For many athletes, playing up in sports is a great opportunity to challenge themselves and elevate their physical skills. As a parent, it’s important to consider the psychological side of moving up. Consider the athlete’s mental readiness and maturity level as it directly influences their ability to compete at a higher level. In this article, I’ll explore the mental skills side of playing up, providing valuable insights for parents, coaches, and young athletes themselves. The player’s best interest should always be the number one priority when playing up. 

I. THE BENEFITS OF PLAYING UP

Experience is the most essential aspect of athletic development. An athlete who is more technically sound and has a better baseball IQ than kids their age finds a better skill-to-challenge ratio playing up. Playing and practicing at a higher level comes with the opportunity to learn from more experienced athletes and coaches. Going against slightly better athletes helps speed up development, as athletes push to elevate their game and improve their technique. 

Build Confidence

For your athlete’s mental game, playing up successfully builds confidence. It’s encouraging to compete with older, more experienced players and hold your own. It pushes your athlete out of their comfort zone and lets them rise to the occasion. They recognize their own potential and capabilities when they hold their own against older athletes. Your athlete's skills and understanding of the game will improve significantly as it exposes them to more advanced techniques and strategies. Recognition and support from coaches, teammates, and parents further reinforce their confidence. 

Manage Anxiety and Emotion Positively

Playing up allows young athletes to learn anxiety management and emotional control. The increased level of competition and pressure triggers feelings of nervousness and uncertainty. Facing these challenges head-on, players develop coping strategies to handle anxiety effectively. Playing up exposes young athletes to a wide range of challenges, adversity, and obstacles. Learning to manage the corresponding emotional and anxious reactions contributes to their ability to perform under pressure.

II. THE CHALLENGES OF PLAYING UP

Being asked to play up is exciting, but it is not without its challenges. Athletes face a range of emotional and psychological hurdles. When assessing the potential negative effects of playing up, consider the athlete's age, physical, psychological, and emotional development.

Managing Anxiety and Emotion Negatively

Playing up amplifies sports anxiety because pressure increases to perform against more skilled players. Stepping into a more competitive environment with older, more experienced players intimidates and overwhelms some athletes. The fear of not measuring up, the pressure to prove themselves, and the expectations from coaches, parents, and teammates can all contribute to heightened anxiety and emotional reactivity. Physical skills and coordination and psychological and emotional readiness don’t always develop together. There are plenty of reps provided to build physical skills, but for the mental game, it’s often sink or swim. When they sink, it can have a profound impact on performance in the present. Also, an athlete who isn’t psychologically ready to move up is vulnerable to stalling developmentally long term, both physically and mentally at a higher level. 

Testing Confidence

Because of skill gaps, or because older, more tenured players are given preferential treatment, many athletes who play up play less. Star athletes who are used to playing and dominating their own age might not handle the bench well, psychologically. When they take the field, the fear of failure and winding up back on the bench can cause them to play tight. The ensuing underperformance creates doubt in their abilities, leading to a lack of confidence. This leads back to the bench in a vicious cycle. Parents who are used to watching their kids shine can struggle too, as they don’t play as much. This change causes a perspective shift for parents and athletes that must be managed. There is a negative mythology associated with “the bench” and “playing time.” It’s psychologically challenging to suddenly find oneself on the wrong side of either of these. You pay the same amount, travel just as far, but see less of your kiddo in action.

The Challenge of Team Dynamics 

Managing the age gap socially and experientially when an athlete plays up can be a significant challenge. A younger kid needs to have the mental and social skills to manage playing with older, more mature, and more experienced kids. Socially, the age difference might lead to feelings of being an outsider among older teammates. They may struggle to connect on the same level due to varying interests, school, and life experiences. Experientially, the younger athlete may lack the same level of skill and knowledge as their older counterparts, making them feel less than and disconnected. It’s also a challenge for parents to acclimate to a new team with new parents that already have established relationships.

