Beginning puberty early has interesting consequences as far as a player’s soccer development.
The immediate thought that comes to mind is a positive one. These players will have a physical advantage, and if they have at least average skill, they become dominant in their age group. There’s a lot of good things that come along with that. Here’s a list:
- Their dominance gets recognized, so they are “on the map” at an early age.
- Potential call into ODP or National player pools.
- Highly sought after by the “top teams” in the age group.
- Confidence builder.
- Player enjoys the sport more since he’s “good” at it. Hence, he’ll stick with it.
What many people might not realize, is that there may exist a very real threat to a players long term development. There are two main issues that you should be aware of.
The obvious one is complacency. The player will enjoy this advantage perhaps until he reaches the U-18 age group. By then, everyone else will pretty much have caught up physically, and if the player has not been working on his game over the years, he will no longer have an edge and will fall into mediocrity. All of a sudden he can’t just run by people, muscle them off the ball, or have a much stronger shot than the rest. Additionally, he never had to come up with, or master, alternative ways to dribble or defend. Which leads me to the second issue.
Let’s look at the picture from the “little guy’s” perspective. The little guy, whose body matures later, initially has that as a disadvantage. He has to learn how to cope with the bigger, stronger, faster opponent. As a result, he is obligated to quickly develop another compartment in his offensive and defensive game, while his larger counterpart doesn’t. For example, he has to be more elusive (body fakes), and he must have the ball glued to his foot while dribbling. In general, he is also forced to develop an overall smarter game. This pays huge dividends down the road when he finally catches up physically. All of a sudden, life is so much easier and he ends up being the dominant player with his technical and mental edge.
If not careful, by the time the U-18 age group or college is reached, the roles will be reversed. The original scrappy little guy will end up being the dominant one, enjoy all the nice things listed above, and perhaps make it to the highest levels of the sport.
If you have a child that is dominating – perhaps in large part due to physical size – you might want to consider having him play up a year or two. At the very least, let him know that he has not “made it” yet, and that he must continue to improve.
Please keep these things in mind! Try to focus not on size, but elite potential.
Never, never stop working on your game! No matter how dominant you think you are, there are others out there working day and night trying to get better. Pretty soon, you may find yourself looking back at your long gone glory days wondering what happened.
I agree Gary. This has been well documented in the relative age effect in selecting teams (being born near the start of an age group cutoff date gives a boy HUGE advantages in his chances of being selected for elite teams). In fact, when selecting my teams, all things being equal I give preference to smaller players because I know they will be forced to continue to develop coping skills that will give them an ultimate edge when they mature later. When I do have a player who is maturing early or who is bigger/faster/stronger I force them into situations and positions where they cannot use there size/strength/speed. For instance, we have them play in a lot of confined spaces (futsal or outdoor soccer games with more confined dimensions) to force them to use and develop their skills. Also, as you suggested, a coach has to do what is right for the individual kid and insist that he plays at the size/strength level where he will develop the best. Most coaches are not willing to sacrifice the success of their team to have their best player (because of his dominant size and strength) leave to play where they will develop the best: with an older team, which is pitiful.
I like your older posts, so I went back and found one of originals. I was at National Cup yesterday. I sat next to about four ODP (Pro +) scouts. They barely watched the two games in front of them. Laughed at poor technique. Kept pointing a player (U14) who was definitely big, but lacked skill. Just plowed over the opposition with brute force. However, they kept talking about him as if were Messi. They were English, except for maybe one. ODP is still broke.
Gary Kleiban says
The idea of ODP, the Development Academy, Bradenton, Project 2010, etc …, is NOT a bad one. It’s fine. I’d ultimately do something similar.
It’s the people who are broken. The operators, the coaches, the scouts, et al.
Yes, I too am a fan of many of Gary’s older posts.
