In most areas of the US, soccer is still a growing sport. While, in a club, particularly in the recreation side of the club, a team may have a few players who are more physically, technically, and tactically advanced than others, there is usually a wide divergence in skill on a playing field at any one time. For clubs, placing players in training situations and game situations reflecting their ability can be a challenge. In addition, parents, some for good reason some for not, press upon clubs to make variances for their children. What is the solution? Under what conditions should young soccer players play against people not of their age? While clubs use age to divide teams, usually in one-year increments, is that recommended by US Soccer? Under what conditions should a parent press their child to play up? When should clubs say ok?
Playing up is not wrong per se. I think this is the first misnomer. Spokespeople for clubs have mistakenly given the impressions that youth should play in age-pure brackets, regardless of ability. There is no literature that supports this. Rather, US Youth Soccer advocates placing kids within 2-year increments. Sam Snow, the US Youth Soccer Director of Coaches, author of the US Youth Soccer Player Development Model, writes:
The majority of soccer clubs across the nation have evolved into single-year age groupings. This is done predominantly for organizational and administrative reasons, even though single-year age groupings have nothing to do with player development. Indeed, two-year groupings . . . create a better environment for player development.
U.S. Youth Soccer Player Development Model, p. 28 (Feb. 2012)
Another great document takes on the topic directly. In Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in the United States, it states:
When evaluating your players, it is important that you don’t confuse your players’ biological age with their ‘soccer age.’ Each player’s “soccer age” is unique to the individual. Your player’s soccer age depends on several factors: 1) The rate of each individual’s emotional and physical growth; 2) The frequency they are playing soccer; and 3) The soccer environment they are in (encouraging or discouraging individual creativity and comfort with the ball).
As a coach, therefore, it is critical that you are constantly evaluating and re-evaluating your players soccer ability. If your players’ skills do not match the demands of the corresponding age-appropriate phase outlined in this document, it is your responsibility to adjust their soccer ‘diet’ based on their “soccer age.” In some cases, for example, this may mean that a 16 year old player spends time addressing skills, or playing in numbers that seem more appropriate for a 12 year old. Best Practices, page 36.
The Best Practices document is incredible. While it is dated 2005, it is written for us – people that live in our country. It is focused on the development of US players, with our corresponding strengths and weaknesses (competition from football, baseball, basketball, etc.) In Appendix A, there is a section regarding “Ability to Play Up.” The rest of the material I am quoting is from that Appendix.
“Associations (or clubs) that create rules restricting an individual player’s options to play at the appropriate competitive level are in effect impeding that player’s opportunity for growth. For development to occur, all players must be exposed to levels of competition commensurate with their skills and must be challenged constantly in training and games in order to aspire to higher levels of play and this maintain their interest and passion for the game.” Best Practices then makes the following Recommendation: “When it is appropriate for soccer development, the opportunity for the exceptional player to play with older players must be available. If there are concerns regarding the individual situation, the decision must be carefully evaluated by coaches and administrators familiar with the particular player. “
The recommendation continues with a stern warning to coaches:
Under no circumstance should coaches exploit the situation by holding players back in their quest for winning team championships, nor should parents push their child in an attempt to accelerate their ascension to the top of the soccer pyramid.
What wisdom! As you can tell, the primary focus on the paragraphs above is the player, not a team. Clubs, associations, and parents need to grasp the concept of player development and reduce the emphasis on short-term seasonal success.
As a parent of five soccer players, I understand the pressure and situations that sometime mandate playing up. In rural communities, you may have no option. But, when given the chance, parents, we need to do the right thing. I am asked frequently about whether a child should play up or not. Many times, unfortunately, parents want their children to play up for the wrong reason – they want them to play with a certain player, they assume if they are playing up they are developing better (say, on a stronger team). I have derived my own standard that I share with people – here goes: “If your child can have the same creative influence, time on the ball, and opportunities playing up, then play up.” In other words, if your child, in a training session or game, can match the technical and physical elements of the game, then go for it. If your child is barely hanging on, make sure that there is no pressure from neither the club, coach, or, gasp, you to play up. If your child is limited in their role playing up, then they should not be playing up. If they are relegated to only performing one role on an older team, they should not be playing up.
Just a note about clubs…I have focused the language of this toward parents. But clubs have a big role to play here too. As a club, decisions need to made with respect to the best interest of the players’ development, not necessarily what is good for such and such club team. If holding a player back will make the club’s younger teams look good, that is not the right justification. If a club pushes a player up to play on a higher level team to complete a squad, for example, that is not the proper justification. Clubs, parents, and coaches should all make decisions with the same criteria – the best interest of players’ development. If there is a conflict between those three decision-makers (parents, club administrators, coaches), then someone is not on the same page.
The only other factor that I think is worth considering is emotional issues – can your child fit in emotionally with the other players on the team? I think placing a pre-puberty player on a team of post-puberty adolescents can be challenging because the subject matter of the conversations may be so far removed from what the player playing up is interested in, it could be unhealthy. (That is just one example). In other words, you might not want a 12 year old on a team of 16 year olds because they are not interested in the same things. I credit Jason Babcock for preaching that to me enough times that I get it.
As far as tactical considerations, little weight should be given. There are some exceptions with kids who enjoy great tactical advantages because they play the game daily, watch the game, etc., but those usually are also advanced technically too. Some kids are taught tactics too soon and, as a result, their technical development is slowed because, for example, they have been taught to pass when they should be dribbling. We should not play kids up because they “know the game.” We should guard the development of our players jealously, both as parents and clubs.