I am told that the best way to develop young players is to have them PLAY IN THE SAME AGE GROUP. I believe that it is more important for them to PLAY IN THE SAME SKILL GROUP. Who is correct?
We believe soccer is based on four pillars, at the individual AND at the team level:
- Technical Skills
- Tactical Understanding
- Physical Conditioning and Game Readiness
- Mental Understanding and Game Readiness
It is the combination of all of these that make up a player and a team. It is important that each child gets the opportunity to develop. By definition then, they should all get the opportunity to get as many touches on the ball during practice and in games as possible.
Some people think that grouping children by age is the way to ensure that all the players are fairly evenly matched. Age mostly addresses mental development and physical development. Only if kids have grown up playing the same number of hours every week since age 3, one might infer age is an indicator of skill and possibly tactics. But even the mental and physical development assumption could be wrong. A lot of organizations play boys and girls together and group ages, like 4 & 5 year olds together. A smallish 4 year old girl and a physically advanced 5 year old boy are significantly different and chances are that in a game, the 4 year old girl doesn't get much action. Now if you only play boys together and we are talking U 13 then age may be a reasonably grouping. If you add that this is a competitive U13 then skills and tactics should match.Other people think that skill should be the matching factor. Probably be more appropriate at the youngest ages. But skill alone could be detrimental. We have seen 7 year old boys who have more skills than some 11 year old boys. But in a game, the 11 year olds would likely dominate simply because of sheer physical advantages.
- They split boys and girls at a very early age, some as early as age 4/5 - U5.
- They group them in single age groups, not combining ages. The difference between a young three year old and an older 4 year old in a combined U5 team could be huge.
- They asses the abilities of players in pre-season evaluation sessions and identify the exceptionally talented players - the ones that would be good enough to control the ball most of the time in a game. They then selectively put these exceptional kids in an older age group to level the playing field. Messi was such a kid - playing 2-3 age groups up.
- Finally, at age 10 and up they split their teams into recreational and competitive/travel.
I hope this answer gives you some idea about the complexity of trying to do the right thing for the children.