I’ve observed (and a bit from when I coached way back when), that bigger stronger kids for whatever reason don’t have the same ball skill as smaller players. Stereotype yes, but lots of truth in it. I personally like nimble, quick footed players with great ball skill and competitiveness. They can learn tactics. If they are confident enough and the coach enables that, they can learn creativity withink a given system, roles, responsibilities. Teaching technical skill is done on your own and takes thousands of hours. So by U14, the kids with most promise are ones who fit that bucket (my opinion). The stronger, more physical players are needed, but for maybe a spot like holding mid or a center back. But they need to be smart enough to not make more than 2 touches or they will be under pressure and screw up.
I have no doubt that we have an ill system. I strongly think that the way some individuals perceive the game is completely out of context. It always relates to the background of who ever is expressing his opinion. Give him, a license and he is God, and his perspective on the game is unquestioned. My grand mother use to say, quote; let the game show which you really are, as Tim Reagan would say, we have given up development for winning.
I agree with you guys.
Gary Kleiban says
You can only “give up” something that you’ve had. And we have never had ‘development’.
We must also stop demonizing “winning”.
Jason Seabury says
This quote doesn’t demonize winning. Does it? Winning is the whole point of playing. Everyone gets that. Right? Don’t we all (or at least most of us) make the obvious inference in the context of the “winning vs. development” discussion that the word “winning” means “securing wins in most games by using a style of play that can’t produce elite players?”
El Memo says
This goes in hand with your definition of an Elite Player. We all can be guilty to a certain extent at times. We see “results” due to athleticism and are misled. There should be a standard that can identify skilled vs non-skilled objectively. I too look for how a player moves with the ball (as a friend of mine describes “like a blade of grass in the wind”) but can’t deny are impressed with athleticism. I try to get skilled players to play aggressive and it’s hard, but athletic players without skill will never have the touch or feeling for the ball. Part of the problem is that coaches are too full of themselves. They think, give me fast, strong players and I’ll teach them skills. They may teach them a few things, but to truly develop a skilled player, besides the player wanting it and spending the time, it takes an unsurmountable amount of time of one on one training. I am talking hundreds of hours and years. Therefore are usually learned from a sibling, parent, friend but rarely team coach (just too many players to train). That is why if someone claims they developed a player, one should really question.
Gary Kleiban says
“They [coaches] think, give me fast, strong players and I’ll teach them skills.”
If we are speaking generally, I promise you that’s not what they’re thinking.
El Memo says
I’ve heard some say it. But, unfortunately, you are probably right, most don’t even get to that point.
El Memo says
Or, follow through. Or are misled to believe they can make a huge impact on skills (see my original post.)
NoVa Mike says
On the issue of playing up prior to puberty, there is no doubt that is the conventional wisdom inside the US but I am curious how much it happens elsewhere. Some examples that I’ve looked for seem to indicate that it is not always the case, even with the best of the best who were also dominant from a very early age:
Messi (actually still 9 in this video based on the date (Jan ’97), part of the team from Newell’s Old Boys nicknamed “La Maquina ‘87” –(Messi was born in 6/87): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uBPnpziMFOQ.
Cristiano Ronaldo: Hard to find video of him playing on youth teams, but according to Luca Caoli’s bio, he was head and shoulder above his teammates physically but played in his own age group, both before and after moving to Sporting Lisbon. That is consistent with some of the still photos here showing him pictured with his youth teammates. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dm4zDp8rs7w.
This is a great coffee-table book gifted to me by one of my players last Cristmas (thanks Ben!). It has almost 40 mini-bios (2-3 pages) written in the first person. http://www.harpercollins.com/browseinside/index.aspx?isbn13=9780061735356. Playing pick-up with older kids and siblings seems to be a common pattern, but I don’t remember any references to aging up on their actual teams. As another example, Zidane is probably a pretty knowledgeable soccer parent and he doesn’t seem to think his kid needs to play up yet either: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ySgM1kjIk4.
