Have Competitive Age Categories in Archery Outlived Their Usefulness?

I can’t find out when they began but age and gender classifications for competitions between young archers have been with us for almost a century at the least. The question I have is: Is there a better system of youth competitive categories? Obviously I have some concerns about the present system, so let’s look at these first.

Problems? What Problems?
Sometimes I think maybe I am the only one who spends time thinking about these things, but it is probably a sign I need to get out more, rather than a lack of interest in youth archery on the part of others. There are some obvious issues associated with these things, that may or may not be problems, so I will just list some of them. They are no particular order.

1. Boys are separated from girls in competitive categories for what reasons I do not know but I suspect it is mostly because there is a tradition to do so. When I was a boy, girls and “young ladies” were discouraged from physical play with uncouth boys. This was fueled, possibly, by prudery, but mostly by tradition, I suspect. Also, since men and women compete in separate categories, it might just be a reflection of that thinking onto youth categories. But, boys are stronger than girls of the same age, no? I answer, “So?” Girls are more mature than boys of the same age. So? Do these matter or do we just think they matter?

2. Different organizations have different age categories, occasionally under the same name. For example, both the NFAA and USA Archery have a competitive category called “Cub,” but in the NFAA these are youths under 12, while in USA Archery, they are 12-14 years old. If you don’t think this is confusing to both kids and parents, think again.

3. There are/may be unintended consequences. I am a firm believer in the law of unintended consequences. One of the most widely recognized unintended consequences of youth sports age groupings is called the relative age effect, which is basically that if there are age groups, they must be based on a reference date, like a child’s age on the first of the year. Two children, one born on December 29th and one on January 5th might both be eight years old on January 1st, but one is fully a year older than the other and when one is eight, that is a great deal. Oh, that can’t make much of a difference, you say. Not so. A survey of British national league (elite) soccer players showed that half were born between January and March. A similar survey of a German soccer team members showed that of 52 elite youth players, 48 were born between January and March. Why? Because the bigger, stronger boys get more encouragement, more playing time, and more coaching. Is it any wonder they continue to excel over children not getting those things? This even extends to the major leagues of baseball: a player is 50% more likely to make it to the big leagues if he was born in August than in July. How could a month make such a difference? It isn’t a month, it is a year. Most youth baseball organizations use a July 31 cutoff date to determine “playing ages.” And this is just one such unintended consequence of age groupings, of the ones of which we are aware, anyway. There could be a great many more. We never ask what the consequences are of girls not being allowed to compete with boys, for example.

4. The age categories reduce competition. Take the NFAA’s categories, for example: there are three age categories (cub, youth, young adult) and two gender categories (boys, girls) and four style categories (FS, FSL, BB, FSL-R/L). This results in 24 competitive categories. If you want to be able to give out first, second, and third place awards in each category, you need to get 72 kids to show up . . . in those exact proportions!. To even have a chance to give out all of these medals, you would probably need well over 100-150 kids to show up. A result of having so many of these categories in most NFAA shoots is that kids are competing with just a few competitors, and sometimes only one other or even no other competitors.

I think the point #4 above is a critical failing. By not providing enough competition, enough challenge, to our young competitive archers we are making it too easy. As an analogy, consider giving a child who is an expert “gamer” a gift of a video game which is very, very easy. What do you think the child’s reaction will be when he/she gets to play the game? Ridicule? Disdain? Certainly it would not be focus, concentration, exhilaration, or joy. But if that game were intensely challenging, instead? I think you get the picture.

But Surely There are Good Reasons for Having Competitive Categories
This is a good point, but nobody took the trouble to write down what their reasons were when they made them, so it is hard to tell what the creator’s reasons were. Soccer, for example, breaks kids up into two year age group. Swimming does the same. Why? I can’t find out and I am not sure anyone really knows. (USA Swimming has already started looking at this, see “Age Classification in USA Swimming: Are Current Competitive Age Groups Appropriate?” available on the Internet.) There is a sense of perceived fairness in age grouping, e.g. “My eight year old is competing against other eight and nine year olds; that seems fair.” But is it, especially during the ages when kids go through puberty? One child having gone through puberty is bigger, stronger, faster than others who have not. (I can’t help it, my mind harkens back to the scene from the Monty Python movie, The Meaning of Life, in which the school boys play rugby against the “masters.” The masters (teachers), score at will inflicting crushing blows on the boys, in a reflection of England’s rather sadistic public school history.) There is this aspect of “men against boys” that age and ability disparities sets up. One year LeBron James is in high school, the next he is Rookie of the Year in the NBA.

