It can be easy for parents to push the envelope with their children when it comes to youth sports. They believe their child is the best of the bunch and they want him or her to be challenged against the best possible competition. For many that means playing up to the next age level.
A select group of athletes are good enough to play with older players, their talents well beyond what most of their peers possess, but for most, the impact of playing up can have a negative effect in the long run.
“Sports are about long-term development. There is no reason to rush the process,” said Ryan Hardy, the director of player personnel for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. “There is a lot of value in taking your time rather than rushing to play up a level.”
If Hardy had his choice when it comes to young athletes, he believes the best situation for them is to stay within their age group, both for on-ice and off-the-ice purposes.
“I prefer it because it not only helps them develop better from a skill standpoint, but it benefits them socially and emotionally,” he said. “Sometimes being around older kids they hear or learn things they don’t need to at their age. If parents are going to play their child up a level, they need to make sure the situation is right for the child.”
Hardy also noted that in hockey, playing up isn’t a common occurrence.
“It’s still rare in our sport for kids to play up,” Hardy said. “There are not a large number of players that benefit from playing up a level.”
Stephen Norris, a specialist in long-term athletic development, has similar thoughts on the subject. He points out that every child is different, so a situation that may be right for one young athlete could prove detrimental to another.
“You have to look at it on a case-by-case basis,” said Norris, who has served as the vice president of the Canadian Winter Sport Institute. “There needs to be a very good reason for wanting them to play up. It’s important to look at the long-term effects of it.”
And Norris can’t stress enough the importance of making a decision that is in the best interest of the child.
“I have nothing against children playing up a level, but the decision can’t be about the competitive outcome, which is what so many parents are focused on,” Norris said. “We tend to throw out the rulebook when it comes to common sense in sports.”
Bob Mancini has seen the situation from both sides. As someone who has been involved in player development for more than 25 years, Mancini cautions parents and players not to rush through the process. Last year his own son, Victor, played up a level for a year, and he noted it had no negative impact on him. Still, he agreed that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to deciding when it’s right for a child to move up a competitive level.
“Every situation is different,” Mancini said. “If they have a chance to be one of the top-three forwards or top-two defensemen, maybe that is the right decision to make. It has to be done for the right reason.”
Looking at the right reason, however, isn’t as simple as it may seem.
“When you put your parent goggles on, you only see how great your kid is and don’t think about how playing up might affect them,” Mancini said. “They may lose confidence by playing up or it could hurt their development as a player.”
Mancini noted that the most important thing is keeping young athletes within their training window, so for example, a 7-year-old moving up to play with 8-year-olds likely won’t have the same negative impact as an 8-year-old moving up to play with 9-year-olds.
He stresses the importance of staying in that window because of the positive effects it will have on their development as athletes.
“You get better by having the puck,” Mancini said. “If you are playing up and the other kids are bigger and better than you, you are going to end up chasing other players around and you aren’t going to become a better player. Your role won’t be as important on the team.
“I think you are seeing fewer kids play up. Parents and coaches are both seeing the benefits of keeping kids in their own age group.”
Hardy said there are exceptions where it may prove beneficial, such as if an athlete plays in an area where hockey opportunities are more limited and moving up is necessary to be challenged a little more.
Still, he points out that playing with older kids could put a younger player at greater risk of injury, and there’s always the potential that a lack of success could have a negative impact his or her passion for the game.
“If you force the speeding up of the development process, it can lead to burnout,” Hardy said. “You want them to have a love for the game and a desire to continue playing the sport when they are older. A lot of times when they move up, it can feel like a job instead of being fun.”
Norris said it can be difficult to deal with those raised expectations that are placed on the shoulders of the young athletes who are think they’re ready to play at the next level.
“By moving up, there is added pressure to perform,” he said. “We also forget to value the social and emotional growth of athletes. Those things suffer because they are playing with kids who are older than them.”
Youth sports is about having fun, and it’s important that young athletes enjoy their experience rather than look back on it with regret.
“At the end of the day,” Norris said, “you want a kid to look back on his or her experience playing sports and think about the great time they had and feel like they learned a lot from the experience.”