Should You Play Your Child Up — or Down — for Better Athletic Development?


This past weekend I was part of a panel on ESPN Outside the Lines discussing the idea of red-shirting kids in school so that they can better excel in sports.  The topic seems to be white-hot at the moment, as I have heard from many people since the show, with some in favor of the idea and others against it.  Interestingly, one point made on the show by Bob Hurley, Sr. was that years ago aspiring athletes would often play up, not down, when it came to strengthening their mental toughness and bettering their athletic skills.  That begs the question — is it better to play your child up or down for long-term athletic development?

The answer most sport psychologists would likely give to the question of playing your child up (possibly in an advanced travel league) or down in a recreation sports league is it depends, as many factors need to be taken into consideration.  First, we know from our understanding of Flow, or playing in “the zone,” that when competition is too easy or too difficult, less optimal performances will often occur (premature quitting also increases).  When young athletes play with easier competition they will become bored by not being challenged, and when they play up against competition far superior to them they run the risk of quickly losing motivation since they will feel they have no chance of being successful.  The ideal situation, therefore, is to put kids in situations where they are challenged by the competition.

Additional considerations when facing this decision include:

  • Risk for injuries, especially if playing up and/or specializing in a sport
  • Social stigmas, especially if holding a kid back simply to excel in sports
  • Establishing a precedent for the league and other families that may be unwanted
  • Long-term future goals, and how athletics play into them
  • Friendships and maturation issues – are there consequences for your child to hang around with significantly older or younger peers?

The reality is that for the vast majority of kids in sports they are perfectly suited for the age and league they are currently playing.  Only in extreme cases would it be recommended to examine playing up or down in skill, as most kids will enjoy and benefit from competing against kids similar in age and athletic ability.

For more help with sports parenting and coaching issues, check out The Mental Toughness Guide to Athletic Success e-book.