Playing Up an Age Group


Do you have a particularly talented player in your team? Often in smaller grassroots clubs (in terms of the total number of registered players), there might not be a team in a higher division for this talented player to join for a greater challenge, meaning they need to stay in a team with players a lot further behind in terms of their development, or instead play up in an older age group.

Maybe they can join a different club that plays at a higher level, for example going from a community club to an NPL club, but this isn’t an option for Miniroos age groups, and even with teenage players, by the time you have indentified the player’s talent, it may be too late to make such a move (local NPL clubs may have already finished selecting their teams at the end of the previous year). So there might not be a chance for them to move up a level until next season. Or, maybe they actually trialled but missed out on a place with an NPL team, but within your team they are still a step above everyone else.

In the past when the number of players playing football in Australia was smaller, there often wasn’t a choice, especially in regional areas and especially for girls – you would often see players as young as 12 years old sometimes in the senior women’s squad, because there wasn’t anywhere else for them to play. Or girls would have to play with boys throughout their junior years (assuming that was an option at all, and assuming they would be comfortable with that), which can be argued does have some benefits socially for the boys and for the development as a player for the girl, but there are now more and better pathways for female players.

The most important principle is that you shouldn’t hold a talented player back who wants to push themselves. At the same time, a talented player who doesn’t want to be challenged and just wants to play socially with their friends for example, should also have their choices respected. Taking on a greater challenge can be encouraged, and providing some information and advice on the potental benefits of pushing themselves might help them realise that they actually would like to give it a try, but again, it should not be a case of forcing or pressuring them.

If they do end up staying in their current team, the difference in quality might also have a negative impact on their teammates if they end up trying to do everything themelves out of frustration at the other players not being able to play the way that they can. This would also cause their teammates frustration too. To avoid such a conflict in the squad, try giving this player individual challenges: in training they can have a limited number of touches for example, or be rewarded more if they set up goals than for scoring them by themselves. It could also be a case of asking them to help other players, like as a mentor, if they are willing to try that. Be careful not to do this all the time however, as sometimes they might just want to play freely without restriction or needing to worry about someone else.

For those who are keen to take the next step, there are still questions to consider before before moving them up, whether that is to a higher division or a higher age group. Are they the best player in the team EVERY week, not just sometimes? This is a step every player should work towards before being considered for a promotion to a higher division or age group, as this shows/justifies that they are more likely to be ready for the step up.

Skill is not the only consideration however, especially when it comes to playing with older players. The difference in age might result in a physical mismatch. For example, consider this scenario:

Imagine your player is an U14, born on December 31, 2005. This means they are the youngest player in your team, as everyone else would have been born earlier in that year. Now, imagine the team they moving up to (U15) consists of players all born in January 2004. This means they would be 24 months behind all of their new teammates in terms of their physical development. The gap between their respective dates of birth is only a guide too, as their respective biological ages may be even greater than this, and smaller players often stay smaller because they are constantly using a lot more energy to keep up with their bigger peers. Of course, this is a very unlikely scenario, but it helps highlight an important point.

What is the actual difference between U14s level and U15s level in terms of football? They play the same game with the same rules, and players can be equally talented at both levels, so what does the physical advantage of an extra year of playing the game allow U15s to do differently? The answer is intensity: they can play a bit faster. It is the same principle when comparing an U20s team and senior men, or an NPL side and an A-League side. This can be illustarted by looking at football actions per minute, represented with an X:

U14s might be used to a certain intensity                    X – – – X – – – X
U15s might be used to a slightly higher intensity       X – – X – – X

So there is a risk: pushing a player up an age group may result in it becoming a situation of physical survival for that player, instead of survival of the best football talents. They will be pushed off the ball more, and struggle to keep up with the pace, instead of being able to use their higher level of skill to their advantage. This might also result in them actually playing less too, because the coach might feel they need more time to adapt.

The extra exertion the player will need to make to keep up is the same as training longer, and so therefore there is a risk of overtraining. This can lead to injuries and growth issues, especially if they also play other sports or do extra training outside of team training, which can be common for talented players.

Even more caution should be taken when considering having them play and train with both teams. Also, moving to higher age group AND a higher division is an even greater jump, as in moving up two age groups. This can become an ethical issue – you don’t want to stunt their growth for life by pushing them too far. It is actually a lot more common than people realise for young athletes to get burnt out through overtraining. Perhaps one option is to join a team in an older age group but at a lower division – the only question then will be, is it still even worth changing at all?

If this line of thinking suggests being careful when having a smaller player join a team of much more physically developed players, then logically then opposite should be true, right? If a player is much bigger than their peers, should they automatically be moved up?

The first question to consider in this scenario is whether football is a primarily physical or technical sport? The answer is actually quite simple – look at Lionel Messi. End of argument!

Consider this scenario:
A bigger player in U14s often has more time and space on the ball: their usual behaviour is to dribble, even when a forwards pass might actually be the best option, because they can get away with it. Coaches may not even notice the missed passing opportunities that much, because this bigger player will rarely lose the ball, and often score great goals with powerful shots, due to their size. It might become a case of ‘accepting the good with the bad’. For an age group like U14s however, simply ‘accepting’ flaws, no matter how good they may be at other things, might not be the best approach.

Now this player moves up to U15s. Here they find their physical size less of an advantage, and there is also less time and space because the older players can play with greater intensity. So their new behaviour now becomes to look for forward passes because they cannot get away with dribbling and shooting from distance all the time anymore.

Stimulus: more time and space = response: dribble
Stimulus: less time and space = response: pass forwards

But what if after a while, the player adapts to the higher age group, and starts to find themselves in more time and space on occasion, like before? Time and space = dribble, so even in the older age group, their behaviour actually hasn’t changed at all (only the stimulus has). The issue is decision making, which means even if they were to one day graduate to the senior team, they will still have this same stimulus-response pattern, which is obviously not going to be a good thing for them at that level where a physical advantage is much less useful (i.e. Lionel Messi).

The solution is, they need to be coached to make better decisions. It is easy to see good execution, especially when they can use their physical size to dominate, but as a coach, can you assess their decision making and help them improve it? A bigger player needs to be good enough to play up an age group, not just big enough (sympton vs. cause), and this includes decision making.

What if you have several players who would benefit from a greater challenge in your team? Surely you can’t have half of your squad leave for another team? Of course not – the answer is that the whole team needs to improve! Their training needs to increase in intensity step by step, so that in one year’s time, they are all at least at U15 level, if not even ready for a higher division too.

In the end, all of this is just a reference to consider. Sometimes at grassroots level, especially when clubs are small, there might not be many options. Players may need to move up an age group because there is no other team for them, or the age group above needs extra players to make a squad viable whilst the squad below has too many. There are various other possible reasons that could become a factor – training night availability, travel arrangements etc. In the end, common sense must prevail, but when considering pushing a player up, it is important to be aware of and understand the risks involved, both physcially, socially and for their development as a player. Don’t gamble with these things, or in ignorance just hope it all works out, but make an informed decision.

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