Malcolm Gladwell was sitting in an icy arena, watching a Junior-level hockey game, when he stumbled upon the inspiration for “Outliers,’ his last book.
Between periods, Gladwell was glancing through the team rosters when he noticed an interesting statistic: almost three-quarters of the players each team were born in the first three months of the year.
How odd, he thought. At this level, players had essentially been playing high-level hockey, filtering through the ‘rep’ system, for at least a decade. They’d all been playing games away from home and moving from all-star team to all-star team for most of their life. Though still teenagers, some had NHL contracts, and all were among the tiny minority (about 1 in 10,000) who began the journey around age six and were still playing competitively.
In Canada, these players were daily features in local newspapers; their teams sold their jerseys; they headlined charity events. Surely, they couldn’t all have birthdays between January and March. What were the odds?
When he got home, Malcolm started poking around online, searching for team rosters from the OHL and WHL, and counting the numbers of players on each team who were born in the first quarter of the year. The further he dug, the more he found that the same scenario played out: at the higher levels of hockey (about age 17, or after the Junior draft cutoff) nearly 75% of all players were born in January, February, or March.
Gladwell took the study further, and found that the statistic held true even in the NHL, where 65% of the players registered through the NHLPA, or players’ union, were born before March 31. Why?
When you’re 25 years old, your physical attributes are roughly even with a twenty-six-year-old. That’s not the case when you’re seven. A child born in January 2005, for instance, is typically larger than a child born in December 2005 by December 31, 2011 – the cutoff date for registering a six-year-old to play hockey. Though both children would be the same age on December 31, the child born in January would be larger, on average, and have more refined motor skills than his December-born buddy.
By age 8, coaches will be seeking to single out the more ‘advanced’ kids, and routinely select the larger kids (primarily the early birthdays) to get more ice time, especially in high-pressure situations. The child with the January birthday will be more likely to be selected for Rep teams, where they’ll receive more one-on-one attention and better coaching. The parents of that child will be more likely to receive praise from other parents, and thereby be encouraged to enrol the child in off-season hockey and skating camps…and the cycle perpetuates itself all the way to the top.
This epiphany and publication by Malcolm Gladwell actually HELPS parents of later-born kids who believe that the hockey skills of their children are innate, and who fear that early success predicts future outcomes. Gladwell’s research suggests that their children just need more practice to catch up to the other players on their team, who have had a few extra months on skates. Malcolm posits the theory that practice time – and access to better coaching – is what really determines long-term success. That means there’s hope for ALL of us.
I read Outliers nearly three years ago, and though we act on Gladwell’s theories a little in our book on coaching (Enrichment Through Exercise,) Outliers always cheers me with its optimism.
And so, this morning, driving to work, listening to a boring statistician talk about ‘the best of the best,’ – the Hockey Hall of Fame – and how it actually proves Gladwell wrong, I immediately started defending Gladwell in my head. “You can ‘t use Hall of Fame statistics,” I sputtered, indignant, “because most players aren’t from the modern era. If only 4 players are voted in each year, the results are skewed toward antiquity, when the kids who had access to skates and leisure time more likely made the NHL…..”
Then I caught myself: I was defending Gladwell’s research because I WANTED it to be true. Not because of its relevance to me, personally (my lack of hockey prowess isn’t due to my December birthday.) Not because we believe in Mass Practice at Ignite!. I was defending Gladwell because I was committed to his STORY.
A story creates a picture in the brain called an engram. The more different sensory inputs involved in that engram (sights, tastes, sounds…,) the more complete the picture, and the stronger the memory. Your brain goes to great lengths to create these engrams, and gives them up only through struggle. You remember stories – and prefer their outcomes to facts – because you’re literally WIRED to remember this way.
Who was right – Malcolm Gladwell, or the statistician? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I wanted Gladwell to win.
Are you marketing with stories, or data? Are you telling people about Jane, who lost 10 pounds in OnRamp….or about Jane, who went straight from OnRamp to the store, her hair still wet from her shower, still wearing her running shoes, to buy a pair of jeans she hadn’t fit into for 20 years? Are you talking about John’s 425lbs deadlift and 75 consecutive pullups as he prepares for the Open….or about John, who trains hard because his brother is serving in Afghanistan, and can’t compete from his airbase?
Stories are sticky. Tell stories.
Share in the comments below some of the stories from your boxes? These stories should be on your website. Your clients are looking for an experience. Provide it for them.
This article was written by Chris Cooper.