By Viktor Gotz – Director of Coaching and Player Development
In general, playing up is not a bad thing in itself. On occasion players demonstrate consistent technical or physical superiority over players in their own age group. In these cases parents or coaches may wish to consider letting the player play up to be exposed to a more appropriate learning environment. However, in addition to the player’s soccer ability, other factors should be taken into account before deciding to let the player move to an older age group.
When the skill level of the new team is considerably higher, the player will be constantly competing to be able to contribute or even be a regular on the team. This may cause the player to concentrate on his strengths and may take fewer risks to try new skills and develop them. The player could thus become one dimensional, which is detrimental to his development and long-term success.
Experiencing successes is important in the soccer player’s development. It motivates them to do more and be better. If the new age group is too challenging, and the player is not experiencing successes regularly, he will lose interest in the game.
The emotional state of kids can vary even within their own age group, and even more so among peers of different ages. Their general interests and impressions may be different, and they may have difficulty relating to each other. Because of this, acceptance of younger players among the new team may be more challenging. Soccer is a team sport. For the player to succeed in his development, it is important that they feel as part of the team. They need to be happy and free of emotional and psychological pressures. If the new environment is not conducive to a balanced emotional experience, then the player’s development is not likely to progress in a positive way. This is true even if the player’s skills are otherwise a good match to the older age group.
Even if the environment is otherwise positive with no problems of acceptance or external pressures, consider that the psychological development of kids is not uniform even at a given age group. The pressure of playing with older kids can be too much to handle at any age. This does not mean that they are psychologically deficient, simply that they are not ready to handle this situation yet. When this self-induced stress is too much for the player, he may become too critical of his performance or discouraged, causing him to be angry and demoralized. Again, this can happen with players who are otherwise equal in soccer skills, because this is not due to inferior soccer ability, but to the particular player’s level of psychological development.
Some of these factors are more or less significant depending on the age difference of the player and the target age group, and even on the absolute age itself. It is also possible, that after an initially difficult transition, the player will find his or her place on the team and the experience will become a positive one. For example, it’s possible that the new player is not fully accepted initially because of his/her age, but as the player proves that his skills are a good match to those of his new peers, and he becomes a contributor to the team, he may quickly gain acceptance. This could actually have a more significant overall positive effect, because he overcame a social challenge in his soccer environment, and succeeded. Experiencing successes is an important key to long-term development; therefore such a situation could actually be a positive one.
To reiterate, playing up in age is a normal consideration for those with dominant skills at their age. When this situation occurs, the topic should be considered carefully. Even after the evaluation it may not be clear what the best choice is. The key is that if a decision is made to move a player up, the evaluation cannot stop there. Even if there are no initial concerns with the switch, it is a very important responsibility of the parents and coaches to continue monitoring the player’s skill development, emotional/psychological state, and general attitude on the new team.