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Playing Up: Don’t Rush It!

This is an excerpt from Coaching Youth Baseball the Ripken Way by Cal Ripken, Jr.,Bill Ripken & Scott Lowe.

By Cal Ripken, Jr.

I often get asked whether I believe in letting younger players play up. By “playing up” I mean allowing kids to play in an age group older than where they’re supposed to play. There really is no one answer to suit everybody. Kids develop mentally and physically at different rates, so each case must be looked at on an individual basis.

If kids possess the skill sets and are mentally capable of playing with older players, in most cases I would not have a problem with playing them up. For the past several years, my son Ryan has played up on his teams, which means he’s usually the youngest on his team. Ryan has always been pretty big for his age, and his skill level fit in well with the kids he was playing with, so the experience has been good for him.

As an 11-year-old, Ryan played on a 12-year-old travel team. In previous years he had played on similar teams, but I had limited the number of games that he could participate in to keep him from burning out. With his team slated to play more than 70 games last year, I was a little concerned about how he would handle it, but he made it through, enjoyed the experience, and had some success.

Still, as Ryan approached the age at which the field was going to start to get bigger, I thought it would be a good idea to let him play with kids his own age to give his body and skills a catch-up year.

Doing this allows a young player to be more successful or dominant, which tends to help his or her confidence. It also can allow a kid to assume different roles within the framework of a team, going from being just another player to being a key performer and possibly from being a follower to a leader.

Like Ryan, I spent most of my formative years playing up on various baseball teams. When I was 16, however, I had an opportunity to stay back and play with kids my own age. That experience was very positive for me and is one I would recommend for players who always feel the pressure to be at their best in order to play with an older age group.

Don’t be afraid to allow a player who is physically and mentally capable to play up if the situation arises. Also don’t be afraid of hurting a player’s or parent’s feelings by suggesting that the player take a year to play with kids his or her own age. Just remember that kids who play up always feel that they have to be at their best to compete. Giving them a break and allowing them to play with kids their own age on occasion gives them an opportunity to relax and build their confidence.

As we said in the first chapter, baseball gets serious fast enough. As coaches, we need to look at what’s good for each individual, not just for the team. No matter what decision you make, if you frame it properly, you can usually ease parents’ concerns and help them see that you’re looking out for their child’s best interests.

More Excerpts From Coaching Youth Baseball the Ripken Way