When you work in the youth sports field, you are reminded constantly of the fact that there are plenty of parents out there who either over-value their child’s athletic ability; over-rate their child’s athletic ability; or over-value the importance of their child’s athletic ability to their well being. But at some point, you become somewhat immune to the absurdity of it – and accept that it’s part of the deal. I’ve often thought that we are dealing with two of the most impactful things in people’s lives – their children; and their money (for which they’ve forked over to have their child play sports).

Upon reviewing petitions to have their children or their child’s team “play up” a grade or age (essentially asking to have their child play against kids older than them for a higher level of competition) – I often get a good chuckle to myself out of the support statements. Statements such as the one I received comparing a 4 year old child to Albert Pujols in terms of batting ability – are intended to imply justification. This falls into one of the most common categorical questions of what is too young. Despite the fact we ask that kindergartners play t-ball – feeling that 1st grade is an adequate year to start “coach pitch” (adding the element of seeing a “live pitch” as opposed to hitting off a stationary tee), and t-ball and important progressionary step – we see a number of requests to opt out of t-ball. Almost without fail the reasoning is linked to the child’s ability being far surpassed that of necessitating the use of a tee; and an inferred hampering of their development in the sport. Never mind the amount of high school, college, and professional baseball teams that religiously use the tee as part of their training. The sense I get is that they feel their child at 6 years old will be held back athletically!

One of the more disappointing questions I get when a parent finishes the last session of their child’s 3 or 4 year old Tot Soccer is – “so they don’t play a real game? They don’t play other teams?” While the fun based entry level soccer clinic is absolutely an every-time winner with kids – it is not a training ground for 3 and 4-year-old soccer stars. It’s play time! The disappointment that the sessions didn’t end with two 11-aside 3 year-old teams facing off in a 40-minute soccer match is symbolic. You hope it doesn’t signal that years of disappointment in athletics for the child and the parent aren’t ahead.

So it’s probably not a surprise that we’ve seen an upswing in the number of youth teams in our program, that feel that their team needs to “play up” and compete against older kids. Words such as development, and competition are put in place of fun as early as 1st grade. At an age where introducing kids to the most basic concepts of sport; and letting the natural course of a child finding their love for a particular sport; should go hand in hand with fun – you’d think it can’t be a good thing to already start the separation of “athlete” and “non athlete”. And by accelarating the natural pace of kids playing sports against kids their own age – it also seems to heighten the chance that less “new” kids will choose to want to play that sport from within the school or social group.

This tends to give the impression to young kids and parents that their child is already “too late” to join a soccer team at 3rd grade – for the advancement of skills by the others at that age is so great that a newcomer shouldn’t bother trying to catch up. Never mind the absurdity of it – but even if the goal is to develop the largest number of great athletes, narrowing down the number of kids who feel they can still join at that young an age would be counter-productive to that goal. Realistically those with the most natural athletic ability, and combination of size, strength and speed will rise to the top by the time kids get to high school – even if not always picked to be on the “elite” youth team. Which renders the “weeding out” at such a young age as elementary school, a pointless act.

If you asked the 3 and 4 year old children upon completing Tot Soccer – shortly after running through the parent tunnel and collecting their stickers – I doubt you’d hear much dissatisfaction that the session didn’t end in a “real soccer game”. Likely you’d end up getting a boastful review of the stickers they just collected. Similarly, a 5 year old who has been hitting a pitched wiffle-ball from his Dad or Mom in the back yard; is not likely to feel utter disappointment at being relegated to t-ball with his kindergarten classmates, rather than moved up to coach pitch with 1st grade kids he doesn’t know. The point is, generally if you have to take steps that take your child outside of the programs that are already in place for kids at their appropriate age; then chances are the child is too young for that activity.

~ Matt Brown