Granted, I only know what I can find in books and on the internet. I’m sure there are counter-examples. I am very interested to hear from those of you with first hand knowledge of how things are done Europe and SA as to what their philosophy is, especially for dominant players in the 8-14 age range. Move them up, or just look to find the most competitive environment possible within their own age group?
Since they’re the hot flavor of the moment, I’ll mention that Bayern Munich always plays kids up.
“SA: What’s the league play like for the younger levels?
WERNER KERN: We always play against older teams. Until U-17, Bayern’s teams always play a year up. That’s because all our players are scouted, so they should be better. And they need to be challenged. ”
There’s lots of good info in this article and in part 2:
“SA: It’s a common held belief that free play, or street soccer, is a key to the development of exceptional players. …
WERNER KERN: It used to be like that – that kids would come home from school and play with friends. But the whole infrastructure has changed. There’s almost no unorganized soccer. Now the kids have a longer school day. The school is so demanding that they don’t have time play streets or in the park.
That’s what prompted us to invest in development. That’s why we coordinated with the schools that they have soccer twice a week at school.
SA: Is it a concern that kids only play supervised soccer?
WERNER KERN: That depends. I believe creativity grows out of freedom. That’s true. But we must also link creativity with the things that are necessary to play successfully. I, for instance, require that players dribble, but in offensive. We don’t want players to dribble in front of their own goal and lose the ball, but nor do we want them to boot the ball aimlessly up field.
We want them to take chances, to dare to dribble, but in the right situations. There are many small practice games that help them comprehend when to dribble and when to pass. They get many chances to dribble and to figure out the right time.
SA: What’s Bayern Munich’s playing style philosophy?
WERNER KERN: We want to play active soccer. We want to defend high and we want to possess the ball as much as possible because we believe that we learn and improve when we possess the ball a lot. When you’re chasing the ball all the time you’re not learning a lot.
You must, of course, learn the elements of defense, but we want to act not react.”
NOVA Mike says
Thanks Scooter, that is a great article. Playing an entire team against older kids – as a shared experience – is a little bit different than moving a player out of his age group though. If there is no competitive match for the team within that area, then playing the whole team up seems like a good application of the idea that Gary wrote about a while ago: seek the highest competitive level at which your team can still play the style you want to see, and when you master that, look for better competition. What I would be more interested in knowing is whether they take their best U10s and put them on the U11 team, or do they keep the kids with their age group peers and just try to assemble the best of the best within each age group.
Well, their U16s seem to all be true age:
Their U17s have 1 play up:
They don’t give birthdays for younger ages:
My guess would be they all play their age group except for maybe 1 or 2 preternaturally advanced, because they should all be roughly the same ability. I’m not sure if that supports or refutes arguments.
Mike, these are all very interesting examples – thanks for posting them. I am not sure if there is a unified approach to playing up in other countries – it most likely depends upon the club, coach and the player’s family. I saw an old interview with Fernando Torres in which he said that his dad had him play up against the kids who were 1 or 2 years older and Torres credited a lot of his development to playing against older kids who were bigger and stronger. Obviously, examples that you have provided demonstrate that there’s nothing wrong with playing within your natural age group. However, Messi, Ronaldo, Robihno and Ronaldinho do not fit within Gary’s example of a kid that dominates physically, because he matures early. These players were dominant, but for different reasons (technique, creativity, great ball control, swagger, understanding and love of the game).
NOVA Mike says
MG that is a good point. It makes sense to me to distinguish between a kid who dominates because of skill versus one who dominates because his physical advantages are so great that he doesn’t need to use any skill. There is no question that playing some of the time against older kids has it’s benefits. My personal opinion is that something of a mixture is probably best – striking a balance between challenge and confidence. I just sometimes wonder if the knee-jerk “that kid is really good, he needs to play up” reaction is really what is best for development, especially when I see it happen even with very young kids (5, 6, 7) whose love of the game has not yet fully taken hold of them.
Gary Kleiban says
“My personal opinion is that something of a mixture is probably best …”
Yep! When things aren’t black & white, that my friend means art is required.