But while age group categories have a perceived sense of fairness built in to them, they are also very easy to set up and impose. So, is it from our own laziness that we haven’t come up with something better? This is my question.

So, let’s look at the gender and age breakdowns to see if they are really needed. A place to start is with something other than opinion.

Gender and Age Data
I don’t have a statistical research department, I am doing all of this myself, so if there is some enterprising graduate student who wants to do a more formal study, I would be very, very happy to cooperate and help in any way I could! What I have done is simply look up some records and scores on the internet. I freely admit that I took the data I knew how to find, mostly from California and the NFFA and FITA websites. Here are, for example, the state records, for boys and girls in the age categories of USA Archery/FITA for the state of California as of 2009. First, for the Compound Unlimited style:

2009 California State Records—FITA Round (Compound Unlimited)
Age Group               Girls          Boys
Yeoman (<8)          1327          1320
Bowman (8-12)      1429          1415
Cub (12-14)              1428          1409
Cadet (15-16)           1400          1378
Junior (16-18)         1306          1355
So, what can we see? We see that, not only are the girls records comparable to the boys, but in all but one case, they are higher. I predict that the situation in the Junior category may soon fall into line with the others as Paige Pearce owns the Bowman, Cub, and Cadet records, and will be competing as a Junior soon. It not uncommon for an individual to reset the record book in a number (if not all) of the age group categories as they grow up and move into each new age category. (This is not limited to just the kids, consider Rusty Mills setting 19 new national records at the USAA Outdoor Nationals when he entered the age 60+ Masters category.)

Let’s also look at the Olympic Recurve style records:
2009 California State Records—FITA Round (Olympic Recurve)
Age Group               Girls          Boys
Yeoman (<8)          1216           1342
Bowman (8-12)     1305           1333
Cub (12-14)             1287           1325
Cadet (15-16)          1256           1289
Junior (16-18)        1280          1270
Here, the situation is reversed, the Junior category is the only category in which the girls have scored better than the boys.

It would be tempting to conclude (but I won’t) that shooting Olympic Recurve requires more strength than shooting a compound bow and the strength advantage possessed by boys is showing up here. Making any conclusion based on just a few data is not a good idea and there are others reasons, as well. For one, it has always been my impression that the numbers of boys competing is far greater than the numbers of girls. If this is the case, then statistically it is more likely that boys would have posted higher scores than girls, simply because there are more boys competing, therefore there are more boys of higher ability competing, possibly boys find it is more important to participate in archery, etc.

To check this, I looked up the most recent championship level tournaments, still in California, and counted the number of boys and girls (and genders of all participants as well). Here is what I found:

2009 Pacific Coast Championships Participants
Age Group               Girls          Boys
Yeoman (<8)             1                 2
Bowman (8-12)        6               12
Cub (12-14)                5                8
Cadet (15-16)            5                 9
Junior (16-18)          7                9
All Youths               24               40
All Ages                    41              87

In every category, there are more boys competing than girls. For the entire competition, there were twice as many males as females of all ages. To be complete, I looked up the results from an NFAA championship competition:

2009 NFAA California State Championships
Age Group                     Girls          Boys
Cub (<12)                          0                 7
Youth (12-14)                   2                 8
Young Adult (15-17)       1                 5
All Youths                         3              20
All Ages                           40            219

The disparities between numbers of competitors in the two genders are even greater here. Also, please note that in all of the girl’s age categories there was either no competition, or just one person to beat, and this was for a state championship! I decided to also look up the results from the 2009 Vegas Shoot as this is the largest indoor competition in the U.S. It draws 1600+ archers from all of the various archery organizations and from foreign countries, too. There were 17 competitive categories for boys and 16 for girls. (The organizers have expanded the numbers of categories thinking that that would be an inducement for youths to participate.) Here are the numbers of participants in the Boys Categories: 0, 17, 1, 3, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 29, 0, 8, 0, 31, 3, 8 for a total of 100 participants. Here are the numbers of participants in Girls Categories: 0, 0, 7, 2, 5, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 15, 0, 6, 0, 11, 3 for a total of 38 participants. Of these 33 categories only nine had more participants than the medals being given out. The categories with 17, 29, 15, and 11 participants showed healthy competition, the rest were suspect at best. Suspect for the reason being that out of, say, five contestants, if two aren’t at all competitive the top three are all going to medal, no matter what. Here, for example, are the final scores in one of the categories: 540, 538, 523, 455, 405, 281, 164. After the first three participants, the scores fall way off of the pace, with the bottom two scores being uncompetitive. The top three were basically guaranteed the medals—the rest, I hope, enjoyed the experience.

