The new birth year change US Soccer has implemented nationwide this past season caused a stir in parents, players at youth clubs across the country. The reshuffling of teams, a confusion about skipping age groups or playing the same age group again, and a new batch of players who are getting the short end of the deal due to their December birthday created a wave of frustration felt by most involved in youth soccer in the US. Parents of children with December and November birthdays saw their children drop to the bottom of the spectrum in terms of age and development in their age group. Before parents of children with end of the year birthdays begin to regret that St. Patrick's Day in the late 1990s to much, I believe there is real value in being the youngest player in a being the youngest in an age group and facing adversity.
What players may lack in physicality or strength compared to older players in their age group, they will be forced to make up for in resilience, determination, skill and technique. In my opinion I would much rather be the late bloomer physically then someone who finds success as a young player due to their early physical maturity. I have wrote a number of articles about the curse of being comfortable and how without pressure or adversity you cannot create great players. I truly believe that resilient players who are used to facing bigger, stronger, and faster opponents are the players who will likely become success stories when the playing field evens out in the older age groups.
I grew up with an early August birthday, when the cutoff was still August 1st. It meant that I was one of the oldest on my club team, but the youngest in grade in high school. This made playing high school soccer very difficult for me growing up, this of course was pre academy US Soccer when high school soccer was played by everyone. I was playing against players who were a year older then me at times for a portion of the year, and as a very late developer I struggled to compete successfully until around my junior year. This was frustrating at times, but it built a toughness and a drive that I would not have had if I was in the grade below. I wanted nothing more than to prove myself as one of the best players in my grade as a senior after the years of being bullied and over matched physically by the players in my grade. It is interesting to see the amount of August birthdays I have ran into over the years of playing who likely faced the same challenges.
The idea that life isn’t fair and the road to success is never a smooth one has to driven into young players who may be struggling in the younger age groups physically. Sooner or later they will catch up physically and they will be thankful for the challenges they faced playing this sport. Especially if they come out as a superior technician and with more skill than the players around them who never had the need to develop such aspects of their game.
Parents must also buy into this idea that in the long term the player will benefit from the struggles he or she may face growing up. Success driven parents may not see the long term benefit of not being the best u12 player around, and may struggle to cope with the fact that there are bigger and stronger players at that age then their son or daughter. Frustrations with the new age group change, and with the sport in general may lead them to lose interest in their son or daughters playing career and it may encourage them to seek other sports or activities for them.
Success driven coaches may also fail to see the potential younger, weaker players may have as well. It is very evident in teams that are full of taller, more physical players at the u13 and younger age groups who still struggle to connect more than a few passes at a time. Coaches have to possess a big picture view of players at a young age if we are going to really move forward as a nation. Instead of picking the biggest, fastest, or strongest we have to look for players who can read the game and who are technically good enough on the ball to possess the ball. And not to say there are not goff tall, athletic, and strong players out there. But coaches should look to fairly evaluate the little guys in soccer criteria when it comes to evaluating players, rather than picking a school yard football team to take to games on the weekend.
Parents and coaches should look to encourage their slower developers to stick with it, and drive the idea that a reward for the work they are putting in now is coming down the road if they continue to stay disciplined and dedicated to the sport. The road to being a great player and achieving goals in soccer is a frustrating and painful road at times full of sacrifice and disappointments. For the players who can be resilient in times where they are not seeing success, are told they are not good enough, or are having a very tough time with the sport, the gratifying feeling of success will feel that much better if it is seen in the future. Avoiding comfort and to much success at a younger age group is crucial to players remaining hungry for success in their later teenage years.