In the United States university athletic system, the term “Red Shirt” refers to placing a player in an inactive status for his first season to give him time to develop – sometimes in cases of academics but often for physical development. The player retains his four years of eligibility for playing.
Apparently, it’s also an emerging trend for five year-olds – typically the age when children start their primary education in the United States at the Kindergarten level. For kids at the young end of the spectrum, it’s meant to help level the playing field for them. It gives them time to catch up to the older kids in terms of emotional and educational development so that as they age, they stay on course with learning.
For anyone who has read the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, this all should sound familiar. With many youth sports in the United States culminating in High School (grade based) athletics before the end of the athlete’s career or eventual recruiting to Collegiate athletics, holding back kids also helps in sports development.
Evan, our younger son, is at the young end of his age group. He has a late May birthday, with the control date for entry to school being August. Thus most of the Kindergarten class has earlier birth days than Evan does.
Likewise, Georgia Soccer uses August 1 as the cutoff date for each age group – placing Evan as a U6 athlete this year. I can verify that he is the youngest player on his team and is probably average sized among his age group.
So does that leave him desperately trying to keep up on the pitch and in the classroom? Not at all.
In school, he is reading as well as his brother did when he was in First Grade and is beginning to master basic math, spelling and other skills.
On the pitch, he is accustomed to being a dominant player on either team. He has more confidence with the ball than many kids playing in U7 and U8, as well as an emerging eye for playing in complimentary style with other players and shows a lot of patience when in possession of the ball to work for a shot or get open.
As his Dad and his Coach, I want to encourage him to stay engaged with the sport. He loves to play, but right now he’s lacking in opportunity to play with other players at his level or with his interest in the sport.
Last fall, I enrolled Evan into our club’s “Fast Track” skills program. While the age range for the session was to start at U7, I discussed Evan joining the group with the Coach. He didn’t see a problem as long as I thought Evan could self-manage and keep up with the group. After an initial adjustment, he was a competent member of the class and kept up well.
Part of my plan with pick-up soccer over the winter was to help my sons get exposure to older, higher ability and more experienced players. Playing within their age groups, they see such a limited set of players – but with pick-up we expanded their view of the game to include players in the upper-end of the Elementary School age group and both Recreational and Academy players.
As the season has started in the past two weeks, Evan has stepped into to attend the U8 team practice as well and participate in the “Team” part of the practice for about 30 minutes each week. Most of that time is spent playing 4v4 (Evan’s attendance is partly out of need – assuming full practice attendance we would have only seven players at practice.) Evan kept up with the rest of the team despite already playing with his own team’s practice.
Evan will be the U8 team’s stand-in if we should run into any weeks where we will be short on players – six players or less planning to attend the match. I’m expecting this to come up at least once, as the usual absences for vacations, Boy Scouts and other activities take numbers from our team. I’m interested to see how he performs in a match with the U8 team – I think he will perform well.
It’s hard to look ahead when we just started Spring two weeks ago. But – I’m really contemplating attempting to get him into our club’s pre-Academy group for the Fall. Although this starts with the U8 age group, I think he’s a good candidate for it.
He’s proven to be really teachable, both in Soccer and a classroom. He’s generally well disciplined and he has the passion for the sport that would help any player.
The drawback I see to playing in pre-Academy though is the format of the game doesn’t favor him. U8 Pre-Academy plays in our club’s U10 Recreation age group – which means playing on a 75 yard pitch in 6v6 play (instead of 5v5 on a 50 yard pitch in our U7 and U8 age group). Of course larger pitch would mean more physical demands on him, and the 6v6 format would be fewer touches each game.
The upside is big though – moving into an environment where he gets at least two professionally coached training sessions per week and better instruction than I can provide.
It might be a hybrid of the two options that works in the end – playing U7 in the Fall and then trying to jump to Academy in the Spring.
As a coach, age group director, or parent – how would you suggest a player progress?