More participants and more competition generally leads to better performances. This makes the girl’s Compound Unlimited state records of California even more impressive.

Now, there isn’t anything to conclude from this small look at some data, but two things pop into my head. One is “What would a look at a larger pool of data show? The other is “What would be the effect of having the girls compete with the boys?” Certainly we might do away with having the situation of praising a girl or boy for winning first place, then asking how many people were competing and she/he has to admit she/he was the only competitor.

I don’t know about you, but I have a number of medals from state and national level competitions that are “default” medals. For example, I have a number of “Thirds” when there were only three of us competing. In other words “first” and “last” were the same place. These medals don’t mean much to me, certainly in comparison to the medals I earned when I didn’t come in last as well as first, second, or third.

Still thinking there should be other ways to look at this, I came up with the idea of looking at current Olympic records. Here are some data available from the FITA website:

Olympic Records (2009)
Round                                                    Women       Men
72 Arrow Qualification Round           676           684
18 Arrow Elimination Match              173           172
12 Arrow Final Match                           114            115
36 Arrow Elimination Match              335           336
36 Arrow Final Match                          334            338

Do you see any difference in the record scores? I don’t; I certainly don’t see statistically significant differences. These records were all shot at 70m distance and a 122cm target, that is the men and women were shooting at the same target at the same distance. (In the youth record score information, different age groups were shooting at different targets at different distances, but the youths in each age category shot at the same targets, same distance, so the boy-girl scores were comparable.) But it must be noted that 70m is the longest competitive distance for women but only the second longest for the men (the International Round for women is shot at 70, 60, 50, and 30 meters while for the men it is 90, 70, 50, 30 meters). So, relatively, the women are competing at their longest distance while the men are not, even though the distance is the same for both categories. This would be expected to give an experience edge to the men.

These data represent men and women competing under the same conditions. (Well, not necessarily the same; some contend that the women often compete earlier in the day than do the men and wind is most likely to come up in mid-afternoon, making the men’s conditions more difficult than the women’s.)

It would be hard, I feel, considering these data and the fact that fewer women than men are competing, to come up with a rationale for keeping the genders separate for competition purposes. But the data set is small and focused on highest scores rather than average scores, so as I intimated before, a more extensive study would be most helpful.

Rationales for Keeping the Current System
There are reasons for keeping the current system, maybe with a few tweaks like agreeing on age categories that would apply to all organizations. Here are a few of these:
1. Having more categories means more medals are given out and this encourages kids.
2. Girls prefer being separated from the boys.
3. It’s traditional and all of the records have been kept this way.

Let’s look at these in turn: more categories = more medals = more encouragement. It sounds good, but does it really work? Consider the movement currently in vogue in youth sports to give every child who participates, whether their team won or lost, whether they won or not, a trophy of the same size. This “more trophies = more encouragement” attitude would support this practice. Do you think this works? (I have yet to meet a parent who defends this practice, although there must be some, otherwise why would people do this?) I don’t know about you, but on the shelf just behind me is the only trophy I ever won (in Division II College JV basketball, Most Inspirational Player). I am still proud of that trophy. The archery medals I won coming in third and last, or second and last, are in a box somewhere. I earned that trophy; it is out on a shelf in clear view. I suspect that the “everyone gets one” trophies, after a short stint on tops of kid’s dressers, end up in a box in the garage. So, I think the “encouragement” aspect is at least questionable.

On the second point I think it would be very interesting to ask the girls if they would like to be separate or compete with the boys (and vice-versa). As far as I can tell, we have never asked them about this; we have just told them they will compete this way. And gender roles have changed substantially since gender categories first started being used for youth archery competitions.

