When Should A Soccer Player Move Up?

A soccer player should move up under a few circumstances. It is important to know and understand these factors so you can pick the right age group to put a player into. 

Soccer players should play up if: they are considerably better than their competitors, they desire to play tougher competition, and their size and emotional maturity won’t hurt their ability to be competitive. 

In order to learn more about the reasoning behind which soccer players should move up, keep reading!

What Is Age Grouping?

Most sports leagues separate athletes based on their birth year or school year. Clubs need a system to apply to group players into teams. This is the easiest system to implement but it doesn’t always work as intended. 

As a result, there is a “relative age effect”, meaning the kids closest to the cutoff have the largest advantage. This is even more intense for the youngest kids because 11 months is a large amount of time in an 8-year-olds life. They are growing and changing so much through childhood. 

To no surprise, you would expect to see differences. One fact I came across which blew my mind was 92% of Barcelona’s well-known La Masia Academy’s kids are born between January and June. Wow!

Questions To Ask

Ok, we have established that some kids will be better than others. Now we need to determine if they should play up an age group or stay put. Every child is a bit different so it is worth treating every case differently.

Let’s ask a few questions that will help guide you if she is ready to move up to the next age group or not. 

What does she want? 

As parents and coaches, we often make decisions on behalf of young kids that might not be in their best interest. We make decisions on what we think she wants without asking her directly what she wants to do.

Some parents live vicariously through their children. They want their kid to be a star, so they can tell others about their child’s success. It is ego-driven. They are very involved in the child’s practice and development. Often times, pushing the child to a point where they no longer want to play. 

By this point, it is too late. The parent or coach projected an image of who they wanted their child to be instead of allowing the child’s interest to guide them. Put their desires first and it will help lead you to the right decision. 

Is she strong enough?

Some children are technically skilled enough to play bigger competition. They have ball control and tactical know-how. But this doesn’t take into account the overall roughness of the game of soccer. Without the ability to handle the physical aspect of the game, it could hurt the her ability to compete. Safety is a big concern for smaller players. They can’t hold their own against kids that are stronger and faster.

Any given player can be between 1-3 years on either side of their chronological age. In other words, a 15 year old can be as young physically as a 12 year or old as a 18 year old. I was a late bloomer. In 9th grade, I was 5’5” and my voice hadn’t cracked yet. I was two years behind my peers in soccer.

Rules play a factor too. In the US, headers are prohibited in games with players aged 10 or less. This includes even if a 10 year old plays in a U12 or older league. No one would want a scenario where a player moves up but gets hurt in the process. 

What is her commitment level? 

As you move up in difficulty, the time commitment to play increases. This makes sense. The most talented players are the ones that spend the most amount of time practicing and playing.

At least in the United States, travel soccer teams consume entire weekends and free time with tournaments and competitive games throughout many states. Only the dedicated and financially able survive. 

Speak with your star player and ask how far she wants to go with her soccer journey. Her answer and, more importantly, her actions will tell you what she really wants to do. Anyone that doesn’t want to be a rising star won’t become one. 

Will she fit in? 

The main reason kids like to play soccer is to have fun and spend time with their friends. Does she make friends rather easily or does she take some time? Does she have friends at the next level to ease the transition or does she have to start over? Without friends, it can certainly lead to unintended consequences. 

Players moving up may lose confidence to play at their best level. A star in one age group might be a timid, shy follower in another group setting. Kids can be mean to each other as well.

I remember back in middle school. I was smaller than my classmates and I would get picked on by the larger kids. It didn’t feel great. This can happen on the team level and hurt her from developing because they don’t relate with their teammates. At the end of the day, if they aren’t having a good time, then what’s the real point. 

Will she improve?

If all the above is favorable, the next question to ask is the level of improvement you would expect her to see. The entire purpose of moving up to the next stage is to increase the competition by playing more skilled players.

The ultimate goal is to take her from the top of the hill in her current age group and put her in the middle of the pack. This is the ideal place to be. 

If she is the worst on the team or league, then she isn’t ready to move up. This will be very discouraging for anyone and she could lose motivation to play very quickly.

On the contrary, if she is the best on the team then she should move up until she is at a point where she is challenged. Being the best is fun and good, but it isn’t challenging enough. Finding the right balance is the job of the coach and parent. 

Coaches can be greedy here and not advise their star player to go to the next level because they want the best talent on their team. While I don’t suspect the majority would do this, it is something to watch out for.

The most important job of a coach is to develop her to the best of your ability. This might mean that you have to let go of your star player so they can reach new heights in a more competitive league. Keep her best interest in mind.

How do you know if she is better than others?

From a coaching perspective, there is a natural tension between what the parents want and what is best for the team. Parents naturally want the best for their child which could be at odds with the team.

Therefore it is the coach’s responsibility to put players in the best positions to grow and have fun. Coaches are usually more objective unless their own child is playing on their team. But I digress. 

A few signs that it might be time for your player to consider moving up

  • If they are considerably stronger and faster than the league she plays in. As mentioned above, children grow at different speeds. Coaches in the U12-U15 range will see a large range of sizes among players. Puberty strikes during these years.
  • If they are exceptionally more skilled than other players. They score goals with ease. When the ball is in her control, no one can defend her. Or she understands the game at a level the other players don’t understand. Some things you can’t teach. 
  • If she is extremely dedicated. Most players come to practice to have a good time with their pals. Then, they go home and forget about soccer until the next practice or goal. This isn’t a bad thing. But for a few soccer is an obsession. These signs are obvious in how a player listens to direction, practices outside of a session, and asks detailed questions. 
  • When she play up better or older players, she can hold her own and play at a high level.

Bad Reasons to Play Up

We have discussed a slew of good reasons to move up. There are also many bad reasons to move up. Most of the reasons have nothing to do with skill. It has more to do with convenience and friendship. Let me explain.

Here are a list of bad reasons to play up:

  • Her best friends on the better team. She wants to hang out with her buddies. 
  • The coach wants his daughter on the team even though he knows she isn’t prepared to play against the level of competition. 
  • Transportation to get to practice is an issue. Several kids on the team are part of the same carpool. 
  • Her older siblings played in more challenging leagues
  • When teams transition from recreational to travel, not all players are ready for the next level and should stay back. This can be a hard transition. Some might need to stay back.
  • Any financial donation made to get players onto a team. 

It should be a merit-based decision. Even though we know parents and coaches alike can have other influences. Stick with your player’s best interest in mind.

Who to Speak To?

The coach should speak to the receiving coach of the star player who is moving up. This is important on many levels. The receiving coach can give the best intel on how the league plays, the current teammates, and anything thing else she should be aware of.

It might be best for her to meet the coach before making any decisions or having her train with the new team for a few sessions to see if the fit is appropriate. 

Speak with the club director to make sure you are following the correct procedures. Then there will be a chain of people that are updated on the change including the officials, treasurer, and Director of coaching.

In some clubs, one person might be wearing several hats. The point I’m making is there is more of a process than just handing off the child to the next coach and telling her good luck. 

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