Every year, I hear of and see young players in U13 and U15 who make the decision to “play up,” (that is, jump an age group) in competitive lacrosse. Every recreational and travel sport is divided by age groups. This keeps kids of similar physical capabilities and size together. Short of comprehensive and exhaustive skills testing, age is the best way to stratify a group of young players for recreational or tournament play.

As a father of three athletic kids and a coach of U7, U11, U13, U15 and high school teams in various sports, I can attest both personally and professionally to differences in emotional development and maturity among those groups. While many parents like to say that their kid is very mature, it is most often the case that they are not as mature as a kid who is two years older. Let’s face it, a nine year-old reacts to the world differently from an eleven year-old. And a thirteen year-old, barely pre-pubescent, is not the same as a fifteen year-old emotionally even if he or she is the same size as an older player. Very often, the stress of moving up to a new group that is older can be frightening and/or counterproductive for a younger player.

There are exceptions to this rule

I am sure Wayne Gretzky played up. He was a phenom from a young age. A real prodigy will often so far outclass his age group that playing in the correct age group is almost like cheating! On the flip side, Paul Rabil, the great lacrosse midfielder who dominates the professional game, says he was not himself particularly good as a young player. For the most part, I haven’t found it negative for younger players (ages 7-11) to play up one age group as long as they have exceptionally good skills. It’s really when the kids enter their teen years the differences in psychology and physiology become impediments.

Physically, kids within an age group can be anyplace on the bell curve of development. I last coached U13, where we had baby-faced kids with baby fat playing against kids with more facial hair than me. They were “playing down,” at best turning 15 after the cutoff date–but BARELY–or actually cheating down a level (that happens often enough to be an issue in tournaments). In any case, a 14 year-old is a very different animal than an 11 or 12 year-old U13 player. He’s a teenager. He has testosterone in his veins. He’s turbocharged.

Size is not the issue

I had one boy on my team who was almost as tall as me, had great physical size and development, but was prone to throw tantrums and was the owner of the worst case of “field rage” that I’ve seen in years. He was constantly penalized for losing his temper on the field, resulting in wild slashes and hits from behind. He was a funny, delightful kid but only moderately coachable–he tended to think he knew best and, while respectful of me and my assistant coach, he did not pay much attention to our instructions. Emotionally, he was young for his age. Physically, he was big. Should he play up? No. Absolutely no. Is he playing up now? Yep. So, since it is ultimately their decision, why would parents want their kids to play up? 

Excellent question

For the most part, it is a mistranslation of the semi-truism in American sports culture that playing with better players will force a weaker player to improve. There is some evidence that this is, in fact, true–but only for the most inner-driven players. Those who take their cues as to their likelihood of success from external sources (e.g. teammates or game stats) will be more likely to fail than succeed. The mistranslation comes when the parent replaces “better” with “older and better.” That is not a one-to-one swap.

“It’ll toughen him up,” the parent will say.

Conceptually, that sounds logical. While that may be the case with kids playing with more skilled players of their same age, it is not, in my experience, the case with U13 and U15 players who are bumped up from one age group to another.

Most of the time, it’s the parent who wants the kid to play up. Nothing makes a proud dad even more proud than seeing his kid rise above his age group and play against older kids. Any dad can be proud of that. It speaks volumes about the gene pool, the masculinity of the boy, the prowess of the girl, and by extension, the dad. I’ve heard and seen this happen so many times, and each time it does I can point to a Type A personality dad and say “That is the reason this kid will get his clock cleaned this season.” (You know who you are. And if you don’t, I suggest that if that last line ticked you off then you ARE that guy.)

Moms, on the other hand, seem to get it. While dads will say that the nurturing, cause-and-effect thinking of moms is nannying, there is a lot to be said for creating a safe and age-appropriate environment for kids, whether that is in sports or school or any activity. Dads don’t think that way. Moms do. Unfortunately , Dads usually win the argument when it comes to sports.

Here is the part that parents don’t want to hear

Most of the time, a child is happy playing within his age group. If she is a dominant player, she will thoroughly enjoy her success. If she is not dominant, she will be happy because her skills will improve and her game steadily ratchet upward.

Sure, there are some kids that think bigger, older, fast is better. My step-son has his dad buy him size 11.5 tennis shoes. His foot is in the size 8.5 range. For some reason, my step-son thinks it is cooler/more adult/more mature to wear bigger shoes. It’s bragging rights. His dad doesn’t puzzle through this silliness and challenge the logic, instead he just buys the shoes. Similarly, playing up gets a kid nothing except bragging rights. And there is nothing logical about bragging rights.

The negative effects of younger players playing with kids emotionally more mature and whose bodies are stronger, faster and more trained may not come out right away. Often, the younger players feel they aren’t good at their sport (even though they are) and they find sometimes find it harder to connect and build relationships with children up to two years older. Even if the younger player is able to keep up on a skills level, there are many aspects of the game that he or she will not be able to do as well. As noted above, the emotional component is part of that.

