Over the past decade the practice of “playing up” – letting the younger, bigger and “better” kids play an age group above their level – has become quite popular with youth team sports. “Playing up,” is an ineffective way to develop talent and, in the long run, can be more detrimental than beneficial.
Aside from the youth coaches who promote this philosophy, there is little support at the higher levels of the coaching community, and from the governing boards of various sports, for allowing younger kids to play up. This philosophy has come about principally because there is a misunderstanding/lack of understanding with regard to the stages of development for young athletes.
The root cause of this problem is that too often coaches mistake physical maturity for talent. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard a coach over-assess a youth athlete’s ability based solely on their size. Also, while a kid may be the best player at his level, this usually does not mean that they are ready to compete at a level above.
Basing assessments on physical size/maturity ignores the mental/psychological component of a youth sport athlete’s make-up. The physical and mental development of young kids are on different tracks and different timetables, and it is incorrect to assume that because a 7th grader is as big and/or fast as some of the older kids that they will be able to deal with the mental aspects of the higher level of play.
There are exceptions to this rule, but these cases are very few and very far between.
From year to year, there are huge differences between kids at the same level. The big kid one year can be the averaged sized kid the next and vice versa. There is no inherent relationship whatsoever between size and ability level, so the kid who doesn’t grow much from one season to the next can still improve their skill level while the kid who sprouts up doesn’t by definition get better just because he’s bigger. Kids need to be evaluated objectively as individuals.
There is a huge social component to youth sports and the value of playing on a team with friends and peers cannot be overstated in the development of a youth sports athlete. Young athletes need to have the chance to compete, and even to dominate, at their level before any consideration is given to having them “play up.” This is another reason kids need to be objectively evaluated, and the coach of the team that wants the younger player should not be the decision maker in this process.
Parents need to keep a level head and not be swayed by the pressure and prestige that can come from having their kid play with the older team. Ultimately, this decision needs to be made by parents, not the coaches and certainly not the players.