“My son’s a shortstop.”
“My daughter’s a striker.”
“My kid’s a point guard.”
All too often, sports parents approach the coach with these type of sentiments. They believe they’re doing their child a favor. “Why have them waste their time fussing with other positions when I know which one’s best for them?” they reason. Same for the youth sports coaches who force players into one position because they think it gives them the best chance at winning. Winning is good, right? So why not keep them where they help the team most?
But in reality, youth athletics, particularly between the ages of 5 and 10, should be a time for kids to experience everything the sport has to offer. That means playing a variety of positions. In the long run, this will often serve them infinitely better than confining them to one spot on the field or court. Playing different positions offers many of the same benefits of playing multiple sports, and just as youth athletes should not be pressured to specialize in one sport too early, they should not be forced to play solely one position too early.
For one, we have no idea how these kids will mature. See that 7-year-old who’s dominating at forward on the youth soccer team? The one who’s bigger, faster and more coordinated than their peers? Well, odds are they won’t be the biggest, fastest and most coordinated player on the field by the time they’re 17. If they only played forward during their youth because that’s generally the spot where the most physically mature kids thrive, they’ll likely be ill-prepared to change positions later in life after that physical advantage suddenly vanishes. Same goes for the tall, lanky third-grader who gets stuck as the all-time center in basketball. When his growth spurt isn’t quite as significant as his peers, what foundation of skill will he have to draw from when he tries to make the freshman team as a forward or guard?
We must also consider the sports experience from the child’s eyes first and foremost. If we only stick a kid at say, right field in baseball, and they don’t enjoy it because it’s not enough action, why would they want to keep playing? A couple seasons go by, and they quit baseball because it simply “isn’t fun.” Well, imagine if he had a chance to play a position like pitcher or catcher, where there’s action on every pitch? Their perspective on the sport could’ve been totally different!
“At a young age, you don’t know what your best position is,” Bob Motzko, head men’s hockey coach at the University of Minnesota and 2018 Herb Brooks Coach of the Year award winner, told ADMKids.com. “At the younger ages, the biggest benefit of playing around is just finding what kind of hockey player you are and where you’re having the most fun.”
If we truly value sports and believe in the lessons they can teach the next generation, burnout is the worst thing that can happen to a youth athlete. Burnout refers to a young athlete reaching physical and emotional exhaustion with regards to playing a certain sport, causing them to drop it all together. According to the National Alliance for Sports, it’s now estimated roughly 70 percent of kids who get involved in competitive sports prior to their teenaged years quit organized sports all together before they reach age 13. By consistently varying the positions they play, we ensure youth athletes experience all a sport has to offer. Not only should this help avoid early burnout, but it should also help build more versatile, well-rounded athletes.
When DeAndre Ayton first picked up basketball at age 12, his coaches forced him to go through post drills with the other tall kids. But Ayton watched the guards with envy. “When I started playing basketball, they always would have me at the block, and I’m like, ‘Yo, I don’t want to play down here,'” Ayton told ESPN. “I want to do something else. This is not entertaining to me, and whatever the guards do, I wanted to do. In practice, I’m not doing post work. I want to dribble the ball. I want to shoot, too.” He eventually found coaches who allowed him to do that, and he developed an incredibly versatile game. While Ayton ultimately did make it to the NBA as a center, that exposure to the skillsets and strategy required by other positions is a huge reason he’s such a transcendent talent. He refused to be pigeonholed as a traditional center, which is why he can do things traditional centers could never dream of. As versatility becomes increasingly appreciated in modern sports, the players who can do many things well become highly sought after.
Being able to experience the sport from different positions also helps players view the game more cerebrally. When you’ve experienced the sport from different roles, you know how to better set up teammates for success, and you also have greater insights into how the opponent may attack you. For much of his amateur football career, Minnesota Vikings rookie cornerback Mike Hughes was a quarterback. He has zero doubt his time under center gave him an edge over other defensive backs. “I know how to anticipate where the quarterback wants to get the receiver the ball, (I know) how to anticipate different formations and where they want to attack our defense,” Hughes told STACK.
Carson Wentz grew up playing positions like running back, cornerback and safety before finally becoming a quarterback midway through high school. Like Hughes, he believes his experience at other positions during his younger days ultimately made him better at the position he played when the games started mattering more. “Playing all those different positions as a kid made me grasp the game so much better. The best way to understand the mentality of a safety is to play snaps there. When I eventually hit my growth spurt, they moved me to quarterback, and I stuck,” Wentz wrote in a piece for The Player’s Tribune.
Mike Matheny covered the topic of kids playing multiple positions on his blog, MikeMatheny.com. Matheny played 13 seasons in the MLB as a catcher, winning four Gold Glove awards. He then coached little league baseball for several years before becoming the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, where he led the team to three straight division titles between 2013 and 2015.
“I do believe that kids should start putting more time into certain positions, but that is not until they are well into their teenage years. We are seeing kids who are just getting started in the game that are told that they are ‘Pitcher Only.’ Are you kidding me? These kids don’t even know which position they may have the most interest in, and it is being decide for them by a coach or parent. Please, let these kids play all the positions on the field at the beginning stages of the game, and I am not just talking about tee-ball,” Matheny writes. “I know that it is hard to put a kid out there who can hardly catch a ball, but if you go about it the right way, he will eventually get there. At the youth level, every kid should play the same amount. Fight the temptation to keep putting the kids out there who excel at certain positions.”
Matheny notes his only exception to the rule would be catcher, as if a kid is terrified of the position, they shouldn’t be forced into it. But otherwise, every player should play every position, including pitcher.
“The best way that I have seen it done, is to have the kids list out which positions they love to play, and then which ones they would like to learn more about. I would suggest that you tell every one of your kids that the team needs them to pitch, so that none of the other kids will end up hurting their arms,” Matheny writes. “The lesser talented kids will usually shy away from pitching, because it is such a high pressure and visible position. What I have seen though, is that once you get them out there, and they throw a few strikes and eventually get some outs, they are so proud of themselves and will feel like they are a big part of the team. They will see that they can do it, and will start working harder on their throwing skills and will be a better overall player in the long run. If you keep firing the worst kid on your team out in right field, they are going to lose interest in the game overall, and once again, what is the purpose here?”
Like specializing in one sport, kids have plenty of time to focus on one position as they get older. They have plenty of time to play on teams that prioritize winning first and foremost. Youth sports should be more about allowing kids to have fun and experience many aspects of the sport rather than trying to groom them for future stardom at a specific position.
Once we accept that kids should play multiple positions, we need to ask ourselves how to best go about it? It’s a topic that could easily be worth its own piece, and perhaps a piece for each respective sport. Some youth leagues have specific rotation rules that must be followed, but what about leagues that do not?
Ultimately, discussions between coaches and players can provide a lot of insight into how effective a rotation process is. Questions such as “How did that position feel different from the others one you’ve played?”, “What did you like about that position?”, and “What did you not like about that position?”, can help coaches realize if their rotation is giving players ample time to experience a role and learn what the kids are getting out of the experience.
Photo Credit: GoodLifeStudio/iStock