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The Age Debate: Waiting for Superman?

It is May 2022. My middle child is about to graduate from college. I had not taken a look at this archived blog in a long time. While I know the topic is so relevant, it felt so far removed once my kids all got to college. But then I read the last part where I mention kids getting burned out, injured, or just not having what it takes for college. And it hit home on such a deep level. Facebook memories constantly remind me of the journey my kids took to get to the college level. In those memories are often pictures of other friends that were either teammates or the competition. And I am repeatedly struck by the question I ask myself: I wonder whatever happened to....? So many of those kids never made it past junior tennis, club baseball, or club water polo. They just disappeared. Clearly, they did not. And age was likely not a factor for most of them. They simply burned out, recognized they didn't have the talent or drive to play at the next level, or found other activity sources. As for the age debate, my three children thrived in college athletics even when they were the youngest. After a gap year, my graduating daughter ironically earned the nickname "old lady." I know she never would have thought that possible since she was always the youngest. And my youngest daughter is finishing her junior year. Her coach told me she's one of the most mature on the team even though she is still one of the youngest. What do you know? The reality is that we don't. In the end, we do what is best for our kids and try to avoid asking ourselves "what if" questions. Because "what if" we're wrong?!

In 2015, I wrote: When it came time to send my kids off to school, we were faced with the question of ‘to send or not to send?’. All three were born in September. As I get ready to send my oldest off to college at the end of summer, I sometimes wish I could hang on to him for one more year. Selfishly, I toy with regret that we should have waited. But here is the reality: He was ready on every level to start school a few days shy of five. It was not a decision we took lightly. I was an October birthday who went ahead and worked hard to achieve and show I belonged where I did. My November birthday brother was held back that year and became a master of all things social but was bored out of his mind academically. It is a conundrum we as parents are faced with when trying to decide what is best all-around for our kids.

It was a tough enough decision to make without throwing in sports. Yes, I was posed with the question by overzealous parents about wanting my son to be a stud when he got to high school. “Don’t you want him to be superman for sports when he’s in high school?” they would ask. I was stumped by the question. “He’s four,” I would reply. “How do I know if he’s even going to be an athlete?” Delaying his academic and social growth for the possibility that he might be a great athlete was the last thing I was thinking about. My underlying thought was always this: if a child is going to excel as an athlete, they will do so whether they are seventeen when they’re a senior or eighteen. There is no crystal ball that will let us accurately predict their future success.

We have encountered the age debate recently in tennis. There have been many girls we know who are repeating their eighth grade year (by homeschooling). By repeating that year, their apparent value as a five-star or blue chip player enhances their ability to play in college. The fact that they have been rating and ranking the players since they were in sixth grade is still mind boggling to me. I have joked that my five star daughter would likely be a blue chip if we had her repeat this year. She just looks at me and says, “No.” But parents can be nuts in their single minded pursuit of that scholarship money. There are no guarantees in life and certainly not in the world of college athletics.

While there is no question that August/September birthdays (and beyond) warrant careful evaluation of whether to start school or wait, I am continually dumbfounded by the athletics question that is posed. This year in tennis completely threw me for a loop. How does a fourteen year old explain to her friends that she’s dropping out of school and repeating eighth grade? The parents’ explanations are also equally entertaining. To me, there are so many other variables that those kids will have to face. Most importantly, what if they burn out, get injured, or just don’t have what it takes to make it in college? Those parents have plans. God forbid, those kids fail those parents.

My son will realize his dream of playing college baseball at a Division 3 college. And I will admit that there have been a few times over the course of the past few recruiting years where it’s been mumbled ‘if you held him back, they’d be drooling over him.’ That’s a big question mark and one I don’t regret. I’m not always sure my son is mature enough yet, but that’s at home not at school or on the baseball field. There he is the embodiment of the perfect senior regardless his age. In the end, I truly believe it was always the right decision. He excelled without waiting the year. Now the only reason I wish he was held back is so that I can hold on a little longer. [I am still wishing for this all these years later.]

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