Redshirting: How parents hack kindergarten for recruitment

In September of 2016, Jack Ryan, a high school student from Briarcliff Manor, New York, committed to play collegiate baseball at the College of William & Mary. The 17-year-old has played baseball since he could remember and had always dreamed of playing at the Division I level. Even with his years of dedication, Ryan says he couldn’t have had such success if his parents hadn’t made one decision when he was 4 years old: redshirting him.

Redshirting is when parents decide to hold back their children by repeating a grade or starting kindergarten a year later.

“I don’t think I could have played at a Division I level,” Ryan said. “I don’t think I would have been able to be where I am today if I hadn’t reclassified.”

Ryan’s parents pulled him out of preschool for a year before starting kindergarten, effectively  redshirting him.

Redshirting allows children to develop more mentally, socially and physically. The child typically either repeats eighth grade at a different school or spends an extra year in preschool. The phrase originates from college sports, where athletes don’t play their freshman year to be stronger for their four years of eligibility.

The increasing trend is to delay children a year before they enter kindergarten. From 1970 to 2009, the percent of kindergarteners over 5, indicating children might have been redshirted, has increased from 5.4 percent to 17 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Many believe these redshirted students have an advantage in the recruitment process.

Ryan said he strongly believes the extra year put him in a favorable situation in the recruitment process. “I didn’t gain the strength and gain the velocity on my pitching until this last year,” he said. “I didn’t make certain changes until this last year.”

However, redshirting isn’t necessarily advantageous for recruiting. TK Kiernan, the Sacred Heart University assistant baseball coach, said age doesn’t play a large factor in recruiting.

“There isn’t a big discrepancy for us between an 18-year-old and a 19-year-old,” he said. He said coaches see more potential in a younger athlete, while a redshirted athlete has less room to improve.

Though redshirting is being used increasingly for children to gain an advantage in sports, and has become controversial in that regard, there are many parents who hold their children back for academic or social reasons rather than because of athletics.

Ryan’s mom, Carla, said sports played no role in the decision to hold him back.

“There were a lot of people who thought we did it for sports reasons, but when you make a decision when they’re four, it is really hard to know whether your kid is even going to like sports,” she said.

Carla Ryan acknowledged holding Ryan back “definitely” helped her son with baseball, even though that was not the motive.

Amy Susman-Stillman, director of Applied Research and Training for Early Education and Development at the University of Minnesota, said redshirting with athletic intentions is not as beneficial as many people believe. It can give children a physical advantage before puberty, she acknowledged, but parents can never be certain that the child will have the talent and desire to be an athlete.

Susman-Stillman said there is no data to suggest its advantages, however, it has become a more apparent trend in kindergarteners, according to the 2008 U.S. census. It is unknown why they were redshirted. There is also no conclusive data that being an older student affects development, said Amanda Brandone, an associate professor of psychology at Lehigh University. She said studies have shown experiences impact development more than age.

Jack Ryan has seen the benefits of redshirting play out successfully but there are those who have seen only the early effects.

Mark Kelly, a 9-year-old from Connecticut, was redshirted before kindergarten so he could have the “best opportunity,” said his dad Vince Kelly.

Mark Kelly is in the 95th percentile for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s height and weight standards. His mother Sarah Kelly said, “being older has helped him athletically. Not only is he larger and stronger, but he can manage competition better from an emotional standpoint.”

Even though Mark Kelly is bigger and stronger than his peers, that may change as he matures.

“The differences amongst children is much bigger when they are younger and that’s because the way the child development process goes is it’s much more variable, but by the time you get to high school the kids are caught up,” Susman-Stillman said. She added that after puberty, physical discrepancies begin to narrow.

Chad Knight, a Duke University baseball commit, agrees with Ryan that an extra year is beneficial. Knight’s parents had him do an extra year of preschool.

Knight, now a junior, credits his success to the extra year he had to mature physically. He said it would have been harder for him to get an offer since it is more difficult for younger baseball players to get recruited.

“I do think that in the long run it did end up affecting the recruiting process just because being on the older side of the grade definitely helps being ahead of the curve as far as physical maturity and performance,” he said.

Redshirting has become a widespread concept. Jack Ryan said more than half of his travel team, most of whom are set to play collegiately, has redshirted, and it is common among Division I athletes.

Despite its growing popularity, redshirting is not flawless.

If a child doesn’t have the passion or dedication to play a sport at the next level, then redshirting in kindergarten is ineffective, Susman-Stillman said.

“If you have high designs of creating a college athlete, there are a lot of things you don’t know that come into play,” she said.

Alexander Reiner is a senior at Staples High School where he is the Associate managing editor of the award winning student newspaper, “Inklings.”