Rec teams vs travel teams

I should say up front that I am less critical of the decision to play up in a recreational sport setting as opposed to a competitive travel environment. Kids in rec programs represent the broadest spectrum of abilities. You can get some very low-skilled players and excellent ones in the same age group. In rec, age is not necessarily the best predictor of success or ability. In the younger ages, say U7-U13, kids can slide up a level in a rec environment without a lot of worry. A dominant player (as in “totally controlling the game and of exceptional physical ability compared to others the same and competing teams) could safely move up to challenge both himself and allow other players in his correct age group to actually get the ball!<

In a travel environment, typically the teams cull from the larger body of rec players to create an all-star team. I’ve seen it happen too many times to shrug it off as a rare, one-off poor decision. It’s actually a cultural problem within sports. We push our kids to go higher, faster, and longer than they should. The logic is that if a child shows talent in a U13 rec or travel program then the OBVIOUS way to improve his skills is to move him up to a U15 travel team. Better competition will improve him, like a crucible heats all metal in it to the same temperature.

Sometimes, yes, but most of the time, no. As is the case with many things, our culture–especially in sports–is wrong. We must not equate moving up–and moving up FAST–with being successful. We do it in business, sports, even relationships. Even if a kid bumped from U13 to U15 manages to hold his own, even score a few goals, is that REALLY what he should be doing? Most of the time, the moved-up player is NOT a starter and, in some travel organizations, is not on the field much at all. Hey, but at least  he played up with the big kids!

Wouldn’t it be better to have him improve with his peers, becoming a dominant player? Wouldn’t it be better for him to be on the field the FULL game instead of part of it? Wouldn’t it be better for him to see the rewards of a well-executed roll dodge against an age-matched player instead of being closed down by someone with two more years of experience and more physical ability because of age?

You would think so. Unless you were one of those parents who doesn’t think things through and subscribes to the culture of Faster Is Better.

If this is such a bad idea for U13 and U15 players, why do travel coaches allow it?

And here is the point where I tick off all the travel coaches. Simply put, coaches should not allow this except when they are dealing with a DOMINANT young player. (See my definition of “dominant” above.) A travel team wants to win, and it plays its best players to do so. The goal is to get victories so you can get sponsorships and recognition and build your travel brand. That is why most travel teams play kids as far down as possible, giving us those kids with full beards playing in U13. Why? Because they want to win. Whenever there is cheating on a roster, it is because a kid is playing down too low. Some coaches do that–and try to get away with it–simply to win.

So, what’s the advantage to a coach who brings a bunch of underage players up to a new level? Shouldn’t that be an obvious disadvantage? Yes.

BUT…
It’s a money-maker. The travel sports game is a money-maker. My own organization, a not-for-profit that uses volunteer coaches and that operates on the edge of solvency, has itself been accused of profiteering by having a lot of kids on one team. Parents start doing math and come up with the idea that we are making money hand over fist. We aren’t. But the programs DO. Some make hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits annually, and some coaches get a commission on registrations. Our group charge $200 less than the nearest quality competitor for a summer session and $500 less for the fall.

Over the past few seasons, some of my former players have been lured to play up from U13 to U15 and U15 to high school by a large national program. The boys who choose to go are never dominant players. They are good, but not ready to play U15 or high school. When I’ve worked with them again laster, NONE of them have improved at a faster rate than kids who did not move up. In fact, their field time was less so they actually were behind in the overall game sense and understanding.

Anyone who is in the travel lacrosse biz knows that U15 is the hardest age group in which to field a team. Half the kids want to play on a high school team, so your market is automatically smaller. The only way you can really do it is to fill your roster with U13 players. In the tournament setting, they won’t be as good as the hard-driving U15s. Indeed, some of the toughest games I’ve seen in tournaments have been at the U15 level.

The way the luring happens is that the coach recruits one player and then leverages that to get his friends. Then it’s peer pressure from the kids and, shockingly, from the parents. There is always one who is the pusher. Frankly, of all the young players from my organization who have left to move up, there is not one I would have allowed to do the same with us. They simply were not equipped for that. As a coach, I think it is counterproductive to have kids fail to succeed on the field. What lesson does that teach? I’d rather he or she learned plays, executed them, beat their opponents with age-leveled skills, and learned the game of lacrosse.

Sadly, the parents believe the hype from the large national teams. They do an excellent job of selling their product. These will be the same parents who shell out $1500 dollars at least to get their kid on a recruiting site that says it will get the kids a scholarship.

Final analysis

Let your kids be kids. Don’t rush the process. There is no prize for aging fast. It’s a natural process, aging, that allows us to gain more insights, learn more skills, and meet new challenges as we are able. But, it’s just too tempting for parents to say, “Look! He just took a few steps! I think he is going to be good at this! Let’s enter him in a 5K NOW!”

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