By Brian Gotta, President of CoachDeck
I spent eight years on my Little League board, and this is about the time of year we began our spring registrations. It is also the time of year that our board was inundated with email requests for six, seven and eight year-old kids to be allowed to "play up," a division beyond their age group. This phenomenon is not unique to baseball. Softball, soccer, basketball and other leagues experience it as well.
Because our league does not begin tryouts until players are age nine, our guidelines state that six year-olds play T-ball, seven year-olds play coach-pitch and eight year-olds are in machine-pitch. What we inevitably hear from parents with children at these age levels is that their sons or daughters are "big for their age," are "already hitting live pitching," and are "a little more coordinated and athletic," than most of their peers. Parents assert that their kids will be "bored," and "may lose interest," if forced to play in their designated leagues, and that in fact, it may be a safety issue to allow them on the field with "ordinary" kids. We even get offers from parents to have letters of reference sent from a private coach who could vouch for the child's advanced ability. Essentially, what we're hearing is, "my child is too good to be playing with other kids his age."
And while I never petitioned the league to allow my sons to play up, I can relate to these parents. When my oldest son came through the ranks I couldn't wait for him to get through the lower levels and into kid-pitch. I was fired-up about the prospect of steals, standings and league championships. I coached him in T-ball, coach-pitch and machine-pitch, but was impatient to move on to "real baseball." With my second son, a year younger, I was a little less fervent, but by the time my third boy got into Little League, something began to dawn on me: I realized that each stop along the way was going to be my last. And I began to appreciate things I hadn't noticed before.
I began to understand that for many of the kids I was coaching, T-ball might be the most fun they ever have playing sports. Instead of barking, "pay attention!" at a seven year-old boy who was dreamily watching a butterfly flutter around him in the outfield, I smiled knowing I might be watching this Norman Rockwell painting come-to-life for the final time.
Sure, league championships are great, all-stars is exciting, but there is also something to be said for those afternoons when kids are playing - and that's the key word - with nothing at stake. When no one really knows who won or lost, when the fielders make occasional outs, but most of the time everyone is safe. And the biggest suspense is what kind of snack there will be after the game.
One thing I've learned from watching hundreds of kids come through our league is that whether a kid plays machine-pitch or skips straight into kid-pitch will have absolutely no bearing on whether he makes the high school team, or, for that matter, even the 12 year-old all-star team. Sometimes I wonder if many "play-up" requests are not more for the parents' benefit than the kids'. But ultimately, the family and the league must decide what's best for the child.
So when parents with younger children ask my advice about playing up I tell them not to be in too big of a hurry. Though it may not seem like it now, it goes way too fast. There may come a day you'll look back and would give anything to have another year in Pee-Wees. I know I would.
Brian Gotta is a former professional youth baseball coach and current volunteer Little League coach and board member. He is the President of CoachDeck and also author of four youth sports novels which can be found at www.sportsbooks4kids.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.