The selection of junior teams involves balancing individual participation with skill development and the shift towards greater competition as children mature. Coaches and club junior sport administrators usually manage the selection process.

Play by the Rules has an interactive scenario specifically on the junior sport selection issues

Information to help you understand the issue

  • Junior sport should be fun, safe, enjoyable and inclusive, and maximise individual participation.
  • Children are less likely to enjoy sport if there is an over emphasis on winning, they don’t get enough playing time or they don’t play with their friends. 
  • Providing children with a broad range of experiences (team positions) adds variety, sustains interest and fosters skill development. Those on an elite development pathway will begin to specialise at varying ages depending on the sport.
  • Well graded competitions allow for better skill development and cater to children, particularly those in their teenage years, who seek competitiveness.

Early specialisation can result in overuse injuries, over training, boredom, limit skill development and prevent a broad understanding of the game.  Some who experience specialisation at an early age drop out of sport.

State and commonwealth anti-discrimination legislation makes it unlawful to discriminate against a young person when selecting teams.

However, there are some exceptions including:

  • the placement of young people into specified age groups
  • restricting young people who can’t effectively compete or have a disability
  • exclusion on the basis of gender for those 12 and over. However, this is a grey area and court judgments have varied widely.

When size doesn’t fit the age

If you’ve ever watched your pint-sized child racing towards a soccer goal while a group of advancing giants from the other team seems to block out the sun and wondered ‘are those kids actually in the right age group, or even the same species?’ then you’re not alone. One of the biggest challenges in junior sport is that we organise children chronologically instead of developmentally.

The issue recently received media attention when Brad Harrison, former NSW Waratah and president of one of the largest junior rugby districts in Australia, pulled his 14-year-old son out of the Sydney Junior Rugby Union competition because he felt there was a huge disparity in sizes of children in the under-12 and under-14 age groups which made the sport ‘too dangerous’.

He suggested that the sport needs to think more about whether it is breaching its duty of care to its junior players when a 40kg late developer is clashing with players in the same age group who weigh in excess of 100kgs.

A weight-for-age system has been building momentum in junior sports in a number of countries, among them New Zealand where there are weight categories for club and schoolboy rugby union teams for the eight to under-13 competitions. The weight cap for under-13s is 83kgs.

In South Africa, a research study1 of the issue has recommended that rugby teams be assessed by collective weight where a small proportion of players (say 15 per cent) may be above the upper recommended weight range.

Rugby league in Australia has also trialled the concept, with NSW Rugby League piloting weight and age-restricted divisions at the All Schools Carnival and gala days, and a number of independent schools associations also trialling weight restricted competitions.

Children’s physical development concerns are not restricted to rugby union and league. Judo and boxing place weight restrictions at each age grade levels, ensuring that players are given the opportunity to play against an opponent of comparable size, strength and development.

American football also has had weight restrictions in place for junior age players, with a mid-range weight also used to dictate positions that particular players are allowed to fill.

Both boxing and American football allow for growth in players over the season, with specific figures put on how much weight they can gain while remaining eligible to play at their grade.

Netball Australia has also recognised the uneven spread in growth and maturation of young players, and its junior sports policy requires coaches and administrators to recognise ‘individual needs within chronological age groupings’.

Beyond the safety implications of children of vastly different sizes playing against one another, sports researchers are also suggesting that size and physical maturity can also influence how much attention players receive from coaches and sports administrators. Called the Relative Age Effect, it describes how top-level sport is often dominated by players born at certain times of the year and physical maturity is often cited as the cause.

The theory goes that bigger children are seen as more skillful and get more playing time. And because they get this, these older (in their age category) children are also getting more practice, which in turn allows them to improve faster. The faster they improve, the more they stand out and the more playing time they get. The cycle continues and contributes to an increasing skill gap between younger and older children in an age band.

Conversely, research has found that players born later in an age cut-off year are more likely to drop out of sport. Together, these statistics suggest that children born earlier in a cut-off year are physically more mature (that is, bigger) and therefore have an advantage over others in their year group.

While the Australian Rugby Union is said to be considering a number of measures to update its safety processes as part of a revised national policy to be introduced in 2017, there are several steps that sports can take when considering the issue of physical development and competition for juniors.

The WA Department of Sport and Recreation has produced a physical growth and maturation guide2 for junior sport that offers strategies for accommodating growth and physical maturation.

Play by the Rules also has a number of articles and interactive scenarios on its website around team selection and girls playing on boys’ teams that deal with the issue of competitors’ physical size.