Monday, February 08, 2016
Few of us can be faulted for seeing our pint-sized soccer dynamos as the next Abby Wambach or Landon Donovan. They look so fierce and dedicated as they scoot up and down the pitch mastering the moves they watch their much older idols executing. We naturally see all kinds of promise in their skills and passion. Since youth soccer has a focus on development, the players advance slowly within a prescribed series of team and field size increases in tandem with incremental skills training. It’s likely that as our kids progress we may become impatient with the developmental program. We decide that they are ready for a bigger challenge. So the issue of our children playing up a year or two surfaces regularly. US Youth Soccer Director of Coaching Sam Snow addressed this topic in a 2010 blog. He came at it from a coaching perspective and had several good points, which I’ll summarize here. However, I can also speak to the subject from a parent’s point of view. What’s important to remember is that moving a player or a team ahead has to offer significant improvements over the system in place and has to have the full agreement of club, coaches, parents, and in particular the player.
As Snow detailed, challenging players and teams will always be a goal of state associations, the US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program and clubs. Associations should not be so dogmatic as to restrict a player’s “option to play at the appropriate competitive level.” He argues rightly that development requires players “be exposed to levels of competition commensurate with their skills…in order to aspire to higher levels of play and maintain their interest in and passion for the game.” However, the process of development created and approved by the United States Soccer Federation came from long and careful study of how to best develop soccer players and teams. Parents need to appreciate the value of these development programs and not always be in a rush to bypass the process since it could be detrimental to the child’s progress. Likewise organizations should not insist on a “one size fits all” system which limits the strongest players from advancing to the proper level of competition and training. Playing up should be an option, exercised with proper evaluation by coaches and parents.
Furthermore, kids may not need to play up in order to achieve the benefits of advanced training. Clubs can do more open training that shifts players around during practice giving kids a chance to test their abilities in a safer environment than in games against older, more skilled players. It also gives coaches an opportunity to evaluate a player’s readiness to play up. Snow places the responsibility for the “development of players and advancement of the overall quality in the United States” on the youth coaches, administrators and policymakers. It is their “obligation to provide an environment where every player is given the opportunity to improve and to gain the maximum enjoyment from their soccer experience and ultimately, what is best for the player.” On the flip side, parents can be advocates for their children’s talents, but should also defer to the judgment of those long trained in the recognition, development, and promotion of youth players.
One solution that Coach Snow offers is for “club (playing) passes” rather than team rosters. This allows coaches to slowly introduce players to higher levels of competition without overtaxing them or risking injury when they go up against bigger, more aggressive opponents. As he puts it, it “allow(s) for a more realistic and fluid movement of players between teams and levels of play.” It’s also a system that helps reduce the overall resentment of a player being singled out to play for an older team or a player having to permanently leave his or her circle of friends to play up. In general, the discussion of whether or not a child plays up should be initiated by the coach, not by the parent. Most coaches are actually motivated to move players to the highest levels they can play. However, Coach Snow also cautions coaches not to “exploit or hold players back in the misplaced quest for team building and winning championships.” He asks parents not push their child. Playing up may not preclude returning to an age-appropriate team, which “should not be interpreted as a demotion, but as an opportunity to gain or regain confidence.” This entire situation is best handled by the “club pass” option since it does make playing up a flexible process that doesn’t imply a “final” placement. Instead, players are given opportunities to stretch their soccer abilities with less risk and more support leading to stronger skills and mental focus.
Playing up has long been a tradition in soccer. Many of the most famous professional players began playing on adult teams while still in high school. On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of players achieving at the highest levels of the sport but doing so on the regular developmental track. Climbing to the top of the “soccer pyramid” doesn’t have to happen right away for a player to achieve long-term success. There are a huge number of factors to consider before playing up. Kids develop physically at far different rates at the same age. Therefore, a player may be quite skilled, but coaches are reluctant to move her up because she is small for her age. Playing against much larger opponents could result in injuries that have career-shortening effects. Likewise, that player may become so overwhelmed that he or she loses confidence, a mental state that directly affects play. Coaches will also consider how much support the player will get from other team members, which will influence team dynamics and the player’s adjustment. If the team has weak tactics, they may not be the best place for a player to develop. Finally, players do become attached to their teammates, so playing up with kids who have a different maturity level could be isolating for a player, affecting both mental and physical development. Coaches can best evaluate this during practices and with players filling an occasional “guest player” slot.
