It’s hard to pinpoint the moment everything got crazy.
We talk to clubs and coaches all the time who feel like they’re facing an annual deluge of players who are expecting and demanding to be moved up into higher age groups/divisions/sections before they actually reach that age, or before they might previously have been considered for the next division.
While of course it’s an issue not new to netball selections, in recent years it feels like we’re all copping wave after wave of players (and parents) who threaten to (and do) walk out the door because they feel they should be playing up a division or two.
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Perhaps it was after Kim Ravaillion debuted for the Diamonds at 18 years old, before she’d even played a game for the Queensland Firebirds, that forever implanted the thought in some players’ brains that if they’re not pushing for similar accolades at the same age, they’ve been left behind?
Or perhaps it’s simply the world we now live in, where immediate gratification is expected, and people are no longer prepared to wait for their own club to offer them what someone else is prepared to give them right now, whether they’re ready to take that step or not.
Either way, it sometimes feels like you’re facing a monthly battle with players who, rightly or wrongly, believe they need to be playing higher, RIGHT NOW.
A CASE STUDY OF STARS
Does taking a slow and considered approach to an athlete’s development mean they’ll be left behind and shut themselves off to bigger opportunities?
Just a few years ago, I was fortunate enough to coach a 19/U state league team that included three players who would go on to much bigger and better things: 2018 NSW Swifts defender Kate Eddy, Melbourne Vixens training partner and Victorian Fury captain Lara Dunkley, and Magpies Netball training partner Sam Gooden.
I know – lucky, right?
But one of the things that has stuck with me after those 12 months is the journey each of them took to that point, and in the years since.
Kate had already been in the 19/U team for a season when I arrived. And she was well and truly in line to be quickly moved up into the next division. However she and her parents discussed with us the possibility of her remaining in her own age group, as they felt she would benefit from enjoying another year of netball with players her own age, and dominating within her own age group (which she duly did).
Lara actually took what some would consider a backwards step in order to play 19/U. A goaler the previous season in Division 1 (open age competition that is a step above 19/U and one step below Victoria’s highest Championship division), she was moving into the midcourt for the first time, and was happy to take the time to learn those positions properly against slightly easier competition, rather than potentially struggling in unfamiliar positions against older, more experienced players.
And as a taller player, Sam took the longest path of all three. She had already been in 19/U for one season when I took over as coach, and remained there for two more seasons before she moved on. That was despite her dominating the competition in her second season and being earmarked for higher selection. In the meantime, she worked on her shot, developed her body strength and also started taking on leadership roles.
TO MOVE OR NOT TO MOVE?
So – there you have three players who are now among the best young players currently going around in Australia, and all who took a longer, considered approach to their development.
Each of them prioritised performing well and enjoying their netball in their current age group over pushing up early, and there’s no doubt it’s paid dividends for them in the long run.
Of course, every player is different, and there will always be players who rise rapidly into higher levels or age groups and do just fine, and it’s fantastic to move those players forward and fast-track their development if they’re ready for it.
But there are just as many players who move up too early, and find themselves struggling against older, more experienced and potentially more physical players.
HOW TO DECIDE?
A rule of thumb we’ve often used is to try to predict whether the player in question will be among the better players in the team they’re moving up into. If they are, then they could be ready for the move, and may also develop more rapidly throughout the year than the older players around them.
However if they’ll be, for example, the third defender or goaler, or fourth midcourter (or in a 17-3 team rather than a 15-1 team), perhaps it’s worth having a conversation with them (and their parents) about the possible benefits of staying down and being able to shine each week as one of the best players in their age group, rather than receiving less opportunities in the higher team because there are players ahead of them.
Consider whether they’re dominating in their current age group or level – i.e. are they in the best couple of players on court almost every week?
It’s also important to consider their individual maturity, and whether they’ll get along socially with players who are potentially at least a couple of years older than them.
Choosing which players to elevate early is an inexact science.
Given the number of players we’ve seen struggle and not develop as anticipated in recent years after being moved up early for fear of losing them to another club, if players and parents continue making demands and it becomes a case of “move them or lose them”, if you don’t think the player is ready then maybe it’s time to start considering letting them go.
Ultimately, what’s always critical is keeping the lines of communication open, and ensuring the player feels confident there is an ongoing plan for their development. Often they’ll be prepared to accept staying in the lower section if they know they’ll be developed and are a part of your plans for higher teams, moving forward.