Relative Age Effects Across and Within Female Sport Contexts: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

Sports Med. 2018 Jun;48(6):1451-1478. doi: 10.1007/s40279-018-0890-8.


Background: Subtle differences in chronological age within sport (bi-) annual-age groupings can contribute to immediate participation and long-term attainment discrepancies; known as the relative age effect. Voluminous studies have examined relative age effects in male sport; however, their prevalence and context-specific magnitude in female sport remain undetermined.

Objective: The objective of this study was to determine the prevalence and magnitude of relative age effects in female sport via examination of published data spanning 1984-2016.

Methods: Registered with PROSPERO (No. 42016053497) and using Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-analysis systematic search guidelines, 57 studies were identified, containing 308 independent samples across 25 sports. Distribution data were synthesised using odds ratio meta-analyses, applying an invariance random-effects model. Follow-up subgroup category analyses examined whether relative age effect magnitudes were moderated by age group, competition level, sport type, sport context and study quality.

Results: When comparing the relatively oldest (quartile 1) vs. youngest (quartile 4) individuals across all female sport contexts, the overall pooled estimate identified a significant but small relative age effect (odds ratio = 1.25; 95% confidence interval 1.21-1.30; p = 0.01; odds ratio adjusted = 1.21). Subgroup analyses revealed the relative age effect magnitude was higher in pre-adolescent (≤ 11 years) and adolescent (12-14 years) age groups and at higher competition levels. Relative age effect magnitudes were higher in team-based and individual sport contexts associated with high physiological demands.

Conclusion: The findings highlight relative age effects are prevalent across the female sport contexts examined. Relative age effect magnitude is moderated by interactions between developmental stages, competition level and sport context demands. Modifications to sport policy, organisational and athlete development system structure, as well as practitioner intervention are recommended to prevent relative age effect-related participation and longer term attainment inequalities.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Distribution
  • Age Factors*
  • Australia
  • Exercise*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Physical Education and Training
  • Sports*