A good question from a reader about playing up in age groups:
Thanks for all of the great information you provide in this forum. I’d like you opinion on “playing up”. Is it always best to play up in age group if your ability allows, or would it be best to play your own age group and be on a potentially very good team in your own age bracket? What would you consider more important for a players long term development. Greg
For long term physical development, one would always wish to play against the best possible competition at all times. If you are 15 and can hold your own against 18 year olds, then 18's is the age group that you should be playing; if you are just considering volleyball skill/ability development.
Yet, I feel that there are two other considerations to keep in mind - Mental development and recruiting opportunities.
Mental development is the ability to handle competitive situations maturely and to enhance leadership ability. If a player has the physical ability to play beyond his/her age group and does, it can sometimes limit their mental development. The reality is that an 18 year old is more mature than a 15 or 16 year old just because of life's experiences (in general) and it can be tough for a 15 year old to relate/interact. When we combine this with team chemistry, most young kids that play up are not going to be the team leaders emotionally and in fact, can be a bit precocious in their attitudes. They don't have the social, family and personal pressure of transitioning from high school to college within the next 6 months like a 18 year old club player.
I feel these particulars tend to create an athlete, that when he or she does become an older club player and is playing with athletes their own age, they may not have the mental development to provide appropriate leadership and maturity within their team; don't get me wrong, they may be great kids, but are they mature leaders and a positive/stabilizing presence on the court?
If Club Volleyball is a means to secure a roster spot and a scholarship with a college program, then we must consider the recruiting ramifications of playing up. My belief is that a player should play up to 16's (at the most 17's) if physically able and then stay with their own age group. Remember that college coaches are compiling their recruiting database for each recruiting class in the 16's age group and then finish this class evaluation very early in the 17's age group - Please note this is a broad statement because each program has different recruiting parameters and priorities.
Part of the recruiting process is evaluation of a player's mental abilities. The physical abilities are rather easy to discern, but the mental abilities will make all the difference in college volleyball. In collegiate volleyball, there are tons of players with physically dynamic skill, but the good ones are the players that posses the mental focus to succeed.
While it can be argued that a player may limit their physical development by staying with their age group from 16's/17's up, it will enhance their mental-leadership skills which are very important to college coaches. I like to see how a player relates to and leads players that are her own age and to evaluate this characteristic, I need to see them within their age group.
Back to the physical side, it is also good for Prospective Student-Athlete (PSA) to display her skills against those within her own age group. If one plays up, the college coaches will be trying to guesstimate what her abilities would be if she was playing against others her own age. We do this because the majority of our recruiting class is playing against their own age. As we rank players to determine who gets the first offer of a scholarship, we constantly contrast and compare the overall impression of each PSA.
In short, play up to 16's/17's, then spend the last two or three years with the appropriate age group.