Should Youth Sports Leagues Be Organized by Age, Size, or Skill Level?

2013-04-11T17:38:47+00:00 April 11th, 2013|Sports Management|

In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell explains that a disproportionate number of elite Canadian hockey players are born in the first few months of the calendar year. Since Canadian youth hockey leagues, much like US teams, determine eligibility by calendar year, children born on January 1 play in the same league as those born on December 31. However, players born in the beginning of the year tend to be a little bit bigger, stronger, and faster than those born towards the end of year simply because they’ve got a few extra months under their belt. He hypothesizes that the little extra bit of speed, power and size may not mean much when players are 6 or 7 years old, but it’s enough to get them noticed sooner than their teammates, which gets them better coaching and onto better teams, and that small advantage turns into a huge gap as players get older. Gladwell argues that is those younger players (June-December birthdays) had their own league more of them might have ended up in the elite league.

For the most part, youth sports leagues divide their to-be players into teams and divisions byShould Youth Sports Leagues Be Organized by Age, Size, or Skill Level? age; U-6, U-8, U-12, and so forth. This makes a lot of sense. After all, a 5 year old who has never played baseball before doesn’t really have much hope of hitting off a 12 year old pitcher. But grouping youth athletes together by age isn’t always that cut and dry.

For instance, it’s entirely possible that an 11 year old boy would want to try basketball for the first time, having never been on a court in his life. His youth sports league would most likely put him in the U-12 division based on his age, but in terms of skill level he’d be miles behind his teammates. Or imagine that same 11 year old boy wants to play football, but is a little small for his age (the average 11 year old boy apparently weighs approximately 80 pounds). Some of his teammates are probably going to be a little big for their age so suddenly you’ve got a 20 or 30 pound swing between players. While they may not mean much in basketball, in a full contact sport like football it matters a lot. Would it be better to create hockey, football or lacrosse teams (where size can make a big difference) by size as opposed to age? Or is skill level more important because players will know the fundamentals better?

Some sports league might allow players to petition to “play up” an age division if they (or their parents) feel they can compete with older and presumably bigger kids. Some players will excel when they become a smaller fish in a bigger pond and learn and grow as athletes as the competition level grows. After all, it’s hard to get better when you’re at the top of the pyramid, right? Sometimes it helps athletes achieve more when they have something to aspire to be. Should athletic skill be enough to move a youth athlete from division to division even if they’re “undersized”?

And plenty of leagues let younger players sub in if a team is a few players short just so the game can still happen (fairly rarely will you let an older player step down an age division though.) Most of the time the little brother or sister stepping in just so minimum player requirements can be met, but it’s entirely possible that little sis will blow the doors off everyone else!

Other leagues have let girls sub for boys’ teams (and vice versa) as needed to make sure the game happens as well. One soccer mom told us her daughter did this for a neighbor boy’s team and even though the team they were playing made some snide comments about having to play a girl; she kicked butt the whole time! By the end of the first quarter no one doubted her daughter’s skill, even if she was a lot smaller than her teammates.

Age? Skill level? Size? What do you think matters the most when creating divisions and teams in a youth sports league?