“Playing Up” and “Free Play”


© CoachingAmericanSoccer.com®

With all of the administrative structure that has been applied to soccer in the United States since the 1970’s, including formal leagues, travel teams, and age-specific competitions, there seems to be two important concepts that have been lost in the shuffle:  the true value of “Playing Up” and “Free Play.”  The current norm is for players to be grouped into one-year seasonal age brackets, either based on the calendar year of birth, or based on the school/class year spanning the twelve months from 08/01/YYYY of one year to 07/31/YYYY of the next year.  These are the so-called “U” systems where any given player must be born within the designated 12-month timeframe and can’t exceed a certain age.  For example, “U-12” represents players of age 12-years and under, as known as “12-and-Under” or “Under 12.”

Whereas the age-specific approach tends to promote fairness (read “competitive equality”) for team play and a degree of safety associated with similar physical size, it arguably retards the growth rate of certain players.  It is essential to recognize that players learn at different rates and that it is the coach’s responsibility to teach as much as possible as soon as it can be handled by the individual.  This precept is handled well by thousands of coaches, however, the age-specific approach sets artificial limits because rapidly advancing players do not receive the exposure associated with watching, playing with, or playing against, older players.  Although there are some exceptions in various leagues to the age-group structures, allowing a minimal number of younger players to participate on an older team, generally they are inadequate.  (Conversely, there are certain parents who try to improperly force playing up on their child or their organization.   This can be a big mistake.  Their child may not be able to handle it and is stifled, set back, doesn’t get playing time, or chooses to quit.)

Currently, organizations tend to consider “playing up” to mean a younger player is on an older-age-group team.  In the example above, a player who would otherwise be placed on a U-12 team is allowed to play for a U-13 team.  These organizations tend to follow a set of guidelines (policies or rules) similar to the ones listed below:

–       Only one-year up.

–       Only permitted for players older than age 11.

–       Permitted in order for a player to be with classmates.

–       Permitted if the older team may not exist without younger players.

–       No older team may have more than three younger players.

–       Permitted for the advancement of “exceptional” players.

If a particular player falls into the “exceptional” or advanced category, there is usually another whole set of guidelines, policies or rules that are then applied.  These may include:

–       Existence of a decision committee.

–       An application process.

–       Approval of the player and the parent or guardian.

–       Some sort of demonstration that the player is not adequately challenged at the younger age group.

–       Some sort of demonstration that the player might regress at the younger age group.

–       Some sort of demonstration that the player exhibits the “psycho-social” maturity to play at the older age group.

–       A binding decision on the part of the decision committee.

–       Decisions are binding for only one year.

Currently, “free play,” would loosely be considered to mean that players on a team get to scrimmage among themselves without the coaches directing them.

What gets lost in all this structure is the opportunity for individuals to be exposed to players beyond their peers.  Before all the rules, “playing up” could also mean that an entire team could play against an older team or in an older age-group league.  Before all the rules, leagues existed with teams composed of players of many ages.  Before all the rules, “free play” included countless pick-up games that involved players of multiple ages.  All this allowed the younger players to see advanced skills being performed, to be beaten by a complicated move, or to witness new tactics, and then to try to emulate it all.  This is nothing new, it’s the same as the “second-child” phenomenon where the next child in a family learns and performs faster by trying to keep up with the older sibling.

There is nothing quite like the exposure of a younger player to another player who is older who can perform advanced skills.  For all the best intentions of wonderful coaches, most can’t demonstrate a “rainbow” if they tried.  But let a 9-year old see it performed by an 11-year old and he or she will work like crazy until they can do it.  This is similar to “street soccer” around the world. To improve individual players and to advance soccer in the United States, organizations within the country need to implement the old concepts of “playing up” and “free play” within their programs.  Care must be taken, of course, not to mix too-wide an age range and older players must be instructed to back off of certain contact with younger players.

© Copyright, John C. Harves