Citing the roster of a Canadian junior hockey team (considered to be the most competitive grouping of teenage hockey talent in the galaxy), Gladwell notes that 17 of the 25 players were born in one of four months — January, February, March or April. Why is that important? Because, asserts Gladwell, it shows that these phenoms aren’t phenoms just because they splashed around in some superhuman gene pool. Instead, it suggests that because their birthdate just so happened to come right after hockey league registration, these players got up to an 11-month head start on other teammates and opponents.

Does this sound familiar? Starting around the age of 10, kids who have this head start prove to be the best and brightest in their field of play thanks to their advanced physical maturity. Parents and coaches take note. Then it begins … these players are encouraged to play in select leagues (or All-Stars or club or whatever the best league is called in your area). Here, they receive the best coaching, the best equipment, the best tournaments against the best competition and the most practice time. Is it any coincidence that by the time they’re in their late teens (the age they are scouted by collegiate coaches), these kids have an upper hand? Sure, they had to be skilled young players to advance this far, but the luck of a birthday truly set them up for later success.

Texas Christian University Division I women’s soccer head coach Dan Abdalla, like every collegiate soccer coach in the nation, understands how important club soccer is to recruiting. “We certainly visit high school soccer teams to check out a particular recruit, but at a good club tournament, we can look at a dozen kids in a couple of days. Club soccer, especially in the North Texas area, is a fantastic and very serious business.”

The birthdate advantage is something Abdalla takes seriously. “Do I think some parents hold their kids back to gain an athletic advantage down the road? Absolutely,” he says. “I’ve actually never looked at our roster to draw any conclusions about the line between birthdates and performance, but I’d imagine every collegiate team has its share of kids who dominated their club teams at early ages because of their early physical superiority.”

Many parents in the Dallas area have already committed to memory registration dates and how their young future star fits into that picture. Some of the more skeptical among us believe that every parent of a select athlete plans out some diabolical scheme when their kids are still in diapers to manipulate the system perfectly so their bundles of joy someday can win a Heisman. However, like many aspects of select sports, fact and fiction have a way of getting confused.

Should they stay or should they go? Many parents grapple with this question when it comes to athletics and academics. A 4-year-old with a June birthday could spend a year in pre-kindergarten and then be nearly a year older than many of his classmates in kindergarten. If you assume Gladwell’s theory and fast forward 10 years, this same child would have a better-than-average shot at excelling in the classroom and on the athletic fields. For parents, it’s no easy decision.

“[Our son’s] birthday allowed us to hold him back a year,” says Lisa Paltry, mom of a 12-year-old shortstop for a select baseball team in North Texas. “He’s always been more physically mature than most of the kids on his team. You can see the difference it’s made for his overall confidence and performance.”

Pete Pilling, dad of a 14-year-old catcher, counters, “We didn’t pull the trigger [on keeping his son behind]. He was ready physically and mentally, so we didn’t hold him back.”

Many parents, like Bob Sanders, agree that holding athletes back isn’t necessarily the best plan of action. “You know what, I could have held him back a year and he would have dominated his league, but I decided to let him play with the bigger kids, and he’s done just fine,” says Sanders, the parent of an 11-year-old select baseball player.

“I don’t think it (age) makes a big difference, or at least it hasn’t for my daughter,” concurs Lisa O’Neill, mother of a 16-year-old aspiring club soccer midfielder in the Metroplex. “If I did have the chance to hold her back … I’m not sure what I’d do. I probably would have just judged it by where she was from a maturity standpoint and go from there. I can’t imagine it’s an exact science.”

Pepper Hastings, a vice president with the Flower Mound Youth Sports Association and the head of Flower Mound’s nationally respected select baseball organization, adds, “My job is to give parents the proper perspective out here. You have to save a lot of folks from themselves. We can save coaches from practicing too often by closing the fields certain times of the year. We can save parents from spending money on private lessons. Every 9-year-old kid doesn’t need a private pitching and hitting coach. What they really need is for their parent to spend 15 minutes a night playing catch with them.”

TCU’s Abdalla has produced a quality program in a short period of time in Fort Worth, highlighted by notching a school record for wins last season. But with only a handful of student-athletes on full scholarships, he knows the mounds of cash being paid for private instruction and tournament fees aren’t typically rewarded — financially, anyway.

“Parents in this area are so passionate about their kids, so invested in so many ways in their success,” Abdalla says. “But if they’re going into it assuming that a full scholarship is coming their way at the end, they’re mistaken about 99 percent of the time.”

Hastings agrees.

“There are several pervasive myths about select baseball,” Hastings says. “Myth No. 1 is that your investment in private lessons will get paid back with a full ride to college or a Major League contract. Of course, 99.9 percent of the time, that’s not going to happen. Myth No. 2 is that you’re going to win a national championship. There aren’t any national championships. There are plenty of really good tournaments, but there’s not a national title trophy out there to claim.”

“Another myth is that the coach’s son is always the star because he’s the coach’s son,” Hastings continues. “Well, that’s actually true, but not because the coach is playing favorites. It’s because the coach has invested serious time and energy and spends a lot of time with his son working on his skills. What’s wrong with that? It’s really no surprise his son turns into a good player because his dad is the coach.”

That’s not to say that moms can’t groom a young star as well. Jeana Long is a single mom who works 40-plus hours Monday through Friday and then spends most weekends at select tournaments cheering on her 11-year-old son. While her schedule is something out of a horror movie, the end results make it worthwhile.

“He’s playing with his friends and having a blast playing in all these tournaments,” she says. “I do whatever I can to put him in the best position to have success. If that means that I work behind the scenes setting up all the tournaments and doing all the dirty work so the coaches can coach, then so be it. If that means playing catch in the backyard, great.”

Regardless of what Outliers says about childen’s athletic success, any story about select sports begins and ends with the parents. Whether they’re heroes or villains, parents write the story.
“It’s all about time. When your child plays select, you know it’s going to be time consuming. But I had no idea it would be this time consuming,” Long says. “Our team actually built its own practice field so we practice whenever we want, which is often. Although we don’t play in a league, we play in tournaments all the time, and those are some really long days. We all do it for the right reasons, and I’ll continue to do it as long as my son is having fun.”

Hastings adds, “We’re here to prepare kids for the next level. You want to prepare each age group to take the next step. It’s not about winning, although that’s hard for many folks to hear. It’s about getting them ready for what’s next.”

And what did Hastings do with his own son when it came to deciding on holding him back? He’s a rarity indeed. He plays his son against kids who are older. “I figured that him having an older brother was worth a year of experience. Sure, he would probably do even better playing with kids his own age, but he’s not over his head, and I would never let him get in over his head. I didn’t lay out some diabolical plan for him. It’s just happened that way. He’s having fun with his friends, and that’s what this is all about in the first place."