By Peter Tonsoline
The start of any season brings high expectations and excitement to both players and staff. Yet, this early optimism is often tarnished by a head coach’s two most important and sometimes disheartening responsibilities. First, the decision of cutting players, for whatever reason, is never an easy or pleasurable experience. Unfortunately, it comes with the job description of being a head coach.
The second task might not be as daunting, but in the long run may more challenging and thought provoking. That decision is finding the right time to move up a younger player to the varsity squad?
Most coaches would probably agree that this decision is strictly based on the player’s athletic ability, skill level, strength, speed and, in some sports, size. Weigh all these factors together and the outcome is simple – the athlete either can or cannot play at the higher level of competition. However, there are a host of circumstantial factors that can and should be used as contributing reasons to move or not move a younger player.
Defining the Younger Athlete:
For this discussion, the athlete in consideration is academically a ninth-grader or less, and typically 15-years-old or younger. This seems to be the maturation point for the average athlete where he or she will exhibit a pronounced physical difference to upper classmen. Before a move to a varsity squad can even be explored, a coach must be familiar with any state and/or district laws requiring a certain level of proficiency in strength, speed and endurance. Some districts may even require specialized maturation criteria documented by a school physician well before the athlete can even be considered as a possible candidate for a higher team level. Finally and perhaps the most important, is an acknowledgement and understanding from the parent or guardian allowing the athlete to move up.
Why the Move Up:
Ask half a dozen coaches why they have moved younger players up to the varsity squad at the start of the season and you will probably get six different reasons. Invariably, it comes down to one critical question a coach has to ask: Will this move help the varsity team, or will it benefit the athlete?
Many coaches will quickly respond that it can help both the team and younger player. However, it generally will not benefit both during a season. At this point, a coach must decide what is the priority purpose of moving up this younger athlete?
Without question, the need for a player at a skilled position, such as a quarterback, goaltender, kicker, pitcher, shooting forward, etc., is paramount to a team sport. However, a move to place an eighth- or ninth-grader in a starting role must be necessitated by the lack of an upperclassman in this critical position. It would be “team chemistry suicide” to have a coach displace a starting or incumbent junior or senior at the very beginning of a season without at least providing a chance to perform. A vacancy to fill at the position is another matter. But, admonishment of an upperclassman will have such a ripple effect within the team that the only salvation might be for the season to end.
Bringing a younger player up to reap the benefit of better competition at the varsity level is another matter. Undoubtedly, some younger athletes are so talented that leaving them down on a junior varsity or modified team would be detrimental to their development. But, a critical factor that must be determined is how much playing time that player will get on the varsity squad? Practicing with the big squad is a poor excuse to waste a young player for an entire season. A coach must have a playing time benchmark to justify that move. Will that young athlete play in at least 50 percent of the games or contests throughout the season? Game experience is critical in the proper development of a younger player, so denying that opportunity reflects a poor coaching decision to move him or her in the first place.
The Other Intangibles:
It is easy to decide to move up a younger player solely on athletic abilities and physical prowess. Perhaps, playing time is not an issue, and the team is okay with the decision to bring along one of the “babies.” However, experience proves that so many other aspects need to be considered.
Socially, the upperclassmen may find that young rookie enjoyable and a good teammate, but the stratification between younger and older teens is staggering. Whereas, juniors and seniors are wheeling into practices with their nice sporty cars and trucks, the eighth-grader is being dropped off by parents.
Most of the upperclassmen are preparing to go to college or the military, but the 13-year-old is worrying about joining senior high next year. How do young athletes fit into the social structure outside the team while going to a middle school building and not the high school? They don’t see their teammates until practice and then must assume the role of a pseudo upperclassman.
Is there an older player or players who will befriend younger athletes and guide them through the hierarchy of the locker room or seating arrangements on the bus for an away game? A young player who is labeled as a social misfit or oddity by just one upperclassman can be devastated and impair athletic progress.
Psychologically, the same social factors have the capacity to mentally hinder a young athlete asked to perform in a very competitive environment on a varsity squad. Placing too much pressure on a younger player to perform – from both coaches and teammates – can be counterproductive. Big game situations, playoffs and championship contests will fully test the mettle and fortitude of a young athlete no matter how successful he or she was during the regular season. In reality, an eighth- or ninth-grader will probably succumb to these pressures more often than succeed. The mental toughness and resiliency in stressful situations is still probably a few years away.
The Final Decision:
A coach must understand that moving up a young player requires enormous amounts of time, patience and understanding to fully develop that player. Unquestionably, development is much more complex than teaching the skills, strategy and tactics at the varsity level. The coach must be willing to safeguard the social and mental progress of that young athlete in addition to his or her physical safety. It is a sorry day when a coach moves up a young player to the varsity to “toughen them up!”
The finished product of moving up a young athlete should never be measured in the outcome of a single season. Often, the results will not be seen until that player is a junior or senior starter on the varsity team. There have been too many young athletes whose potential futures were squandered away by ineffective coaching methods and philosophies. If coaches simply live for the moment and exploit the talent of young athletes, they have done the greatest injustice possible. They have failed the athletes and the trusted role of their profession. Coaches are always teachers first, and coaches next.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Peter Tonsoline is a teacher and coach at Iroquois Central High School in Elma, New York. He has taught science for 38 years and has coached boys ice hockey, girls field hockey and girls softball. He has had several articles published in Scholastic Coach and USA Hockey magazines.