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Study: No Athletic Differences Between Boys and Girls at Certain Ages

Before the onset of puberty, male and female youth athletes appear to have no significant difference in their athletic performance at certain ages, a new study suggests.

The study examined data from USA Swimming of the best 50-yard freestyle performances for 1,193,362 male and female athletes, ages 6-19, from 2005-2010. The two researchers, Joel M. Stager of Indiana University and Andrew C. Cornett of Eastern Michigan University, created 168 separate "performance distributions" based on age, sex, and year of competition, and analyzed the "location parameter," which they defined as the median value from the distribution.

Based on the location parameters they created, the two researchers discovered no significant difference in the location parameters between boys and girls ages 6-7 and 11-12. Boys ages 8-9 and 13-19 had a significantly lower location parameter (meaning that their time completing the 50-yard freestyle was faster) than their female counterparts.

"The marked acceleration in height, weight, and strength in boys beginning around 13 years magnifies the relatively small preadolescent sex differences," the researchers wrote.

Previous research suggests that boys hold a slight performance advantage throughout childhood, with the advantage increasing linearly with age. In other words: The older boys get, the larger their average athletic advantage over girls became, according to the prevailing thoughts in the field.

In fact, a 2012 study cited by Stager and Cornett suggested, based on the performances of the top 100 swimmers of both sexes, found boys to be superior to girls at the ages of 11 and 12.

That makes this study's finding about the lack of performance differences between 11- and 12-year-old boys and girls that much more novel, the researchers wrote. The discrepancies in the two studies' findings, they suggest, could have stemmed from the other study examining only elite athletes of both genders, while the newer study used data from all male and female swimmers.

"It is likely that [the other] results are influenced by the maturational timing of the elite athlete to a greater extent than are ours," the report said.

Stager and Cornett say that the role maturational timing plays in the development of younger athletes remains to be determined.

"Additional research is needed to determine whether or not the superior performance of boys relative to girls relates to physiological parameters or sex differences in participation and selection bias," they conclude.

The two researchers presented their findings yesterday in San Francisco.

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