Playing Up

If there is one remark that will make me cautious when talking to someone about a young player I haven’t seen it is if they tell me that they are playing up an age group at their club.

It is a remark laden with connotations that this child is so good that it is a waste of time for them to play with children their own age and they are well on their way to becoming a professional.

Before I continue I will say I am not against players playing up I just think it is overused and to be clear I am talking about players younger than 14/15 years of age.

What makes me cautious is that I feel it can be detrimental to the player’s development as well as have a positive effect. It seems that if a player has success playing up then it is generally thought it can only be good for them whereas I disagree.

As usual what prompted me to write this is that over the last 12 months I seem to have had people constantly telling me this player or that player is playing up.

One week recently a parent rang me up to say was it OK if his son’s mate came along to one of my sessions. He then told me the boy in question was playing 2 years up at his club. The implication was that I would relish seeing this boy play because he was bound to be snapped up soon.

When I got to see the player he was big for his age which I expected, he was very right footed, had a below par 1st Touch, tried to run with the ball every time he got it and got very frustrated as he constantly lost the ball playing 5 v 5 on a 30 x 20m pitch. I was told that apparently the young boy was very fast and in games the team would play the ball over the top and no one could catch him.

My issue in this case from what I saw was that the boy had a physical strength that allowed him to play up and be successful but his technical ability and decision making seemed to be below players his own age. I would imagine it would be a lot harder for him to improve these weaknesses playing and training against players who were bigger, stronger and more experienced than him.

With this player the question has to be asked even though he is having some success playing up two years is it the best thing for his overall development or is he being turned into a ‘one trick pony’ who will only be successful as long as he is able to and has space to outrun the opposition defence.

Another problem I have with players playing up is that they can be treated differently because they are younger than the other players. To put it simply allowances are made for the players they wouldn’t get if they played in their own age groups.

Two players come to mind straight away that I have coached in programs in the last few years. Both players had a very good level of technique and although neither was super quick both were still considered fast even with older players.

The problems came from how they were allowed to play. Both players had always played up, both played a forward role and both players were allowed to do nothing else but attack.

One player played right midfield in a 4-4-2 and when his team wasn’t attacking just stood on the halfway line waiting for his team to win the ball back and start attacking. I knew the Coach and asked why he let him play like that and his first response was “He is a year younger you know”.

Both players when they trained in the program with me had problems remembering any conditions I put on games, had trouble positioning themselves, often ball watched and rarely thought about what they would do until they had the ball in their possession.

Of course it is only my opinion but I do feel the fact they were playing up meant they were treated differently and this wasn’t actually helping them in their development. In this case both players developed a habit of just switching off if the ball wasn’t near them.

Like I said at the start I am not against players playing up I just believe that we have to consider a player’s overall development when we decide to play them up. At the moment it seems in many cases players are judged simply by can they manage to play with older players not whether it is the best thing for them.

I have seen players who I believe can learn nothing by playing in their own age group and needed the challenge of playing against older players but they are a minority.

One thing I think can work is players from time to time training with older players to aid their development instead of joining another team and playing totally outside their age group. I think this way the player can get the best of both worlds.

As usual would love to hear your opinion on the subject.

Look forward to hearing from you

Please leave a comment or email me

Follow me on Twitter @SeanDArcy66

Till next time


7 thoughts on “Playing Up

  1. Hi Sean

    It sounds to me like the issues you point out are more about coaches’ shortcomings rather than “playing up” itself being fundamentally flawed.

    I know a young lad who has played up since he started playing at a club as the team he still plays for accepted him at a younger age than they really should have.

    He is accepted as one of the team, no exceptions are made in any way and whilst he is reasonably tall for his age, always seems to lack a little in core strength. That said, he adapts by using the ball pretty well on both sides of his body and from a technical point of view is doing well.

    Under those conditions, I think playing up is very beneficial.

    The big thing you highlight well is the fanfare – too much noise around any player and a very conspicuous sense of “he or she is special/different” is never a good thing in a group coaching context unless they are in the top 0.001%…in my opinion

    Good topic


    • Like I said in blog I am not against playing up at all and don’t believe it is something that should never be done. I do think it is overused so you get players who play up and it isn’t the right thing for them.


  2. Nice article. I often feel this is the first, and often ill informed, response for wanting to challenge a particular player.

    One benefit of training up is that players get to see what ‘better’ looks like. This is huge but they dont always feel safe to try whilst playing up. If they see what better looks like then play in their own age group, or even down an age group, they can develop the technique/confidence to apply in game situations, before going back up. I feel sometimes players playing up always play safe, as they are more fearful of making errors as they know they get judged differently.

    Like you said, nothing against playing up, but have as part of a well rounded approach. Up, down and at own level. Right support at the right time for the right player.


  3. Pingback: The PE Playbook – October 2016 Edition – drowningintheshallow

  4. Sean,

    Some good points made there, I agree. The one-trick pony seems to be an easy trap to fall into. A particular boy that I coach is determined not to improve on what he struggles to do, focus on his strengths (which are strong). He’s been quick and strong since first playing from around age 5 and now he’s 12 other boys who are catching him up to him have better all round technical ability. He refuses to see the error of his ways, he’s very headstrong. I’m hoping that he now sees this and will work hard on his weaker areas. As is always the case there are other factors involved and it’s not as simple as that but this is what we all have to deal with.

    Boys going to secondary school has thrown up lots of issues for us, seems to be a time when the boys have other choices to practice football of to just ‘hang about.’

    Anyway, keep up the blog.



    • Thanks.
      Well said that there is always other factors involved. Hard for a 12 year old boy to realise why he isn’t getting as much success anymore doing the same things that have brought lots of success for years.


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