Skill Based Division of Talent
in Recreational Youth Leagues
Participation in youth sports serves many needs and teaches
great life lessons. Nobody can argue the benefits of participation:
making new friends, learning to play as a team, developing
coordination and fundamental athletic skills, exercise, sportsmanship,
winning, losing, performing under pressure and so much more.
However, what is the best way to set up a league that will
be best for the kids so that they can all garner these lessons?
This month, I'll let you know why I feel a skill based allocation
of players will be beneficial to the largest number of kids
rather than the traditional method using age or grade.
League Philosophy - There are a number of formats for
dividing kids into divisions. The main distinction most try
to make has been between "Recreational" leagues and "Competitive"
leagues. In recreational leagues, kids don't have to tryout
in order to get a place on the team and kids must all get
playing time. In some leagues, the requirement is equal playing
time. On Elite teams, often called "travel" teams because
they travel and play other top teams from all over in tournaments,
the competition, skill level and pressure can be high. Travel
teams practice several times a week and often spend weekends
far from home competing. Kids may or may not play in any game
and the starters may get far more playing time. In contrast,
recreational leagues are generally local community based leagues
with all the kids from the area. Kids often go to school together
and are friends. They practice less, play fewer games and
put the focus squarely on "fun" instead of simply "competition".
There are certainly advantages to each format depending on
the child. However, it is my belief that recreational leagues
can achieve the best results for all kids involved and provide
a superior experience for everybody simply by creating skill
based divisions of talent instead of lumping everybody into
Benefits of Skill Based Division - The concept behind
providing players with an appropriate level of competition
is to keep advanced players developing and interested in the
game and to give less advanced players an environment in which
to shine and feel like they're contributing. In our PC world
of today, everybody has a hard time acknowledging that kids
are different but we need to admit that kids have different
skill levels and they all develop at different paces. We also
need to admit that kids and parents like to compete to win
and even to lose. So, given these facts, here are some ways
that all the kids benefit from a skill based division:
1. More Skilled Players Compete Against Each Other.
Having more skilled competition helps everybody improve. The
top kids in this division will be forced to develop their
skills and bring them to a new level. The lower kids in this
group will be forced to keep up thereby enhancing their development.
Coaches also will have a chance to work on more sophisticated
elements of the game including the "inner game" which will
help everybody to improve. When the skill level of kids is
too wide, the top kids or the bottom kids will suffer because
they aren't being taught what they need to learn. Games will
be faster, more enjoyable for players, coaches and fans, and
be at a higher level. This simply makes the game and the league
more fun for everybody involved.
2. Less Skilled Players Compete Against kids of similar
skills. This does so much for these kids because it will
be a better learning experience. First, there is simply going
to be more opportunity. Instead of being the bottom half of
a better team, these kids are now in the top half and have
a chance to play more skill positions. This enhances their
development as players and makes the game much more fun and
interesting. Since all kids grow at different speeds, it also
gives them a chance to develop their skills and catch up more
quickly since they'll have more opportunity to play. Next,
coaches can focus on fundamental skills without ignoring the
top end of the spectrum. The games are better because all
the kids are better balanced and the competition is equal.
This makes it more fun for the kids, parents and coaches.
3. Playoffs are more gratifying and easier to set up.
The competition is divided already into skill levels which
should mean smaller groups. This makes having double elimination
tournaments and other playoff formats easier to accomplish
and also more meaningful.
4. Kids make new friends - broadening the community.
Since it is likely that skill levels can bring multiple age
groups together, kids will be teamed with kids that may not
be in their social circle. This means that they make new friends,
parents meet new people and since so much of our social interaction
revolves around the kids' activities, the community because
a better place to live.
5. Leagues can use different skill appropriate rules.
For example, in baseball, there can be several levels of kid
pitch baseball with different rules appropriate to the various
skill levels in order to allow for the development of kids.
Adjusting strike zones, ability to steal different bases,
leading off, walks, strikes, using a tee and/or having a coach/machine
pitch in different situations, can make the experience better
for everybody involved.
This is not a New Concept - Lots of leagues all across
the country already allow for skill based division of talent
and blurring of hard age/grade lines. Pop Warner, for example,
uses weight limitations and groupings to help divide kids
for football. When baseball leagues are large enough they
can separate the minors division into A, AA and AAA levels.
