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July 7, 2010 'Playing up' can be detrimental to players by Chuck Jaffe/
The blowout was nearly over, the agony of a long day getting beaten up on the field having worn on the parents, who started packing up before the players were even back to the bench after the final whistle. “Well, they gained good experience today,” said one parent. “Oh, I’m glad they played up,” said another. “It makes them better players.”
And so, at one of the first tournaments of the summer, I saw the spread of one of the biggest fallacies in lacrosse, the one about how pushing kids up an age bracket, de facto, makes them better players. Oh, it certainly can help the uniquely talented individual, but for the vast majority of players, being pushed up an age group is a bad idea, the logic behind it is poppycock and the coaches who do it regularly – rather than using call-ups as emergency fill-ins – are misguided and misinformed. There is never really any glory in “playing down,” where a team brings down older players or simply plays in a skills bracket that is below its level, but “playing up” has always been considered a good thing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to parents who were excited to see their children play up in club ball.
The occasional challenge, where one kid fills in or gets a chance to run with bigger dogs, can be a very good thing. And playing with kids the next grade up – the players who will be teammates in high school or college – is understandable. It helps prepare an individual for that next level. But playing an entire team up, so that the seventh-graders are playing high school freshmen or sophomores, or the 13-and-under fifth-graders are running against 15-and-under eighth-graders is a bad idea. For starters, there are the simple physical differences facing kids at those ages. There can be rules differences that require some adjustment and training, like full checking for girls or body checking for boys. And that’s before you ever discuss basic skills. When entire teams play up – as I have seen at more than one tournament this summer – or a club habitually promotes its best young players, the outcomes aren’t always so positive.
There’s not much those younger players could have learned on the field that day. They lost every game by double digits. They were little sisters, chasing big sisters. There were none of the purported benefits. The girls not only played scared, but they didn’t adjust and play up to the speed and strength of better opponents. They failed to adapt. Even the best players never switched hands or did the little things necessary to compete with superior athletes; used to beating kids in their own grade group easily, they had no answers sticking with what had worked in the past. Their coaches hoped they would improve on the fly, rather than through real work upgrading and building their fundamentals and truly making them ready not just to compete at the next level, but to raise their game and own that level.
It was equally disappointing for the older girls, who came to play and to showcase their skills for college coaches, and who instead were basically unchallenged for one of their games. The younger kids would have been a good team, a contender, in their own age bracket. The first thing any good player or team must do is win against lesser opponents; if you can’t take care of your own business, you’re not going to carry the work load at the next level. There’s simply no need to rush up the age scale when your game is incomplete; coaches and players can use those times to round out their play, to improve their understanding of the game works and to emphasize fundamentals, the very things that will help them dominate at the next level.
Indeed, anyone who has coached youth or high school lacrosse can tell you that it’s the rare player who is dominant while at the younger portion of an age group; your best fifth-grader, for example, typically is a contributor who grows into a star as a sixth-grader. There’s a reason why high school and college coaches frequently believe that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores; developing players get better with age. The allure of playing up is great, but players and parents should not be enticed. The practice encourages bad habits, there’s not much work on weaknesses or even a desire to fix them, and frustration mounts quickly. Despite the happy face those parents tried to put on the day, none of those players could have been too thrilled with three losses by a combined score of 45-6. The game we know as lacrosse has been around for hundreds of years; young players should not be rushed to play it at a higher level, not when they have plenty of time to learn it, respect it and fall in love with it playing with others their own age.