Friday, February 6, 2009

More Gladwell (spoiler: he's wrong)

[This originally appeared in the "Committed Indian", the unofficial Chicago Blackhawks program...]

If you've got a friend in business - sales guy, MBA, doesn't matter - you've probably heard him talk about Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell writes books about unintuitive things: his 2005 book Blink, was, if I recall correctly, about how thinking too hard on the job causes people to make more mistakes. Some of you might remember that line of thinking from Bull Durham. At any rate, Gladwell's most recent book, Outliers, is about how success is a combination of both talent and surprisingly more opportunity than we expected.

One outlier he identifies is the distribution of NHL players' birthdates: for decades, NHL players have been twice as likely to be born in the first three months of the year than in the last three. The reason why is fairly obvious - because little kids are divided into teams on the basis of what year they were born, the kids born earlier in the year are, on average, bigger and stronger and have almost an extra year of development. So they're the most likely to get picked by coaches focused on having the best team over the new few months. That leads to better coaching and competition and ultimately being more likely to get picked for a better team the next year.

This effect continues all the way through Junior hockey and the NHL, where the ratios of Q1 to Q4 birthdates are 3:1 and 2:1, respectively. Gladwell suggests that a lot of hockey talent is being squandered because professional players only started out a little bit better when they were kids but benefited tremendously from better coaching and competition. In an interview with ESPN, Gladwell said he suggested to officials from the Canadian national junior hockey team that they start a parallel league for kids born in the second half of the year, which would conceivably result in 150 additional NHL players if they equalized the first and second half birthdates. The officials supposedly told him it was "too complicated."

So splitting youth hockey into two leagues is too complicated even if it increases the number of players these leagues graduate to the NHL by 30%? If only it were so simple. The ratio of early-to-late birthdays is much higher in junior hockey than it is in the NHL, and so while the player development process may favor the older players from age 5-18, the jump from junior hockey to the NHL actually favors players born later in the year.

It's not surprising either - a player like Patrick Kane, who was born at the end of December, suddenly gained an extra year of development compared to a player who was born in January of the same year. And, after all those years playing in leagues where coaches were only concerned with how good you were going to be this season, the NHL is really only concerned with how good you're going to be at your best, which is usually when you're in your early-to-mid-20s. Even without the extra season, if you have two players with identical statistics in junior hockey, the December player projects to score 50% more points in the NHL than the player born in January, largely because he's put up those points against competition that's relatively bigger and stronger than he is.

Now remember that we're talking about all NHL players, including anyone who plays in even just one game. If we only look at former Canadian junior players who were in the top sixth in NHL scoring, which was anyone with 42 points or more last year, the ratio of early-to-late birthday players over the last decade is about 1.20:1. If we managed to equalize these two groups over the course of the next 25 or 30 years, that would ultimately add about seven Canadian players to the top sixth of the league. That's nothing to sneeze at, but it's not as if, as Gladwell suggested, we're "squandering the talents of hundreds of boys with late birthdays" by not doing so. It turns out that the group where players with early birthdays are most over-represented is the league leaders in penalty minutes per game, and I can't see anyone getting up in arms about whether some kid's December birthday kept him from becoming the next Ogie Ogilthorpe.

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While I don't disagree with your points, I have lived what Gladwell describes in the book (I got the book for Christmas and finished it before New Years, it was compelling).

I have a early July birthday (10th) and the cutoff date for my youth hockey was July 1st. I went to kindergarten from pre-school "early" so I was always the young one in my class. I always was able to play up usually despite my small size until we got near high school, when a two years of playing at my own age level kinda slowed down my growth as a player (to me at least).

Looking back, if my parents had held me back for another year of pre-school, I would have definitely been a different player at my peak during high school. I matured very much my freshman year of college, which would have been my senior year of high school.

Either way, I don't think your title is exactly fitting (spoiler: he's wrong). He is right in that many late-in-the-year birthdays sometimes get robbed of their potential.
Gladwell claims that the system is "squandering the talents of hundreds of boys with late birthdays." You say "He is right in that many late-in-the-year birthdays sometimes get robbed of their potential."

The point here is to quantify "many" and "sometimes". Gladwell focused on all players, including marginal ones. My estimate is that equalizing birthdays would result in six or seven additional Canadian NHL stars (in the top 6th of NHL scoring). It's not unreasonable to assume a 12-14-year career for such players - so we're losing one player every two years due to the late birthday effect. It is certainly not enough to justify Gladwell's suggestion of operating two different leagues.

There are other places where a much smaller investment or recruitment effort develop one more hockey star every other year.
This is a pretty small nitpick you are making Hawerchuck. The convincing argument that Gladwell makes (or steals or whatever) is that if two identical boys are born one on Jan1, and one on Dec1 of the same year, that the one born in Jan has substantially higher odds of reaching major junior hockey. I don't think he is "wrong" here.

And I think that when you are looking at the probability of late birthdays making the NHL, this is given the probability that they have already made it to the top junior level. They have already had the stacks dealt against them so we already know they must be pretty talented. You still need to account for those talents that did NOT make it to the top junior level which may be to them being denied at age 8 or whatever for being too small.

I would think that at every level jump there are players with better potential getting cut over worse players that are older, so you really can't figure out how many there "should" be without fixing the problem where it started. I think that Gladwell's idea (again probably stolen from somewhere) of having separate streams (2/3 or even 4) is definitely the right approach to try and develop the best talent.
I don't think it's a small nitpick at all. Gladwell makes the mistake of considering all NHL to be equal, but it's clear that the bias is way more pronounced against marginal NHL players, while the best players make it anyways.

That bias affects, unfortunately, 99.99% of all hockey players, but the point is that the benefits to the NHL of equalizing early and late birthdays are minimal. Which one gives you more bang for the buck? Spending money on scouting, minor-league player development or on splitting youth leagues by birthday? The answer is nowhere near as clear as Gladwell suggests.
I read Outliers recently and though it was quite interesting. Your comments on the maturity of the players born later in the year is a great find, good dig. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it. I've got a young son born in March and if he were ever lucky enough to have some skill I think that the size of his heart/grit and determination will go a lot further than what Month he was born in. Still...when I read Gladwell I did have a little smile creep in (he's a March baby).

Bruce -> The Hockey Writers
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