I consider U13 the hardest age to officiate for one reason: puberty. I read a long time ago that puberty is the biggest advantage in youth sports, and in my youth coaching and officiating experience I would have to agree. Every spring season most of our boys entering the U13 age ranks seem to have sprouted a foot in height since I last saw them in the fall. The growth of these players always takes me by surprise, but the varying rate of physical development creates a few games where the matchup looks like a battle of Goliaths versus Davids.
Last year I officiated an excellent game between two U13 teams of near equal skill, but one team was slightly further along the transition from boy to man. One of their attackman stood a foot taller than all the defenders and probably outweighed the closest defender by at least thirty pounds. This attackman held the ball during the last two minutes to secure a one goal victory for his team. The opposing coach was yelling to his defender to body up and strip the attackman. I was standing as the trail official near the coaches and heard the head coach of the winning team go: “You can try, but nobody can move him!” The clock ran out while the attackman held the ball and his team won, but this team didn’t win just because they were bigger and stronger than the other team. Like I stated earlier, both teams were equal in skill but the winning team was bigger and stronger. As my jiu-jitsu instructor used to tell our class: “Skill being equal, the bigger fighter will usually win.” The issue in youth sports is that many coaches don’t coach beyond the physical attributes of their star athletes. I see the same game plan executed by several youth teams every year: get the ball to the bigger and stronger midfielder, and everyone else clears space. While that may be a very effective strategy now it will not last beyond U13 because it does not account for varying rates of development.
I read through a very interesting document put together by USA Swimming and the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association titled: The Young Athlete’s Body: Physical Development. I highly encourage parents to read through the entire document to better understand how young players develop, but I feel going over the early maturer and the late maturer sections is worthwhile.
“The early-maturing individual is bigger, stronger, and quicker, acquires sport skills faster, and has more endurance potential than his or her peers. Thus, the early-maturer can be expected to be a star grade school and junior high school athlete. A major problem is that the early maturer enjoys outstanding sport success during elementary, middle, and early junior high school simply because of the physical advantages he or she has over his or her teammates and opponents. With the elaborate sport programs available for very young athletes in most communities, the eight to twelve-year-old can readily become a true sports star.”
It is very difficult for a youth coach to not get the ball into the hands of a player benefiting from such early physical development. I know because I’ve been there. The physical gifts of the player allows him to move around defenders like they were standing still, and if you put that player on the bench it looks like you’re not trying hard enough to win (especially to the parent of the physically gifted player). The problem I’ve run into, and seen other coaches run into, is an over-reliance on physically gifted players. Boil down all the movement in lacrosse and you find it is all about the 2 on 1. When the only game plan is getting the ball to the bigger and faster player and have him run over defenders, it will fail as the player gets older and his opponents start developing. I watch players that breezed by defenders in U13 panic in U15 when they get doubled by defenders that are as strong or stronger than them. The lack of field awareness by these players in U15 is a direct result to them being told, “go to the goal!” every time they had the ball, and most are stripped on the double and left staring at the clearing defenders while trying to figure out what just happened.
“With sport successes so closely related to maturity, it isn’t difficult to imagine the problems of the late- maturing athlete-especially for parents who were late maturers themselves. Many, but certainly not all, late maturers will be small in stature for their age. They will have less strength, endurance, and skeletal maturity and lower motor skills than their average peers. These children are going to be handicapped in many sports where size, strength, and endurance determine the outcome, and in some situations they will be at undue risk to injury.”
I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for the late-maturers because I was one of them. I didn’t reach my adult height until junior year of high school and I didn’t break 150lbs on the scale until college. I earned playing time by being quick and knowing where the ball would be. The biggest discrepancy I see in size at the U13 level is between defenders and attackman. The typical defender is tall and lanky for greater distance when throwing checks, while the typical attackman is shorter to give defenders less to check at when dodging. On average defenders are larger than attackman, and that gets seriously pronounced at the U13 level. Parents of larger defenders at this age level must understand that their child might be penalized more often simply due to their size because a hit or a swing by that player looks worse to the game officials. On the other side, parents of smaller attackman need to be aware of the risk of injury that their player may be under due to his size. For example, I had a game where a larger defender was running while watching a ball go out of bounds. A smaller attackman was in his way, but the defender never saw him. Size plus speed equalled a collision that sent the young player flying. I didn’t throw my flag and was ripped by the parents on the sideline, but I couldn’t throw my flag – the defender never saw the attackman. Any player can get injured on a legal play, through incidental contact, or illegal contact, but smaller players are at a physical disadvantage and that fact will always remain in contact sports.
Different rates of physical development create advantages for the larger players and teams with larger players. There is no disputing that, but size, strength, and quickness are all negated by ball movement. Coach your players to move with their heads up and focus on finding the open man after drawing a double. This works to the advantage of the early-maturer because he learns that he can be an offensive threat as a goal scorer and a passer because he draws so much attention from the defense. A focus on ball movement also works to the advantage of the late-maturer, who I see in every game open on the weak side and is only two passes away from scoring a layup goal.
Skill is the defining factor in all sports because there is going to come a time when the physical playing field is level. The goal of youth sports is to lay down the foundational skills of the sport because coaches at the higher level don’t want to waste time teaching players how to look for the open man. Besides, players will have plenty of time to hit the weight room when their bodies are ready for it. I’ll close this post with a pertinent quote by Duke Assistant Coach Ron Caputo:
“The difference between you and me is I don’t forget how good you are, but you do.”
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