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As coaches it is vital that we continue to put players in challenging environments that help them develop as people and as players.
Within my environment I constantly find myself weighing up the pros and cons of placing a player in the older age group. Although a player maybe technically ready to play up and age group, physically they may struggle and vice versa.
Does this happen in other sports and what process do you take to ensure you make the correct decision?
I think the key thing is the reasoning behind it.
I've known kids be played up age groups "for the good of the team". In one instance, with a teenage rugby player going into seniors, it resulted in life changing injuries. At a less extreme end if the scale, I've had an athlete scared out of the sport where a team manager put her into an event where she was clearly out of her depth - although I did object at the time, I've got to put my hands up and admit to not protesting forcefully enough on that occassion. That clearly isn't the way to go.
I work with track and field athletes, so the danger is more psychological than physical. I think the stories of 2 athletes coach from this year illustrate my approach nicely.
Athlete A - 13 year old lad, performing at a very high level with goals of performing well at national championships. This year I had him racing seniors on a couple of occassions at open meets becuase he was not getting any competition at all racing lads his own age in leagues etc and I knew he was going to face lads at his level and quicker once he got to the national champs - I didn't want his biggest comp of the year to be the first time he experienced having other bodies around him halfway through the race. Taking him out of his comfort zone was definitely the right thing to do.
Athlete B - 14 year old girl, good athlete but quite an anxious performer. In her case I discouraged her from even entering the national multievent champs because I knew that at a competition of that level she would be down towards the bottom end of the field. Knowing what I know about her, there's a good chance that would have scared her off the sport entirely. Hopefully her confidence will grow in time (and it's something we're working on) but until then unless she needs to be doing competitions where she is likely to be towards the front.
I think Andy's two examples demonstrate the situation very well - it really depends on the player.
If the player is mentally and physically strong, it might make sense to push them a bit and advance them to the higher age group or competition level. A good example here is Estonian speed skater Marten Liiv who has always been pushed over his limits. There are no full-sized speed skating tracks in Estonia so he has been travelling a lot since he was a kid to train with the "big boys" (e.g. in Finland and Germany where speed skating is a really developed sport). This has made him much faster and stronger than would have been possible by training in Estonia with his peers (he recently won the bronze medal in World Junior Championships).
While I generally support challenging players in different ways, mentally and physically weaker players should be dealt with caution. Mental or physical overload could result in really bad injuries or dropping out of sports.
So the decision is really up to the coach's intuition and the knowledge of the player.
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