“I just sometimes wonder if the knee-jerk “that kid is really good, he needs to play up” reaction is really what is best for development”
You’re right, it’s not what’s best.
The ‘knee-jerk’ is an artifact of non-artists. It’s an artifact of those who want black & white rules, so they can avoid the realization that complexity is involved, avoid the hard work that’s required to understand, and avoid the terror of not knowing whether your decision is a good one.
Dr Loco says
Every player is different and needs to be tested and evaluated. Based on the findings a player can be played up. Developing a player must be done deliberately not haphazardly.
I will typically play my entire team up or down based on the results I am trying to achieve and concepts I would like to teach.
Dr Loco says
“This group maybe more than others has shown the benefits of playing up. We have a larger number of players in this cycle that are regularly competing against ‘96s and ‘97s and I think that’s really helped to accelerate their development.”–Lepore
From my experience many teams stick to a recreational model. Coaches mix ages just to field a team. There is no real thought in the development process.
Typically when playing up it is difficult for that player to develop strong leadership skills because although they are mature soccerwise they are not mature mentally.
Does this mean that we should completely disregard kids who are bigger, faster, and stronger ?
Gary Kleiban says
Of course not. What did I say about black & white rules?
The qualities of a player need to be properly assessed.
Then well thought development ideas can be executed.
Nobody is suggesting to disregard kids simply because they are bigger, faster and stronger. However, our youth development system churns out Marvynn Wynn and Alan Gordon type players instead of Henry and Ibrahimovic type players. It is a legitimate question whether it would be better for the kids’ development to place such kids in an environment where they can no longer dominate based solely on their size/strength/speed and would be forced to develop other qualities (skills/creativity/intelligence).
Watch Dortmund…………..this is the evolution of tiki taka (Total Football) with bigger/more athletic players but a little less technical then that at Barca. This is much more feasible system here in the USA with what we have to work with then Barca’s extreme philosophy.
Dortmund is by far the funnest team to watch in the world over the past 3 years and they don’t rely just on (Messi) to score for them. Their game plan is more developed when teams park the bus on them because they actually have an aerial game that is non existent when fielding 5’6″ field players all over. They actually have a purpose with their passing and extreme pressing in tactical positions. Obviously they are more direct then Barca with their passing game but when your a little more athletically gifted players have to ability to press when they lose possession it neutralizes.
Their house job on Madrid was of no folly. Madrid/Mourinho is a pure EPL counter attack team. Quick, smart passing to hold possession and with a purpose along with extreme pressing to get the ball back……………they had NO ANSWER. Making world class players like Ronaldo, Ozil and Sergio Ramos look like school boy passengers. Supposedly not a single “World Class” player on Dortmund’s squad full of “Corn Fed” white boy players.
Dortmund is about to lose their best playmaker in Gotze, like they did with Kagawa to United, but they will reload because of their system. The USA can run Dortmund’s system much easier then that of Barca with the player pool here.
Gary Kleiban says
Dortmund, like Madrid, is a possession-based team full of technically and tactically rich players.
The US can not replicate (or “come close”, or whatever) Dortmund, because it does not have coaches with expertise at either the developmental or professional levels.
Honestly? You think that? I honestly don’t know. Maybe you are right, we probably don’t have the coaches…………………I do know we don’t have a million dollar footballnaught that Dortmund ingeniously made to help with their technical/passing abilities. And You, Gary Kleiban say you can’t teach “technical abilities”, is that right? Juergen Klopp (a GENIUS) says differently.
I was more going off with the body styles and current player pool that seems ever apparent in selection with ODP. The ones people are complaining on here about. Seen many comments bashing “Corn Fed” white boys that can’t ball, etc.
If you saw Robert Lewandowski, Kawaga $300,000 pre dortmund, then after they both were/are sold one would assume you can teach very rich technical and tactical abilities. Kawagawa is now the most gifted player at United. Look what Klopp/Dortmund has done with Reus in just a few years. And I haven’t even touched the defensive midfield players or defense.
