The Right Age For Travel Teams And Player Cuts

"What age is the right age to start travel teams? Should we be cutting players as young as 8 or 9 if the goal of our organization is to develop players for the long term?"

PCA Response By Joe Scally, PCA Trainer-Chicago

There is a general progression from the pure and simple fun of a sport, to learning skills, tactics and strategies, to becoming accomplished and competing at a high level. When the fun goes away, players leave the sport.

I was talking with a friend whose daughter received a scholarship to play at a Division I school that consistently competes for national championships. She turned down that scholarship and others because she no longer enjoyed playing the sport. This is not an unusual story.

Most eight- and nine-year-olds are at the fun stage of their sports experience. Cutting that short often chases them away before they can progress to the next stage, meaning they lose the chance to learn the valuable life lessons sports can teach. The short answer to whether eight- and nine-year-olds should be cut is "no." Everyone should have a chance to play at that age.

With the right support and encouragement most players can reach the accomplished level. We should put little, if any, value on our assessments of the relative abilities of young athletes. Size, strength, motor skills, attitude, motivation, and other traits are fluid qualities for kids at eight and even at eighteen. An assessment of who is the "best" player will change over the course of a single season.

Travel teams for eight- and nine-year-olds are OK as long as the risks and benefits are carefully considered. At any age, travel programs should meet the kids' needs to play, have fun and grow into their sport.

Kids also need balance in their school, social, family and sports lives. Too often, travel programs are designed to meet adults' needs for winning, making money, or gaining vicarious prestige from a child's success. If the demands of a travel program burden players or their families, if the fun goes away, there is risk of the burn out my friend's daughter experienced.

Contrary to what many travel programs use as a selling point, specialization does not make for better players. Every college coach I've talked to looks for players who have played multiple sports, seeing that they become better at their primary sport and are often better teammates and leaders.

Before age 12, most kids are not looking for such travel team trappings as practicing with and competing against other committed players, technically advanced coaching, and extended training hours. In most sports, players do not need these things before age 13 or 14 to develop into accomplished athletes in the long run.

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