The last point, basically that “we’ve always done it this way,” is a sign of laziness and also quite untrue. If we were to heed this advice, women still wouldn’t be able to vote. In the NAA national championships, they have competed in quite a number of different formats. Most often, though, there was one men’s champion and one women’s champion. (The first listing of youth scores at national competitions in the history of the NAA is in 1914, then not again until 1926, then from 1928 to the present.) Another idea that was discussed was that there would be one champion (all men and women competing together). FITA seems to change the competitive formats in the Olympics for virtually every games. USA Archery is also currently looking at changing its youth age categories, ostensibly to accommodate age categories invented for the new Youth Olympics. (Another case of the tail wagging the dog.) So, tradition doesn’t seem to be a strong reason for avoiding change.

Some Other Options
What other systems might we consider? Here are a few.

Competition Classes My birth state, California, the birthplace not only of me but the NFAA as well, has ability groupings in it’s competitive categories for NFAA sponsored competitions. Archers are categorized as being in A Class, B Class, or C Class. (Since the NAA was doing this before the founding of the NFAA, it is hardly just their idea.) Archers compete “in class.” Please note that doing this for kids (which they did), results in 72 rather than 24 competitive categories and you would need 216 first, second, and third place awards available to give out! (There is a reason these kids get ribbons rather than trophies or medals . . . cost.)

Archers determine their class by formula based on scores shot on standard NFAA Field and Hunter Rounds. The NFAA provides all members a handicap card to keep a record of their scores and to be able to prove their placement in class. Archers who do not have the minimum number of scores to qualify for less competitive classes (B or C Class) must compete in A Class (with the big boys). There are separate categories for professional archers.

One aspect of their formula, which doesn’t seem to get used, is its ability to handicap performance. The formula creates a “handicap” equivalent to 80% of the difference between the average of an archers top scores and a perfect score. Adding this to competition scores would allow everybody to compete fairly equally. It encourages a good performance to win by averaging only the top scores and by giving only 80% of the difference from perfect. A poor performance of someone with a big handicap will not beat even an average performance of an archer with a smaller handicap. The formula is quite good and could possibly be improved with statistical analysis. This handicap is only used to my knowledge to place people in the A, B, and C classes and to establish initial flights for competitions.

Unfortunately, not so long ago, some new rules were necessary. Young archers would register as a B Class or C Class archer, and then would obliterate their competition with A Class scores. Also, archers registered as B Class archers, arriving at the state championship tournament and seeing no one registered in A Class, would want to move up. Now, it must be acknowledged that parents were more involved in these shenanigans than were the kids (the kid’s handicap cards were always unavailable but you could take the parent’s word on their kid’s being in B Class), but sandbagging (deliberately shooting lower scores to get into a less competitive category and win there) and upscaling to vacant categories were problems. Realize that the winners of A Class at the state championships got trophies but the other class winners got ribbons. A rule was put into place that if you registered for A Class, you had to shoot an A Class score on Day 1, otherwise you were automatically dropped to B Class (or lower). Similarly, archers in B Class shooting big scores were put under scrutiny (like having to present a handicap card to validate a win).

These problems haven’t been solved, and will continue as new and different ways to game the system are dreamt up in parents feverish minds. But there are options here.

Flights Some states/organizations use flighting systems. In these systems all of the competing archers in each style are ranked from top to bottom by their scores. At the very top first, second, and third places are awarded. If there are many archers, a second set of first, second, and third places are awarded beginning at eleventh place, and if there are even more archers competing, a set of three awards is made for each ten archers in line.

This meets the “more awards = more encouragement” standard, if that has any merit at all, and it has the advantage that you can figure out how your award placed you overall, e.g. third place in Flight 3 is 23rd place overall. But I don’t particularly care for a system in which 23rd place gets a medal but fourth place doesn’t. It kind of violates my sense of fairness, but hey, what do I know? The Vegas Shoot awards cash prizes in the Championship division this way. And, it always worked out well at our former club’s Thanksgiving and Christmas novelty shoots as everyone competed in one big category (adults, kids, males, females, compounds, longbows) and then were ranked by score and every fifth person on the list got a turkey (Thanksgiving) or a ham (Christmas). It actually created some interesting shootoffs of ties, with eleven year olds shooting against 52 year olds, for instance. (Opportunities for generosity also, as I once observed a burly bowhunter carefully missing ever so slightly more than an eight year old girl had so that she won a prize she coveted.)

Something New I am not sure what a new system would look like, but certain aspects of this are clear to me. Unless there is a compelling reason not to, I would have boys and girls competing together. I think it would mean more competition and better scores for all; maybe even more fun for all and might even be a self esteem booster for some girls.