Madrid/Mourinho, just like he was at Porto, Chelsea, Inter and Madrid are pure EPL style counter attack, that’s where I disagree with you.
I was referring to Barca’s EXTREME/cut throat tiki taka possession based system which requires insane skill level.
I know you are apart of the good cause Gary so i will leave you with this so we can all appreciate it a little bit and laugh and cry. I would assume it’s ALL OVER our ODP/coaches/thoughts/philosophy/KNOWLEDGE and it’s all over the English Premier League that they of course follow as bible.
Sam Allardyce is currently a much loved and admired English coach that coaches West Ham United, highly admired in England. He coached in the first MLS in the 1980s (Cruyff, Maradona, Pele league)……………………….while coaching Tampa Bay Rowdies “Allardyce applied many practices of American football (gridiron) towards soccer (with regards to training, player management, player selection and tactics). These innovative ideas helped him progress in football management”………………………………………………….lol, lol, lol, lol.
Agree but we need to identify the right types of players. Dortmund is definitely legit. They’ve restocked several times in as many years and still firing thanks to their academy. In fact, Germany as a whole is I think best model for USA. You don’t see Geman clubs spending un-Godly sums on starlets from Argentina or Brazil. Mostly home grown. I don’t know 100%, but I think all clubs are financially solid. Not throwing cash around like EPL or La LIga. Moreover, it is somewhat competitive and teams do and can win the league. EPL has only had Chelsea, Man U, Liverpool win . . . . am I missing anyone? La Liga in last decade is totally Madrid and Barca and that isn’t chaning soon.
MLS should take a wakeup call from Bundesliga. Start with academy and player id.
Oh yeah, Arsenal.
Unfortunately like Gary says, (somewhat), I highly doubt there are many, if any coaches here in the USA that can TEACH/DEVELOP what Dortmund (Klopp)/Schalke/Bayern (Germany) academy players are learning. There might not be a whole helluva lot in Germany at the moment because they’re still in the process of changing systems. Bayern’s star left back and a world class player Lahm (30 years old) has stated he rec’d horrible coaching compared to the younger German generation players that are coming up. He’s more or less a self made player. He was in the prior generation before Germany made all their changes.
It’s no coincidence that Spain, Germany and Holland are in the top 4 teams in the World……………………superior TEACHING/philosophy. (Possession soccer all evolved from the original Dutch system). Spain has their version of it, Holland has theirs and you’ll see Germany’s version evolve here within the next decade with Dortmund’s influence on their NT.
Gary did a post on Circumstance……………….I firmly, firmly believe elite TEACHERS/coaches in sport are THE X factor in making players into stars or making players in general. (Messi, Iniesta, Pirlo, Mueller for what he does, god made them)……the vast majority of the rest all superior coaching + player drive.
The EPL in it’s current form is exactly the very worst league to watch for our young American players because Arsenal/ManCity is about the only teams that plays possession based soccer. The league is so fast and such a kick/rush league and the most physical league in the world. It’s borderline rugby.
Spain’s La Liga is the most skilled, technical league in Europe, much slower, and non physical almost to a fault. Way more offensive based which I love…….people like to see goals scored. EXCITING LEAGUE -For Me.
The Bundesliga is imbetween La Liga and EPL. Not as technical as La Liga and not as fast/kick/rush as EPL but more athletic then La Liga. Also very much offensive based like La Liga which is why I usually only watch those 2 leagues. EXCITING LEAGUE-For Me.
Serie A: All defensive, slower, but very, very tactically strong + somewhat technical. Very intelligent league to play in Italy. That’s why it seems like there are so many Italian Coaches all over European Leagues.
Just found this site. I got tired of the rampant knuckle-headedness, developmental goofiness, stubborn aimlessness of youth soccer coaches and the system. I quit as a USDA coach recently.
