Is always chasing higher level opponents the best way?
As coaches, one of the most common issues that come up are parents wanting their children to play in the highest squad, in the highest team vs the best players, as much as possible.
I can understand how that point of view is formed. It makes some sense to think that if you are constantly playing up that you will naturally improve and get closer in standard to that level of opponents you are playing at. Sort of like the ‘5 people you hang around most with is who you become’ concept.
But here is the deal. There are 2 reasons why this model is not sustainable.
- If everyone in a program or league wanted to play better players, this does not work logistically.
- There are many downsides to your game if you are only playing better players.
So what are we working on when playing better players?
If you are only playing players above you, you are primarily working on your Defense and some Midfield as you try hard to stay in the rallies and then hustle to get balls back against the better player. You DO learn about intensity, reactions and movement and also get to SEE what a better player does in a point (at your expense). However you FAIL to get a chance to practice your Attack game or learn how to crush an opponent by hitting winners off their second serve, coming in to finish points and being the boss on the court.
Always playing above can turn into never really expecting to win, which turns into a habit. This can cause situations where a player plays well (but doesn’t win) against better players but then is totally lost when playing someone who is a lower level, who hits slower, misses more and “has the worst technique”.
So it is very important not to constantly chase higher and higher level matches and sessions treat that strategy as the holy grail of development. Different coaches have different ratio’s of winning/losing or dominating/struggling. We normally will say 60/40 win/loss ratio but it can depend on the age and stage of the player. As well as the game development, we also strongly believe in the leadership development which happens when the balance is done correctly.
I also believe a deeper truth is that parents are so disappointed when they see their children play below their potential. This happens when kids play someone lower and then their game falls apart. By always playing higher you are avoiding those awkward matches against lower players. This is both a technical and also psychological problem which gets better with practice!
Good luck coaches and parents I hope this offers a logical explanation to this issue.