I would rather have a non-arbitrary system. A handicapping system might just be viable. It works quite well for golf, although gaming the system in golf has been raised to a high art, also.

Just setting up arbitrary gender groups and age groups without some kind of justification, only ensures that more medals might be given out. Yet, there seems to be a need, for example, to separate out the pre-pubescent thirteen year olds from those already shaving, for fairness if nothing else. Possibly a hybrid system in which age groups are established but a rapidly maturing youth who shoots scores comparable to those in the next higher age group up would be automatically graduated to that group. This wouldn’t mean that a youngster wouldn’t get to experience success in the younger age group because he/she would have to shoot quite a bit to establish they belonged in the next group up. And pride in being able to compete with older boys and girls is then available. And the increase in numbers of competitors in shooting styles would be good for our budding stars and also good for the ones left behind—they would be competing for something other than second place when the “star” moved up. This could spur their interest and development, I believe.

Currently kids are allowed to “compete up,” that is they can compete in any age category above theirs up to competing with adults. (And Master/Senior archers can “compete down” with the bulk of adults.) We are allowed to compete in a more competitive category in most organizations. What if you shot your way up and had to move up (for the good of all)? That might make for an interesting system.

I will continue to think about this. For the greater good, I would like you to think about it, too.


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2 responses to “Have Competitive Age Categories in Archery Outlived Their Usefulness?

  1. A very worthy question to raise. I remember competing as a teenager, and often at smaller local competitions, I was the only person in my category. I had fun, but frankly, felt disappointed that there was no challenge. You are right, as a teen I felt quite stupid to get a first-place medal when I was also last place. Felt like the Homer Simpson head smack, “doh!”
    It has become a political powder keg, these days, to bring up gender divisions, and discuss pros and cons of separating them. Bringing politics into sports, in my opinion, not only sucks the fun out of it, but it turns kids into political pawns. Yech.
    Ironically, the issue you pose here predates the current squabbles by a fair margin.
    Being a girl archer (now a grown lady), I can at least answer for myself on the “do girls want to compete against the boys?” Back then, I would give an emphatic NO, with only one exception. When teenagers are shooting together, there is already a LOT of boy-watching-girl and girl-watching-boy going on. Hormones have already created a certain tension in the atmosphere. The guys are trying valiantly to impress the girls, and the girls are either overtly responding to that, or trying to act like they don’t notice. THAT going on already made JOAD competitions a tough place to keep concentration. Having 12-17-year-olds competing against each other would add a new pressure to that mix. No one would die, obviously, but it would be another layer of distraction. My other reason for the emphatic NO is simpler: in my experience, most adolescent guys can’t handle getting “beat by a girl,” and even half-savvy girls knew it. So most of the teen girls, who would like to stay friends with the teen guys, would not want to alienate their guy friends by crushing them. (Ahem, but most adult men I know feel that way, too. Not guy-bashing here, just an observation).
    When I WAS a competing teen girl, I made one exception to my ‘not compete against the guys’ personal code. If the guys were a good bit older and better than me, and I knew their egos wouldn’t be crushed if I did happen to beat them, then I would. Competed against guy friends a few times in league shoots. The key there was, it was guys I knew WELL.
    Now, I’m a mom, and I can see easily that until kids are about 12, strength and hormones won’t be issues. I would support kids competing gender-neutral to age 12.
    And, here’s just my spit-balling, but how about a ‘blind’ entry in competitions for adult-aged shooters? Meaning, the usual gender divisions stay intact, but competitors can choose to enter their scores for an overall ranking. To keep it interesting, names would be left off the position board until the tourney was over. Like a masked ball of archery competitions, haha! Might be a fun way for folks to get used to the idea of men and women competing against each other.


    • Some good ideas! I think boys should get used to being beat by girls as until puberty is well advanced girls are set up to do better than boys. This should be the norm in archery (it is in other endeavors, say English classes). I think we could do a much better job to make sure that kids have some competition. If the teenagers are too distracted by each others presence, have them shoot at different ends of the field (which is current done) and combine their scores later. (This is done in mail matches and multi-site matches now.)

      Thanks for commenting. If you don’t mind sharing this blog with others, I am trying to generate comment and questions that will substantively help move our sport along to better days.

      Your friend in archery,


      On Thu, May 1, 2014 at 11:00 PM, A Blog for Archery Coaches wrote:



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