Some leagues have been hesitant because they point to potential
1) dividing kids when skills are often similar;
2) friends may not be able to play together;
3) some kids may end up in the wrong division;
4) some kids may feel badly if they don't make a certain level;
5) dealing with parents who think their child should be in
a different division.
However, while these are valid concerns, other leagues have
overcome these obstacles by:
1) have tryouts and drafting the players - not a perfect solution
but easy to implement and answer criticism;
2) just accept this and allow kids to make new friends;
3) no matter what system, it's possible for kids to be in
the wrong division so try to be flexible and allow for movement
and/or simply understand that while some kids may be in the
wrong division they will still have a positive experience;
4) explain to parents that this is simply where their child
was drafted - something that takes place already in almost
every league that has more than one division.
What I'm arguing for is to make as many different divisions
as appropriate to the number and skill levels of the kids.
Even leagues that currently create divisions based on skill
may want to reevaluate to determine if they might be even
better off making another division. Leagues that divide kids
simply by age and/or grade should completely redo their program
to allow for skill based divisions.
The Deficiencies of Age Division - Any division of
kids by age is purely arbitrary and very unfair to the children.
If kids are classified in a single 12-month period, the oldest
kids are going to be a full year older than the youngest kids.
This situation is exacerbated when the age division is a 24
month period. AYSO and Little League had an arbitrary cut
off date of July 31 (Little League is moving to April 30)
and many other leagues use calendar years. However the arbitrary
cut off date is determined, it creates significant effects
on the kids. In a recent article published in the Journal
of Sports Sciences, June 2005, the impact of age division
were studied by Werner F. Helson, Jan Van Winckel (Department
of Kinesiology, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Leuven, Belgium)
and A. Mark Williams (Research Institute for Sport and Exercise
Sciences, Liverpool John Morres University, Liverpool, UK)
in their article "The Relative Age Effect in Youth Soccer
Across Europe". This article studies over 2,000 boys and girls
playing youth soccer across 10 European nations. The results
demonstrated a statistically significant overrepresentation
of older children across all subsections studied.
As pointed out in this article, "as children are separated
into age groups there are invariably cognitive, physical and
emotional differences between the youngest and the oldest
ones". While a year doesn't mean much in the life of an adult,
for children there is. "Significant variation in academic
and sports performance may arise because of differences in
growth and development between those born early and late in
the selection year". The effect is that "A child born at the
beginning of the year will, on average, perform better than
a peer born at the end of the year. This initial performance
advantage is likely to increase intrinsic (observed competence)
and extrinsic (appreciation of teachers and parents) motivation
to continue involvement in a sport. This increased motivation,
coupled with greater perceived competence, will encourage
those born early in the selection year to continue to practice
to further improve and refine their skills compared with those
born later in the year." Because success breeds success, "Youth
players born early in the selection year, beginning in the
6- to 8-year-old age group are more likely to be identified
as talented by professional teams, to play for national teams
and, eventually, to become involved in the sport as a professional.
In comparison, players born late in the selection year are
more likely to drop out of the sport as early as 12 years
of age" (Feltz & Petlichkoff, 1983; Helsen, Starkes, & Hodges,
The obvious reason why this takes place follows: "To explain
these findings, researchers have shown that players with a
relative age advantage over their playing peers possess significant
developmental advantages (i.e. height, weight and strength)
that impact on perceived potential and predicted success in
sport. Given the importance of these early experiences for
the development of sport skills, strong relative age effects
in professional players might be a consequence of the early
onset of these effects in the youth age categories."
Conclusion - Since it is impossible to simply correct
arbitrarily created age differences without randomly changing
the age cut off from year to year, we have to acknowledge
that an attempt to be "fair" by grouping children by age creates
exactly the opposite effect: a system where the oldest children
have a huge advantage and are far more likely to succeed.
Especially in recreational leagues, where the goal is to have
fun and create enjoyable, long lasting life experiences, the
better you group the kids, the more likely it is that you
will succeed in running a fun and competitive league that
allows for the development of all the participants and promises
not only to positively include the most kids. The result may
help them to continue participating in an activity they love
which can best be achieved by grouping kids into smaller divisions
based on skill rather than age.
Copyright Ken Kaiserman - http://www.sportskids.com
Ken Kaiserman is the president of SportsKids.com
, a leading youth sports website featuring games, sports news,
sports camp and league directories, community features, and
Kid Sports with over 150,000 products.
Ken coaches youth football, basketball and baseball. He also
serves on the local little league board of directors as well
as the Park Advisory Board.
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