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Although USA Baseball spent nearly 8 years developing this information, I clearly know more about the game and development of the youth athlete. I'll disregard the Long-Term Development Model and ZPD because I'm the league president, and I was the cleanup hitter in high school. Of course, I know better. 


The often-debated question: should the most talented players play up an age bracket or two? Or should the league mandate that every 8-year-old plays in the 7-8 division? Should girls train and play with boys? When does this additional challenge help a player’s development, and when does it hinder progress? These are all questions that are well worth exploring so that parents, coaches, and leagues can make the right decisions for the young athletes in their care.  


But let’s start with this:

Any decision regarding a child playing up an age should be based on what is best for the child. Blanket statements or regulations can prevent this from happening. 


Coaches don’t coach a sport, they coach players, and thus every decision is an individual one. Everything from the confidence level, the commitment level, and athletic talent should be considered.


It always bothers me when I see organizations with blanket policies disallowing playing up. It equally bothers me when organizations have no policies at all and athletes are scattered across multiple ages for no rhyme or reason. Every youth sports organization should have well-thought-out policies in place that allow for athletes to compete not simply against players their chronological age, but their developmental age. This merits some further explanation.


Chronological age is literally how old the child is. Most sports separate athletes based on their birth year, or some other arbitrary calendar cutoff such as school year. As we know from the “relative age effect,” this gives a large advantage to those children born closest to that cutoff, especially at very young ages where a January birthday 8-year-old is 11 months older than a December-born child. The earlier we make talent selections, the more important this calendar difference becomes.


Developmental age is the age at which children function emotionally, physically, cognitively and socially. We also know that children grow at very different ages. How many times have you seen two 3rd graders standing together; one tall, well-built, highly athletic 9-year-old and the other a skinny little unathletic 10-year-old? Have you ever seen a 12-year-old game in any sport? Did you notice that some look like 10-year-olds and others look like young men or women? A 12-year-old boy can have a 5 year developmental age swing, while his chronologically comparatively aged friend has a 14-year-old swing. One certainly has some physical advantages over the other, wouldn’t you say?


Before we discuss playing up specifically, there is one more piece of background needed: Long Term Athletic Development (links here, herehere) and from the National Strength and Conditioning Association here. LTAD models have been developed in almost every sporting nation (in the US we have one in the infant stage called ADM, the Athlete Development Model) and outline the various ages and stages of development. Our ADM gives us a research-based approach to the physical, social and psychological development of athletes at various stages of their lives. The Canadian LTAD (10 Key Factors) model is one of the best known and is the basis for many others. 


The models allow for the differences in developmental age for each child. US Lacrosse’s Foundations stage ends around age 12, while the Emerging Competition begins at 11. Basically, that overlap allows for children who start puberty earlier than others (for example, girls usually hit their growth spurt sooner, and children function at vastly different levels at different ages). The importance of these models is they provide a great guide for children playing up vs. those who are held back.



Ultimately, if a 6-year-old is developmentally ready to play in the 8-9-year-old group, he should. If a 9-year-old is developmentally on the level of the younger group, as long as it's not a safety issue, he should play with the 6-7-year-old players.  
























In education, Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development is the typical model used to locate a student's "sweet spot" for learning. In layman’s terms, some children are reading at a 5th grade level in 1st grade and others may be reading right on grade level. The educator is to place the children in these zones where they find the most chance at development – the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). They are challenged, but not overwhelmed. They are also not bored with material they find easy. This is really what most youth sports organizations dance around but do not understand. Each child should be placed in his own ZPD.


So why doesn't this happen in youth sports?













In the chart above, notice the outlined ages are broad 

from the first years of athletics through age 12. This 

outlines the concept of applying ability levels to leagues

versus strict chronological age group brackets.



The main debates are about children playing up in age and how to create teams

(evenly or an A team and a B team).


Many parents fear their child will be left behind when they get to high school if he doesn't play up at age 7.  They’ve seen other kids who did play up and think that their child should as well. They’ve rarely considered exactly what would make it beneficial for their child,

or why it might hinder his or her development. They basically said, “others are doing it, so my kid should too.”



















So, what are some reasons that a child should play up in age? 


Here are a few factors a coach, a parent, and a sports club should look for in considering whether it is beneficial for a child, and some things to look out for to see if he should  play up:


  • A child is developmentally (physically) ahead of his or her peers, and tends to rely on physicality rather than technique or thought to have success. This player should be challenged by teammates and opponents who are physical equals. Caution: This child may be socially and cognitively behind, and thus exposed to situations that he/she should not be maturity wise. Some kids struggle with tactical development and understanding the movement and interaction of players. Some are not physically ready to perform certain tasks even though they are more physically developed than their peers.


