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Playing up young athletes: Is it causing more harm than good?

Playing up youth athletes: Is it causing more harm than good?

5 min read
  • Sport psychology

In the sport psychology team here at InnerDrive, we’re always asked on our opinions about the age old “playing up” debate.

There are popular beliefs that playing up athletes will allow them to advance in comparison to their peers of the same age. However, not everyone agrees. Others have said that playing up could expose younger athletes to an intense sporting environment too early and potentially hinder their development.

So, which side of the argument is correct? Well, there’s actually some nice research on this – let’s take a closer look…

Why do coaches play up athletes?

In sports, when an athlete is seen to be more skilled than their same-aged peers, they will sometimes be moved into a higher age group to compete at higher levels. This is commonly known as “playing up”. This could look like a very talented 13-year-old footballer being moved to the U16 team because of their amazing technique and skill. This is not a rare phenomenon and is commonly used in many sports.

High skill levels are one reason for playing up athletes. However, it’s not the only one. Other reasons include:

  • Introducing athletes to new challenges and pushing them to progress
  • Older teams lacking a full roster of players and needing younger athletes to fill the spots
  • Athletes who may be more physically developed than their same-age peers being stopped from relying exclusively on their physical attributes by grouping them with older athletes
  • Stopping younger athletes from getting too comfortable or complacent with their team

It has been discussed whether athletes should be allowed to play up. Whilst it does have many advantages, there are negatives that come with allowing youths to play with older peers. An interesting study looked at just this and found athletes who played up experienced two types of perceptions:

  1. Perceptions of challenge
  2. Perceptions of progress

Perceptions of challenge

When playing up, athletes are exposed to a range of challenges and difficulties, making the experience harder for them. The areas they reported as being the most challenging to cope with were intensity and fitting in.

Coping with intensity

There is no doubt that playing with peers who are older is more intense than playing with those of the same age. They tend to be bigger, stronger and their skills are of a higher ability. These differences could potentially cause your players to make mistakes in front of older athletes in training, which could lower their confidence. These mistakes could lead younger athletes to develop a fear of failure, which could ultimately hinder their performance.

Injury is also an important factor to consider. With the drastic change in intensity, younger players could suffer from high exhaustion levels and struggle to keep up with their older teammates. If your younger athletes go out too hard too soon, this could cause burn out and they could risk injuring themselves.

However, being around older players in training can enhance your players skills. Putting them in a stronger and faster group means that your players need to become stronger and faster to keep up, in turn making them better players. Athletes need to adjust their self-expectations to match the standard of the older team, meaning they will try harder and increase their effort to do so. If the older players set the standard for performance, the younger players will follow.

Coping with fitting in

When playing up, it’s not just the physical elements you need to consider, but also the social elements. Younger players may face difficulty when trying to connect with their older peers. Conversations about things such as school may be harder for younger players to chime in on, as they are in different stages of education, making it challenging for them to fit in.

However, spending time with older peers allows younger players to learn behaviours that are socially acceptable at older ages. This can help them to integrate better and form friendships with their older teammates.

There may also be more pressure on athletes who play up to show their worth and value. Younger athletes may place a high amount of importance on gaining their teammates’ trust and respect, as this could impair the ability to fit in. This means that younger players will put more effort in training with their older teammates in comparison to those of the same age to prove their worth.

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Perception of progress

Although younger athletes face challenges when playing up, they also go through experiences that allow them to progress in these older teams. The most highlighted experiences in the research were being recognised, experiencing success and developing expertise.

Being recognised

Receiving compliments from coaches can make athletes feel more recognised for their skills. These compliments can lead to an increase in confidence, because they felt wanted by their coach despite their young age. Experiences like these increase younger athletes’ confidence and motivates them to give their best efforts in training.

Experiencing success

An easy boost to your young athletes’ confidence when playing up is succeeding against older players. If your athletes score a goal or successfully tackle a teammate, the feeling of progression will be greater against an older peer compared to same-aged peers. The motivation gained from this success will outweigh discouragement that could have come from failures.

Developing expertise

When your athletes play up, they don’t just train at a higher level but also compete at a higher level. These competitions allow them to experience different opponent playing styles and encounter various types of athletes that may be unfamiliar to them. These provides an opportunity to learn but also experience competition at a more intense standard, better preparing these athletes for the future.

3 tips to facilitate the playing up process

As we have seen, playing up is not an easy thing to do. There are different factors behind the scenes that make it harder process for younger athletes. Here are three things you can do to help athletes who are playing up:

  1. Inform them of the intensities they will face playing up – Giving your younger athletes a breakdown of training beforehand will allow them to brace themselves for what’s yet to come
  2. Give constructive feedback – Constructive feedback from coaches that includes clear strategies for improvement can help facilitate trust and respect with athletes who play up
  3. Organise social events for your team – Your athletes, whether older or younger, are more likely to integrate socially when they are properly introduced or take part in social activities

Final thoughts

Playing up is not always an easy process for athletes, but it allows them to grow and develop in a way that is just not possible with their same-aged peers. They are introduced to new skills and challenges that help them to enhance not only their physical abilities but their social abilities too.

Although younger athletes are likely to face difficulties whilst playing up, there are many different things coaches can do to facilitate the process and help athletes overcome these challenges.

So, let’s start shining a positive light on playing up and help our players become the best athletes they can be!


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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