In his best-selling book “Outliers,” author Malcolm Gladwell examines the relationship between elite Canadian hockey players and the disproportionate likelihood of their birthdays coming in January, February or March.
The reason, he concludes, is not a coincidence.
In Canada, hockey eligibility is determined by calendar year. Therefore, kids born earlier will play alongside those born in November or December, and with several more months of maturity under their belt, are generally bigger, faster and stronger.
While the talent distribution is a crapshoot, the extra coaching and attention paid to the older kids compounds each year and goes a long way in determining success.
In the local boys basketball scene, studies like this have not been lost. It’s undeniable that an extra year of maturity for a rapidly developing adolescent will lead to physical advantages.
The cutoff age for schooling in Arizona is Sept. 1, and with this fact in mind, some parents will hold their child back from the outset.
“Without question, the best thing to do is keep your kid back as long as possible,” Mesa boys basketball coach Shane Burcar said.
Not all parents are aware of this from the start, but it comes up again later for those with gifted athletes.
The practice of reclassifying a player during high school became more popular in the past half-decade, as standouts such as Micah Fetters of Hamilton and Desmond Medder and D.J. Henderson at Mesa sat for a year.
Members of the Arizona Interscholastic Association didn’t like this trend and, on March 2, 2012, changed the wording in bylaw 15.9 so student-athletes could not sit for a school year and still retain four years of eligibility.
“The concern was, ‘What is the purpose of high school sports?’” said Chuck Schmidt, assistant executive director of the AIA. “The members brought that forward to, I think, maintain the educational philosophy of high school athletics... You couldn’t just sit out because you wanted another year to mature or grow.”
So now, the trend happens earlier.
There are various ways in which kids can repeat a grade. They can stay at the same school, get home-schooled, sit out completely, or transfer.
Principals are catching on now, and since it is up to their discretion, athletes without academic risk have a tougher time staying in the same grade twice at the same school.
Jackrabbits shooting guard Christian Harris was young for his age after initially skipping kindergarten, and when he showed some basketball promise, it was decided that he would remain in eighth grade twice.
He went to Desert Ridge Junior High in 2008-09 and then transferred to Taylor Junior High in 2009-10.
“At first it was like, ‘Nah, I’d rather just stay with my friends,’” Harris said. “But then my parents mentioned basketball and more opportunities. I thought about the future and we decided to make the decision.”
While the physical gains are tough to argue, there is the worry of the social impact on those held back. Once word spreads about a kid repeating a grade, a stigma can attach.