I’ve found in youth clubs, disagreement is not a good thing. You rock the boat if you ask “what are we doing here, if our goals is to not developing future professional players, we’re not doing out job.” “Our goal is to win National Cup and get players into college” is the belief. Right there you have the dichotomy. A system catered to college and no one thinking pro-centric development with professional play. Clubs talk about it, but marketing gimmick or boastful coach speak. Not sure why we are caught up in building something that the market doesn’t need?
I’ve seen many not as talented, less dedicated players get opportunity. And I’ve seen talented, dedicated players have no opportunity. Circumstance is a you know what . . .
If you are a small, talented, quick, player in USA might as well forget it. Stop wasting your time and find another sport. Take steroids and growth hormones and practice destroying plays and crunching tackles. The USA doesn’t need a Xavi, Messi, Cavani, Pirlo because they don’t fit the image or mentality.
Madrid is not a possession oriented team. They are build to be EPL quick break and power style. The patient, poised Dortmund side had them for supper.
Coaches in USA are shyt!
My son plays for a well know San Diego club. There are about 3 players who play up since U13. They are good players, but close to 6′ since U12. They towererd above counterparts in size, but not necessarily with skill. They could shoot harder, have their way with opponents, but were far cry from technical or tactical wizardy for given age. It’s a shame because with playing up they got with better competition and may be more physical, but not convinced they are better tactically or technically. There are smaller kids their age who stayed in age group but are tactically and technically superior, quicker on the ball . . . just several inches and 20-pounds smaller.
And now those kids are in line for Academy U16. While smaller kids their age have to work harder to make it. Yes, size matters! Unfortunately!
Soccer should be more about positioning, anticipation, movement, awareness. The better a player can control the ball, the better. I also said before a well trained team should focus more on limiting loss of possession and having to constantly transition. The latter is tiring physically and mentally.
This is part of the reason ODP has player id totally wrong. They favor a different player prototype. In 20 or so years as a coach, i’m convinced ODP is a waste. Great idea, poorly executed.
(Soccer should be more about positioning, anticipation, movement, awareness)…………………………………….
This is a soccer brain and genius involved. Some of it can be taught but a lot of it can’t be taught. European/South American players watch the game ALL the time and learn this from the best.
One of the greatest players in the World, World Class, Germany’s Thomas Mueller is all of this. He screws teams mentally with his “ghost goals”. He’s not the most technical player, not really an athlete as we’d see here in the USA, but he is every bit as brilliant as Xavi/Iniesta in what he does in scoring goals/assists for Germany/Bayern.
I meant to say a team should limit constant transition. That’s the sign of a well developed youth team. I can think of maybe 2 teams in SoCal that fall into this category at the advanced level.
Signs of a good, well developed team / players:
Poise, calmness, patience, balance, control, awareness, intelligent movement, good first touch, good range of passing, understanding of 1-2 touch. I think these are basic and what should be well developed by U14 at latest. However, UFC Gold is the only U14 team I know of that plays like this. Has all bases covered. And no, I’m not affiliated with them. Actually, I think their coach is a bit full of himself.
Signs of poorly developed teams where players are on dead end to nowhere at U18 and older.
Over dribble constantly when a pass is better option, stagnant movement, laziness, poor first touch, lack awareness for 1-2 touch, easily frustrated and easily distracted from game plan, doesn’t understand roles and responsibilities of his position and others, poor passing, kick and chase common, constant of turnover of possession, seldom have more than a handful of 5-touch sequences and if they do it’s limited to the back line.
I’d say up to 60% of teams I see, let’s pick on U14 . . . fall into some level of above. It’s coaching. The misplaced emphasis starting at U5.
Very impressive to see one of your 2001’s at U14 (99) national camp. Congratulations to you, your brother and of course to John and his family. Now there are 2 of your boys who have been to camps of whom I am aware. Your credibility is mounting. What is next for you as you indicated a move from Barcelona USA? You and your message (s) are beginning to gain momentum and it is exciting to follow. Good luck on whatever endeavor you next choose to pursue