Much of this decision will be guided by your mission statement, your philosophy about athletics, and the communication you have had with parents about this issue. In high achieving communities and school programs, this question is particularly challenging. Each parent wants their child to have the best possible opportunities, and this can lead to covert and overt forms of competition and pressure among children and most concerning, among parents.
All of this is being driven by a culture that is becoming increasingly competitive and outcome focused. Travel teams, early specialization, extra training etc. are becoming commonplace as folks are seeking ways to get the edge without thinking of the potential risks of such steps. The fact of the matter is that overly competitive environments undermine the development of skill, the joy of participation and ultimately the quality of performance, particularly for young children. This is the most common misunderstanding in youth sports, namely, that coaching kids as if they are adults will improve performance. For young kids, it often has the opposite effect. So, we have to do a decent job of creating the best environments for them to grow.
It’s a hard message to communicate but adults need to understand that kids won’t learn or play well under intense scrutiny and competitiveness. Young kids are not designed to understand or compete at the adult level. They have to be eased into it over time. The question is when do you begin to ease them in and how?
So, without knowing important aspects of your school, mission, and philosophy, I will try to make a few general statements.
First is the story of Michael Jordan. Many folks know it, but it’s always helpful to remind them that the greatest player who ever played the game was cut from the varsity team as 10th grader. Imagine if he never returned to basketball. What a sad outcome that would have been. But he grew approximately 8 inches over the next two years and became the star we all know. The message behind this story is important. Children are physically, cognitively, and emotionally developing well into their late teens and early twenties. Given this reality, cutting children at the middle school age may be inappropriate. The great 7th grade basketball player may peak at 5’7”, while the clumsy 6th grader may turn out to be the most athletically gifted. Because we cannot predict who the great players are going to be all the time, we take risks when cutting children. We may not get it right. This story may help you manage the ambitious adults who want cuts for 6th, 7th and 8th graders. While we may be able to recognize the best players, it doesn’t always translate to what happens in the future.
Psychologically, students are dealing with success and failure at great levels during their middle school years. It seems that 13-15 years old marks the time when many kids begin to see their physical limitations and or gifts when compared to their peers. As mentioned above in the MJ story, this can change over time, but kids can start to recognize what they can and can’t do as they approach their high school years. This does not have to be a bad thing. It’s a part of learning their strengths and weaknesses, an important component of this stage of psychological and physical development. Some kids don’t get into an honors class (if you have them) or don’t score as high as their peers on a test, or they are better in Spanish than in Math. The key is that they are finding activities that allow them to build confidence and believe in their ability/competence. If they have no venue to excel then that’s where you run into problems.
If you are going to have cuts, my preference would be to limit the cuts to the 8th grade year. And this 8th grade team is the one that may travel and compete with other schools. Depending on your philosophy, these teams can be as large or small as you want depending on how much equal playing time you want to give the kids. Some programs allow talented 7th graders to play on these teams, which may or may not be a good idea. Generally, if middle school is seen as a preparation for high school, it might be useful to introduce the reality of cuts in the 8th grade as they will be facing these issues the following year. This way, the 6th and 7th graders can continue to participate in the sport of their choice, develop skills and friendships and be protected from cuts.
If you do have cuts, the big issue is to have alternatives for the kids who don’t make the team. So, if they don’t make the 8th grade basketball team, they can play on another basketball team that is less competitive. This way they can continue to play the sport they love, develop their skills, and possibly try out for the 9th grade team the following year if they so desire. It looks from your website that your high school has an active athletic, competitive program. Perhaps 8th grade can be seen as a transitional year.
If you decide to eliminate cuts entirely, I think this is a fine option. The challenge will be to convince the competitive adults and kids. They will feel robbed of a desired level of competitiveness and will complain that their preparations for the next level of athletics at your high school will be compromised. While this may or may not be the case, it could lead to a lot of tension between parents and administration. One negative outcome of this might be that your ambitious kids and parents will seek to play in other competitive leagues and programs which take them away from school sports. This can lead to headaches regarding missing school, special considerations etc, all a drain on your time and energy and may seep into your high school.
The reality is that kids are dealing with cuts in sports long before they enter your school, which is an unfortunate development in our youth sport culture. Cuts are as early as 5 years-old. Elite teams, AAU, travel teams, all-star teams are all exclusive. Generally, the key to a solid middle school sports program is to foster an athletic environment where the kids can experiment with different sports, allowing them to get a broad exposure so they can begin to focus on particular sports as they move toward high school.