Every season, teams face the question of if they should allow kids to play up. When youth players show promise, parents and coaches put pressure on clubs to allow those kids to move up a year, or even two years, in the training ranks. Having been on both sides of this issue, I can clearly say there is no right answer. The problems with playing up can overshadow the advantages. In really small clubs, teams often don’t have a choice but to offer opportunities for better players to help fill out older teams. But most clubs have enough kids to fill teams at the appropriate age levels, so bumping players up would only be done under special circumstances. Naturally, all parents believe their child is worthy of those special conditions. Before you buy into playing up as an appropriate choice for your child, consider some of the significant factors that will impact that choice.
Some coaches argue that playing up for a strong player will only make that player stronger. Getting that tougher competition, being on a team whose players have an additional year of experience, and having a higher standard to meet can be the elements that improve your child’s play. However, competing at that level could also be overwhelming pressure for a young psyche. If your child is shy, cries easily, doesn’t deal with disappointment well and/or seems attached to friends on his/her present team, then your child is probably not mature enough to play up. Even though a player might exhibit excellent skills beyond his or her age level, the player may not be emotionally ready to handle that advancement. If the youngster holds back or begins to dread attending practice, then it won’t matter how advanced his or her skills are.
You also need to consider size. Younger players are often smaller than their year older counterparts. They may also not be as aggressive and risk injury, even if their size is appropriate for the older ages. Being smaller can make a move up intimidating, which would make a child hesitant to play, even fearful. When Robbie played up, size was an important factor because he is already on the lower end of the height chart. Luckily, his first experience playing up was with his entire U-10 team, so he was within the size margins of his fellow teammates even if he met much larger players during games. Nevertheless, I had plenty of heart in the throat moments as he got tackled to the ground. The entire team had to deal with lots of disappointment as it couldn’t always keep up, but the coach did it because he wanted the kids to play on a full field. This was the transition period to small-sided teams, and he didn’t want this particular team to be split up for a year and then get back together for a full team.
That’s another major consideration in playing up. Now the standard for teams is small-sided until U-12. For U-8, there are four players on the field and no goalkeeper. At U-9, there are five players on the field with one being the goalkeeper. U-10 has six players on the field with one being the goalkeeper. By U-11, you will find eight players on the field with one being the keeper. At each level the field size increases until, finally, at U-12 teams have a full complement of 10 players on a full field with the 11th player being a goalkeeper. Some recreational teams will continue to play with eight players, but if you are considering your child playing up you are probably looking at a select team. The advantages of playing on a larger field with more players would be growing the endurance for large field play, tactical understanding of full team formations and learning a position. The downside would be the inability to keep up or learn complicated tactics and skills, as well as being locked into a position before exploring all the choices.
If your child showed a propensity for mathematics, he or she may not be ready to skip up to the next grade in the other subject matters. It might be better to just get accelerated math classes and stay at the same grade level. That’s also true with soccer. It might be best to get some private coaching to work on the abilities your child has without assuming that he or she is ready to move up to faster and bigger team play. If your child happens to be big for his or her age, it’s possible that size is becoming a far too significant part of the decision to play up. Bigger players often look very skilled because they can bulldoze their way through players to the goal. However, in truth they haven’t developed advanced skill levels and a strong understanding of advanced team tactics. Therefore, playing up is being driven by incorrect factors. The best choice for most players is to stay at their appropriate age level so they can learn the skills and tactics necessary to surge ahead. If they play up, they may actually end up getting left behind because coaches assume they already know how to do a step-over, shield the ball or perform a proper header. If they don’t get the training necessary for the skills they haven’t yet developed, they may never get it, leaving them ironically worse off.
Most importantly, be sure that your decision to have your child play up isn’t being driven by ego. Parents often feel that their children are being short-changed if a peer gets the nod to play up, but their child doesn’t. It’s natural for us to ask, "What’s wrong with my kid?" We don’t want our kids to miss out on any opportunity that might give them a better chance to move up the soccer ladder. That’s why we have to be ruthlessly realistic about our child’s abilities and whether or not playing up would augment those abilities. We absolutely resisted Robbie playing up at U-13 because he hadn’t grown very much and most of his peers were bigger and stronger. Add another year of growth with U-14 players, and Robbie would have been dwarfed. However, at U-14 he did try out for a U-15 team, and then decided on his own not to play up because his team was very strong and already playing at a top level. It was a great choice for him. He did have a player on his team who was playing up, played for the U-17 Men’s National team and now plays for the MLS. Robbie wasn’t up to that level at all.
In smaller communities, playing up can be a way for players to get the competition and training they might not get at their age level. Overall, I would caution parents to err on the side of temperance. Kids who play up need to have strong maturity and skill. Make sure you evaluate your child properly. Don’t be jealous of players who are playing up. Understand that they may well be struggling, losing playing time to older, stronger players and feeling overwhelmed. Players who advance to high school, college and even the pros aren’t necessarily players who spent their lives playing up an age level. Most played at their age level and made the choice to find the most competitive teams and leagues rather than playing with older teammates. Be sure to consider training like the Olympic Development Program or a Developmental Academy team to insure that your child plays at the top levels. Ask if your club participates in Regional League, National League, Kohl’s American Cup, President’s Cup and the National Championship Series. Look at the team’s tournament schedule to determine how competitive it hopes to be. Does it play in Premier League in your state? All of these choices can create a strong environment both for advancing individually in soccer and for getting noticed by college coaches.
Playing up ultimately doesn’t affect much in your child’s soccer future in terms of how college coaches view him or her. Coaches are far more interested in how skilled a player is, how well a player understands various team formations and can function within those formations, and how passionate he or she is about soccer. Therefore, the choice to play up should be based on factors that can’t be found in your community in other ways. If you do decide to have your child play up, keep a close watch on how that choice affects the child’s play and temperament. If your child seems to be faltering, then reconsider the decision. No matter what you decide, make sure the choice is equal parts your child’s and yours. Don’t dictate. Remember that once you sign on to a team, your child is committed for at least one season and possibly a year. So proceed with care.