Redshirting: Should We Give Kids the “Gift of Time” in Youth Sports?

Image via; U.S. Army MWR


Can a decision made by a parent while their child is still in kindergarten affect the child’s athletic prowess and college opportunities more than a decade later?

It may seem far-fetched, but an increasingly larger number of parents believe it to be true. Parents are proactively “redshirting” their children – most often boys – to allow them to catch up or move ahead of their peers.

Redshirting Explained
Redshirting is a parent-initiated process that holds a child back a year academically before they enter high school. This allows extra time for intellectual, social, emotional and physical growth.

Most of the time redshirting is done in kindergarten; although a newer trend is for parents to redshirt their child in eighth grade, giving them one final “push” for high school and what they perceive as a better chance for a obtaining a college athletic scholarship.

There is no redshirting once a child reaches high school. State high school athletic rules prohibit this practice.

The term redshirting is borrowed from college sports. Redshirts are college athletes who sit out a year of games to acclimate themselves to the rigors of college and catch up physically with their older peers. They are allowed a five-year window of time to use their four years of college athletic eligibility.

A Decision Usually Made In Kindergarten
Parents have been holding children back in kindergarten for decades. For many years, the practice of starting a child a year later academically was limited to boys who had borderline birthdays: those who would either be among the youngest or oldest in their class.

The decision used to be prompted mostly by academic, social and emotional reasons.

“Most times it was simply a choice of helping the boy’s ability to succeed,” says Hilary Dr. Levey Friedman, Phd, who teaches in the Department of American Studies at Brown University and is author of the book, “Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.”

“An unintended benefit was athletics,” says Friedman. “In grade school, each month can make a difference physically.”

Redshirting used to be prompted mostly by academic, social and emotional reasons.

Numbers Show An Increase In Redshirting
The number of kindergarten students over the age of five has more than tripled in the United States from 1970 through 2009, according to the National Center for Education statistics. The numbers have risen from 5.4 percent to 17 percent. The Wall Street Journal has reported that in some parts of Connecticut the number of kindergarten students over the age of five is as high as 29 percent.

An increased emphasis on youth sports has helped fuel the growth, although no studies have ever shown its’ exact impact.

As youth sports have become increasingly more competitive, parents are spending more money on their children’s sports training and travel. Consequently, those families with means often look for ways to further enhance their children’s future opportunities.

“Parents are so concerned about getting an advantage for their child,” Dr. Levey Friedman adds, “A lot of this decision-making (now) is tied to athletics.”

Dr. Levey Friedman says that when families decide to redshirt their young child, they often switch schools so there is less of a stigma repeating a grade.

Boys Are Most Likely To Redshirt
The most likely children to redshirt are boys from upper to middle class families

On top of the athletic advantages, many of these parents also see a broader advantage to redshirting.

“Many middle to upper class families are concerned about how it has become more difficult to get into a selective college,” Dr. Levey Friedman says. “College admissions are tougher.”

One such case was documented by ESPN’s Outside the Lines program. Current Duke University football player Bryon Fields was redshirted by his father – in eighth grade. Field’s father, also named Bryon, told ESPN, “You get very few opportunities in life to manufacture time.”

He also noted that his son did not get a scholarship offer from Duke until October of his senior season. Had he not redshirted, Bryon would have already been in college at that point – without a scholarship.

Fields Sr. also defended his redshirt decision based strictly on gaining an athletic edge for his son.

“Take out the athletic part of it,” he said during his ESPN interview. “If we say: ‘Oh we repeated 8th grade because he’s struggling in math,’ nobody would have a problem with it; ‘Oh that’s great parenting. You did a great thing for him.’ But, you throw sports into it, now all of the sudden some people have a problem with it.”

The Redshirting Debate: Pros & Cons
Delaying the start of kindergarten can have many benefits.

“If you excel younger, you often get more attention and are perceived as a leader,” Dr. Levey Friedman says.

The debate though is complicated. There are no conclusive studies that show which decision is better. Every child’s situation is different.

There are families happy with redshirting and there are certainly families who wouldn’t do it again.

Karen Robertson, a California mom, who redshirted her son many years ago says, “I held my son out of kindergarten so he could be a year ahead. I had interviewed numerous kindergarten teachers in several schools.

“It was a mistake. For one thing, he was very smart and every year the principal wanted to skip him a grade so he would be challenged. He was bored with school. Secondly, the class he should have been with was made up of a great group of athletes who were also academically astute. It would have been a better fit with them. He still played sports, he did fine.

“Sometimes we parents try to control and micromanage life thinking we know better than the standards that have been set before us.”

Giving a child the “gift of time” certainly is not an easy choice. But weighing the pros and cons and making the decision early on is clearly key.

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