Should young players be able to play in an older age group?

This is a contentious topic, which has been talked about for as long as I can remember.  Discussion on the topic has resurfaced recently because in some State Federations (if not all) young players are not allowed to play in an older age group, which is going against the wishes of some parents and coaches.

We are all aware of the differences in maturity levels of young players and there can be incredible differences between young boys and girls even though they may be born in the same year.  It makes sense to put youngsters in groups of similar size for obvious reasons, so why not do the same for ability?

I recently watched an U/11 club game and on one team there were three players who were way ahead of all the others in terms of ball control, running with the ball and dribbling.  They basically played together, hardly passed the ball to another team mate and scored goals at will, often running half the length of the field, dribbling past any defenders who came near them.  I thought for a while, how the other players must have felt.  Totally inadequate and bored, were words that came to mind.  I doubt the other kids in the game enjoyed the experience because they didn’t have much meaningful involvement in the game.  But, what of the players who had the ball most of the time and scored all the goals?  They would have had some enjoyment for sure, but for how long?  I think they would soon get tired of not being challenged and finish up getting bored as well. So it’s a “lose, lose “ situation for everybody.

It makes sense to group players by age when the players are of a similar standard but when the ability of one or two individuals is obviously much better than the rest of the group, it would make sense to play them in an older age group. It’s hard to argue against this logical solution if the enjoyment and development of the young players are the most important considerations.

When the decision is made, to stop talented players from playing in an appropriate (older)  age group one has to question the logic behind the decision.

It is a fact that many talented players in different sports emerge from smaller communities and often from country areas.  There are many reasons why this happens; some of which include opportunity to practice, early identification and access to coaching and representative competition, improved self-esteem and the opportunity to play with older and more skillful players.

If the talented player pathway is there to develop elite players, it seems contradictory (and a bit dumb) to stop talented youngsters from playing in an older age group.  If the decision isn’t logical from a developmental perspective I suggest it will have something to do with the administration of the game.

The likely outcome is that the development of talented players will be hindered, at a time when young players are in the ‘golden age’ for learning, according to information in the ‘new’ Curriculum, released this month by FFA.

If the new ‘Curriculum’ is the way forward it should include what we know has worked in the past.  I have asked numerous players in the Socceroos, if they played in older age groups as youngsters and they have all said, ‘Yes”.

Why have I written this article?

This week, I learned about a family who are planning to relocate overseas for the sake of their son’s football development. The young lad plays in an older age group at club level and will not be considered for the State team unless he goes back to his correct age group in a different (NPL) club. If he doesn’t get into the ‘system’ of elite player development his opportunity to play representative football will be over in Australia.  The parents think it will be a backward step for their son to go back down to his correct age group so the alternative is to get into a player development program overseas.

I find these stories hard to believe, but it’s happening in Australia and this is not an isolated case.


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