It seems at the start of every season the topic comes up about moving athletes up a division.

While it may seem like a good idea at the time, are all the facts of the situation being considered? Sport Canada’s Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD) initiative has been designed to address just this type of situation. For the purpose of this document the athlete or child is refered to as “her” but this applies to both males and females.

Why do we want to move a player up a division?

  • Her friend’s are a year older and moved up.
  • She has an older sibling on the higher team.
  • She is too strong a player and needs to play at a higher level.
  • It makes the team numbers even.

What are we often overlooking?

Usually when these moves are being considered, not all aspects are being evaluated. Remember it’s not just about a player’s physical abilities (how well they play), we need to consider mental-cognitive and emotional development as well. Many life skills are learned through sport and the healthy development of children needs to support the opportunity for this to happen. Regardless of their physical size, children are still children and we need to give them the opportunity to enjoy their childhood and not grow up too quickly.

– Cognitive Development: Cognitive development refers to the athlete’s mental progression. We all know that athlete’s have different learning styles, but did you know that they also learn at different rates? This includes their ability to follow instructions, understand criticism, respond to competition overload, recover from training… and this is just a few of the sport related cognitive areas.

– Physical Growth: Athlete’s bodies develop at different rates and often respond to the stresses put on their joints. For example, different parts of bones grow at different rates and therefore are susceptible to different impacts. As an athlete hits a growth spurt and appears to be physically able to play at a higher level, their bones and muscles are undergoing a major physical change that makes them sore and achy. Is this the best time to have them playing up with stronger athletes? What if she gets shoved into the boards by someone twice her size! What if she blows out her knee because she is running on pavement, exposing her knees to an impact they are not able to fully absorb?

– Social Development: Consider the conversation that goes on in a dressing room full of influential teenage (or pre-teenage) girls. Should younger children be exposed to this? It is really hard to be a teenage girl! There is so much influence in trying to determine what is right and wrong, who to be friends with, and what clothes to wear. It seems trivial but in the life of a teenage girl these are life-altering decisions being made. And shouldn’t the influence be coming from their peers of the same age rather than those more developed and older?

– Leadership Potential: Youth learn a lot from their peers, which comes from interacting with them on a regular basis. It also comes from having the opportuntity to be the “older” athlete on a team and having a chance to be a leader, which is a skill that is important in life.

Compare to Other Aspects of Life

Kids are already growing up too quickly, wanting to be just like their older siblings and friends. Do we really want to encourage this? Would we apply the same thinking to driver’s licences and the drinking age, just because someone’s friends are older and able to do it?

What happens in two year’s when the same situation occurs. What if the athlete has not grown much from her early growth spurt, and suddenly doesn’t get to move up to the next division? How will her interaction be with her peers from the team she is having to play “back” on, without the support of these older athletes.

To put this in another context, in school we rarely see students skipping a grade. While there are many students whom without doubt show outstanding academic abilities, it seems obvious to most that this could pose a potential issue when it comes to their social development with their peers. In sport we seem to disregard all other areas of development except physical, and assume that when athletes show strong physical abilities at an early age they will always be ahead and develop equally in all areas. There is overwhelming research and evidence that shows this is rarely the case.

Ringette is a Late Specialization Sport

Did you know that some of the best ringette players (including those on Team Canada) didn’t start playing at the competitive level until they were in the U16 and U19 division? It’s true. Ringette, among most sports, is considered a “late-specialization” sport which means that playing at a high level at too young an age often results in player drop out.

And this doesn’t just apply to ringette. Take a look at our Olympic athletes – the ones owning the podium are the ones who enjoyed their youth sport experience that was focussed on having fun, and had great coaches that taught them life skills as well as game skills.

In speaking with some “higher wisdom” on the topic, one ex-professional athlete had this to add:

“It constantly worries me that we seem to disregard experts that have done research in the area of player development. It strictly states that having players at a young age play and participate in things that are not age appropriate can be detrimental later in an athlete’s career. So is the point that we are going to knowingly allow someone to participate in something that could work negatively for them later in life, because they really want to or just because they are good now. As an ex-professional athlete I am also talking from experience, I have seen athletes do things that were not appropriate for them to do at their age level it helped them get to a higher level in the short term but it also shortened their athletic career. This personally happened to me as well. If I had to do it all over again I would have never done the things at the wrong time. The Irony of the whole thing is the athletes that I got a head of in the short term caught up to me later in my athletic career in the end.”

The Bottom Line

As a basic risk management practice, our insurance provider strongly recommends that when someone plays outside of their age division, placement is done very carefully. The associations and leagues have a responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of their members (physical, developmental, and social), and putting them on a team to play against opponents older than them is often deemed unsafe. In the situation of any injury occurring, an insurance provider will typically evaluate the situation to see if any unsafe practices were being followed. Sports and athletes are no exception, and as soon as it becomes obvious a player was outside of their age division (regardless of the U ages) it will be questioned to ensure they were in fact capable of playing there for many of the reasons outlined above. When it comes down to it, is the decision to move a child up an age division really in the best interest of the child? In other words, ten year’s down the road will this decision have had a truly a positive influence on the athlete or will they have missed out on something more important?

Yes, there are some athletes who can move up a division and have a positive impact on their overall development. But make sure this is happening for ALL of the right reasons and not just for the benefit of one aspect. Let’s ensure that these athletes have a long, happy and prosperous career in sport. They are only 12-14 years of age and under at this point, they have many years left in our sport and others.

Note: For those who are becoming tired of hearing LTAD quoted as the reason things are the way they are, it should be noted that many other countries (especially those who have been more successful than Canada on the world stage) have been following our “new” LTAD mantra for year’s. This is not new knowledge to the sporting world, it’s just new to Canada and new to ringette in BC.