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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 one group.

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 issues: 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; and, 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, 1998).

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.

About the Author
Ken Kaiserman is the president of , a leading youth sports website featuring games, sports news, sports camp and league directories, community features, and the Superstore 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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