Athlete perceptions of "playing up" in youth soccer
A common practice in sport is to “play up” youth athletes with exceptional sport-specific skills against older players with similar skill sets. Playing up is believed to facilitate expertise by exposing athletes to high intensities of practice and competition (Malina, 2010). However, the effects of playing up on youth’s athletic and personal development have not been evaluated. Therefore, the purpose of this study was to investigate athletes’ experiences of playing up in soccer and their perceptions of how it may have influenced their sport-specific skill and psychosocial development. Seventeen athletes from four soccer clubs in Ontario, Canada, participated in semi-structured interviews in which they described their playing up experiences. Athletes discussed the decision for them to play up, their transition into a new team culture, and perceived changes in their development as athletes and as people. I performed an inductive thematic analysis of athletes’ interview transcripts to capture their playing up experiences (Braun et al., 2017). Athletes perceived playing up to involve a balance between challenge and progress that was facilitated by the social dynamics within their respective teams. Athletes struggled the most when coping with intensity, making mistakes, fighting for trust and respect, and fitting in. They also felt a sense of progress through being recognized, experiencing success, and pursuing professional aspirations. Overall, athletes desired playing up experiences that involved engaging in an inspiring learning environment, establishing quality relationships, and contributing to team learning. Future research is needed to evaluate playing up across contexts and explore ways to mobilize knowledge for sport practitioners.