As a parent with sons who played up, I can attest to both the advantages and disadvantages of the opportunity. I primarily caution parents against rushing the process. We always have the option of having our children try out for older teams, especially if we feel our club is holding our child back. However, be sure it’s for the right reasons and most importantly that the player is fully on board. Kids can easily get overwhelmed by the bigger, more mature, more skilled teammates of an older team, even if they are perfectly capable of playing at that level. The first time Robbie played up was when his entire team registered in a U-12 league while only U-10 so that they could play 11v11 on a full field. The experience was generally positive. The kids didn’t win many games, but they definitely learned how to trust one another, refine their team tactics, and enjoy just playing because wins were basically off the table. By the time the team grew into being a true U-12 team, it was so strong that the players found success as a team — eventually winning state. They learned to delay gratification, so the experience went beyond just soccer. Even today, Robbie is really good about being patient for things to come his way, and I chalk that up to two years of slogging away towards a team goal of eventually being one of the strongest in the league. However, as a freshman in high school, Robbie was the first starting freshman on the varsity soccer team in 20 years. It was a tremendous honor but came with some difficulties. Most of the players were all driving and Robbie was two years away from getting a license. It also meant most of the players were partaking in far more “adult” get-togethers, which included alcohol. Finally, there was strong jealousy from players and parents that Robbie has “stolen” a slot from deserving upperclassmen. Luckily, his older brother was the goalkeeper on the team, so Robbie had support. Also, he’s just a likable guy, so eventually he won over the team. But it was isolating and frustrating for him on many occasions. All of his friends either played for the freshman or JV team. Their games were during the afternoons when Robbie was practicing with the varsity team so he couldn’t even attend to support his buddies.
Likewise, Robbie was not allowed to even try out for the older team on the two main clubs in our area because their teams at Robbie’s age level were not strong. They wanted Robbie to play age appropriately to strengthen those teams, something Snow counsels against. That was frustrating for him because his high school teammates were on the older teams, and he wanted to continue those connections. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop these teams from asking Robbie to guest play with them when they were short-handed for tournaments. Playing up has political elements, which can’t be ignored. Parents need to recognize how that will impact their family and especially their player. That’s why I’m so in favor of the “club pass” system. It removes much of the “gifted” aura attached to playing up and puts it in the right perspective – an opportunity for any player to test his or her abilities.
In Bryce’s case, playing up was completely positive. His U-14 club team dissolved just before U15 tryouts. As a goalkeeper he had very few options where he could play. Luckily, a U-16 Serbian team desperately needed a keeper, so Bryce found a wonderful home. He knew several of the players from his high school team and he loved the chance to test his keeper abilities against bigger and faster players because the entire U-16 team was actually playing up in a U-17 league. He got early exposure to college scouts, stepped up his game significantly, and made a whole new set of friends. Luckily, Bryce was fully grown at 6-foot-2 and 190 pounds. so he had no problem keeping up with the players on his team and in the league. For him, the opportunity had huge benefits, and were every players’ case like his, I’d be on board for widespread playing up. However, he never faced any of the resentment from parents for gaining a place on a more elite team because no one was left to care. His size afforded him the safety to play up. And finally, he was psychologically ready for the challenge.
The younger a player is, the more difficult it is to play up. We parents need to remember that our big kid at U-8 may end up a comparatively small kid the next year due to the uneven physical development of young players. Therefore, playing up may seem like a good idea that quickly dissolves. Again, we parents shouldn’t be in a rush to have our kids scaling the pyramid too quickly. Small-sided games at the youngest ages allows kids more playing time and an opportunity to try out a variety of positions. Moving through the well-studied and approved levels of development serves the majority of kids to keep them growing their skills and their passion while still challenging them. There is such a thing as a “soccer brain” and kids with a well-developed one are the best equipped to play up, but they have to be supported by their physical size, the ability to take coaching, their compatibility with teammates, and their maturity to handle the increased pressures. Parents aren’t always the best and most unbiased judges of these factors. We need to depend on coaches to make decisions on a child’s readiness to play up. If a coach opens the conversation, we should feel free to jump in, but on the whole we should not be aggressive advocates for our child playing up. Rather we should talk with coaches at the end of a season to discuss our kids’ progress and possible proficiency to play up in the future. The discussion should dissolve into an argument to persuade a coach, rather it should be the time to listen and learn how our children are seen in a coach’s eyes. Once we have that information we can decide how to proceed going forward. Should our child tryout for an older team? Does our child want to play up? How will playing up impact our family (loss of friends, jealousies, car pool disruptions, and unknown territory)? What are we expecting playing up to achieve for our kids (improved skills, praise, future success, and/or bragging rights)? Is our child prepared to play up in every aspect (size, temperament, maturity, and skills)? Once we assess these factors and fold in coaches’ recommendations, we can best decide if playing up is right for our sons and daughters.