III. HOW PARENTS CAN SUPPORT

Understand that mental skills aren’t a “you have them, or you don’t” proposition. For some athletes they come more naturally than others. Those kids thrive in the challenges of playing up. Maybe not today, or this season, but they will hit a wall at some point that is greater than their natural ability. This creates a crisis for athletes who identify as being a “natural.” For less naturally mentally gifted kids, the pressures of playing up can cause a loss of interest, avoidance of challenges, and separation from the sport. Either way, very few athletes can reach their full potential without attention to mental game development. Motivation, mental toughness, assertiveness, focus, self-talk, anxiety and emotional management are all trainable skills! They make every athlete that trains them better. If you want help to lay out a mental skill plan, let’s talk!

Obviously, parental support is an essential element in any athlete's journey, especially when they play above their age group. It can be a nerve-wracking experience for both the athlete and their family. When it’s done well, it is rewarding. Here are 4 tips for parents to help manage athlete playing up:

  1. Get good at emphasizing effort over results.
  2. Teach that mistakes and failures aren’t fatal. They’re learning opportunities. 
  3. Focus on the process of getting better.
  4. Look for coaches and mentors that also do 1, 2, and 3 above. Find environments that encourage the development and integration of all players regardless of age.

Growth Mindset

Adopt and promote a growth mindset in your family system. A growth mindset emphasizes the belief that abilities and talents develop through the right effort and are not fixed traits. This encourages your athlete to see challenges as opportunities for learning and improvement. They develop resilience in adversity and learn to love the learning process. Self-belief and motivation grow as they approach challenges, take risks, and continuously seek improvement. Learning a growth mindset yourself allows you to be a mindset role model as your athlete watches you handle challenges, setbacks, and failures positively. A growth mindset helps your athlete become more well-rounded and confident on and off the field. Look up Carol Dweck’s work on mindset if you want to learn more!

IV. WHAT TO DO, WHAT TO DO...

When deciding to play up, consider these healthy motivations:

  1. Your kid’s skill level is above their peers, and they need a challenging environment to continue developing their abilities.
  2. Your athlete has exhausted their competitive opportunities in their age group, playing up offers a higher level of competition.
  3. If your athlete is emotionally and mentally mature enough to handle the challenges of playing with older kids, it could be a positive learning experience for responsibility and managing adversity.
  4. If the child wants to play baseball at a higher level like college or pros, playing up can give them an idea of what to expect.

Be careful of these motivations to play up:

  1. It feels good when your kid is asked to play up. We’re human.
  2. Other athletes and families are moving up. We think we might be missing the boat.
  3. We worry that if our kid doesn’t play up, they will be overlooked later. 
  4. Believing that playing up will enhance the athlete's social status or popularity.

Balancing Risk vs. Reward When Deciding Whether to Play Up in Sports

This bears repeating: when playing up, the player’s best interest physically, emotionally, and psychologically should always be the number one priority. Always consider the long-term development of physical and mental skills, recognizing that playing time is critical to improvement. High performance doesn’t come without many quality reps. If your kiddo moves up, will they get reps, touches, and in-game action? Are they ready to go full speed with older, more physically, psychologically, and emotionally advanced athletes? The speed of play at an older age ramps up the load on an athlete.

Whatever your athlete’s readiness level to play up is, know the mental side of things needs attention. Leaving the mental challenges of stepping up to chance is a missed opportunity to develop and fine-tune their mental game keeping in step with the physical one. This is especially true for kids who want to play at a higher level. Mental skills training, with a coach like me, helps their physical and mental games develop together. They gain a long-term advantage over their competitors.

I’d be happy to help or point you in the right direction. At the website link below, you can see what mental skills training is all about, order my book for parents, or book for athletes, or set up a session. I would love to hear from you!

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I’m Dr. J. I am a mental performance coach and founder of Mind Right Sports Psychology. I work with athletes and their systems, building the mental processes that drive high performance. This includes individuals, parents, teams, and organizations, from beginners to pros. No matter what level of sport, mental skills training enables an athlete to perform at the upper levels of their ability consistently. If you would like a consultation or to jump right into mental skills training for your athlete, reach out!

Web: mindrightsportpsychology.com
Email: doctorj@mindrightsportpsychology.com

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