  • A child is technically and tactically so far ahead of his or her peer group that there is minimal challenge. This child should be given the opportunity to play against players with the same technical ability and guile so that he/she is challenged to perform at a higher speed of thought and action. Caution: If the physical differences are such that a technically gifted child stops playing the game the right way (i.e. is afraid to dribble or shoot, stops playing confidently) the situation should be re-evaluated. Many players struggle with the physical disadvantage and can develop bad habits.


  • When a child starts playing up, they should be eased into the situation. The speed of play at an older age can significantly ramp up the training and play load on an athlete. Even if they practice and play the same amount of minutes, overuse injuries can happen if you are not careful.


Here are a few reasons that some parents have given me over the years that ARE NOT sufficient to allow playing up to happen, especially as children advance to more competitive environments:


  • The kids on that team are part of our carpool (I get it, but hopefully you can form a new carpool. If the carpool is that important, ask permission to go to a practice once in awhile, but don’t play up full time)


  • Her best friend is on the team (I am sure they will get plenty of time to play together)


  • That team is coached by his favorite coach (it is good to be exposed to many coaches)


  • He plays up in other sports (Should an advanced reader be taking advanced math?)


  • Her older siblings were allowed to play up (every child is evaluated as an individual, and perhaps her siblings were older, bigger, stronger, or in an age group where kids were not as good).


  • He is in the same grade as those kids on the older team (great, they will get to play together in high school, and perhaps you can guest play once in awhile but in the meantime, we can give the spot to a kid who is the appropriate developmental age and develop him too).


  • Our team has been together for 3 years (often heard when kids transition from recreational to travel programs. Please be patient, and it’s likely that you can make some new friends, and be faced with new challenges instead of being comfortable).


  • Parents are generous financial donors (I actually heard a parent tell a coach that if he let their son play up, they would sponsor the team).


When it comes to athletic development, the only sufficient reasons for allowing children to play up a level full-time are based on technical, tactical, and developmental criteria, and what puts a child in his or her ZPD, not on the whims or dreams of the child’s parents. Every case should be decided on an individual basis, and yes, there are exceptions to every rule (ie. the team at the younger age disbanded). In the end, though, youth sports organizations must be consistent and make these decisions for the benefit of the athlete.


There's a concept of the "small town effect" in youth sports.  A 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal states that 1 in 4 people in the United States comes from a town of fewer than 50,000 people, HOWEVER more than half of the players in the NFL and PGA golfers do. 


Many sport psychologists and sports research professionals believe it's due to numerous factors, one of which is the fact that often the schools play "in-house" and split their teams evenly with 4th, 5th, and 6th graders all playing together.


The theory is the 4th grader works hard to be as good as the older players. The 5th grader feels better this year than last year (confidence) and still works hard to compete with the older players. The 6th grader often feels a strong boost in confidence as he is now the big fish. 


This athletic progression is then slightly lessened by the 7th and 8th grade playing together (same concept). 


By the time the athlete gets to high school, he has been pushed by older players regularly, has developed a strong sense of confidence, has developed a set of skills that work, and has seen individual success on numerous levels. 


This directly opposes the typical concept of an A team and a B team in a grade level. 

One final caveat is this. If you have a talented athlete playing up a year, or a female who competes with boys, don’t be afraid to slide them down once in awhile and let them remember what it is like to compete against their chronological peers. We tend to only evaluate ourselves against our current peers (i.e struggling Harvard math majors don’t look at themselves as 1%’s, they see themselves as the dumbest kid in the class), so sometimes talented youngsters can lose confidence when always playing against older kids. An age-appropriate game they can dominate from time to time, or allowing talented girls to play against other girls their age, is not a bad thing at all. Again, it must be monitored on an individual basis with parents and coaches working together!




In a great article on Breaking Muscle, strength and conditioning coach Doug Dupont outlines 3 ways young athletes can be tested for developmental age. 


In a research article from the National Institute of Health stored in the US National Library of Medicine entitled Sport Readiness in Children and Youthauthor Dr. Laura Purcell outlines 5 different developmental stages and the attributes displayed in each. 


I realize that “playing up” is a touchy issue for many parents and youth sports organizations. All things considered from the league looking at safety concerns to parents trying to "keep up with the Jones'" this debate will continue. The science leans to allowing players to play up, with many considerations to factor in, but all-knowing league officials will often resist. 

Notice in the chart, there is no separation between "A" teams and "B" teams, or "minors and majors" (top 12 players on team A, next 12 on team B) concept before age 14.


How many 7, 8, or 9-year-old teams do you know that are separated like that?

Is it the best for the kids...or the adults?


Based on research, USA Baseball doesn't think it should work like that.

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