Creating and Maintaining Environments for Young People in Football

Over the last four weeks (and having been coaching for 18 years) I have noticed some very worrying environments. It’s worrying to me as a coach, parent and independent observer having witnessed the top level academies, middle ground and grass roots and being constantly told «its getting better.»

I have seen some good examples of well-meaning people who manage safety whilst giving ownership to young people. Not easy to do. The other thing that isn’t easy to do is manage adrenaline and feelings. We all want our own children to do well. That’s a given. Whether its homework, model making, swimming or football. From the mentioned however which do people change their methods in? Which would an adult change their mindset in?

The game is passionate – Fact. People visit stadiums, watch adults, moan at refereeing decisions and complain all week if our supported teams lose. To the point of becoming almost Piers Morgan like. There is a distinct difference however. The people you shout, cheer and bemoan are indeed adults. They can cope in pressurised adult environments. The very best can even block them out and perform. It takes years of practice. Playing in the champions league for millions of pounds is one thing, playing in front of 30 people in a 5v5 astro turf court is simply another.

The two environments are not linked. They are not replicas. Children will with their imagination, mentally attempt to visit and dream of such stadium. This is all the pressure they need.

We are missing a huge trick. The street and playground we used to commentate on whilst playing and pretend to be gazza or maradona was our pressure. The next defender is pressure. The last gasp save is pressure.

Unfortunately the following is additional pressure to young people:

· Making kids play in set positions – most that have played will tell you – you don’t end up playing in the same one for very long.

· Shouting things such as «don’t mess about with it in your box, get rid, clear it, pass it, down the line» and so on. The things said from my last 4 weeks up to 25 times in one hour by one adult to 1-5 children. Confusion and pressure.

· Spectators shouting «tackle him, pass-pass-pass, well-in.» it’s been done for years I know I played but it does no good.

· A parent shouting «tackle» Is also a motivation for increased aggression. Was the child going to tackle anyway? Probably.

· The good players can’t play – they face managers of young teams going man for man, even 2 players marking them but not child led, just so the adult can win.

· I have witnessed excessive fouling by young players who instead of shake hands and pick kids up are laughing as the «tackle» has become over emphasised. Just wait until the tackling sort plays at a good level (if they manage it with no technique or skill – probably not), the tackle will become a chase as the players will dance around them and or play through them.

Do you want your child to be playing and enjoying and be good and win at 15, 16 and beyond? I’m sure the answer is yes. Then you need to stop now and think. The u7-9 age groups is the key to the following to develop them into good 16 year olds:

· Freedom to try things – 1v1 moves without fear of losing the ball, playing from the goalkeeper and dribbling anywhere on the pitch.

· Remember the 5v5 pitch is only a quarter of a full size pitch. What they do in front of their own goal they will do in the whole quarter when older. If they just clear the ball now they won’t know any different.

· Scores should not be recorded. Any leagues asking for scores for u7-14 games in my opinion are failing kids. It makes adults record them and it makes them cut development corners. It doesn’t make any sense.

· Trophies and man of the match awards – I have rarely seen an award given for a good series of turns, skills, and technical aspects. I hear lots of «brave, worked hard and even its… ‘s turn this week. what is the point? Again an adult idea for some strange reason not the idea of the child (beginner not tainted).

· Not commenting on kids showing off and forcing them to pass – many skills not just taking players on are lost – agility, acceleration and deceleration, movement, awareness, touch and use of both feet, use of different parts of the foot etc. by not allowing dribbling and own decisions you’re stopping the whole round athletic development of children.

The best game environments I have seen are as follows:

· Kids arrive, hand shakes with coaches.

· Changing room – random selection, age group pairing, no birth bias, let kids choose their teams, get ready together if possible for social reasons

· Little talking from coaches – apart from «have fun, be an exciting player, can you think of how to improve as you play.»

· No formational organisation – let this happen. Kids will drift into positions but know they can move anywhere on the pitch. I often hear «you be the defenders and don’t go over the half way line.» You may as well say don’t play.

· Never say things such as «do a job or work hard» it isn’t a chore it’s a fun game

· Questions are asked in intervals only – what if? How could you? If that happens what should we do? Scenario planning.

· Say nothing to them whilst playing the game. They will communicate if allowed anyway. They’ll communicate like other 7 year old kids do. In a way they understand. Saying things during play is one of the worst things any coach or parent can do adding pressure, stifling creativity and decision making and ends up panicking about results.

· Referee needed? Or just a facilitator that manages safety? The latter is fine. If we encourage honesty and fair play and set nice guidelines it works.

· Certain rules – allow dribble ins, futsal pass ins – why do we encourage throw ins with young children? Mix it up.

· Parent comments – are they encouraging? If I’m a goalkeeper and I stop a certain goal scoring opportunity then I have just saved it. I’m happy in myself as it was me. I already know or even pre-empted it. Why do I then need a chorus of «great save» as it probably wasn’t a great save but my own and my teams’ achievement. Debateable?

If you have 4 outfield players, rather than stating «let’s play 2 defenders, 1 midfielder and 1 striker,» ask the kids. They will come up with some wonderful concoctions and they might then go and play that way or go and follow the ball. The ball, you must remember is the real reason we play the game from a young age. This changes somewhat over time when we spend hardly any time with it at all working on tactics as we get older and play a higher level. There is absolutely nothing wrong with kids wanting the ball. There is nothing wrong with encouraging dribbling. They will lose the ball. That’s when the next player has a turn. Too many are ramming passing and getting rid of the ball down kids throats. Let’s get their techniques spot on and then worry about winning later.

I have watched 4 weeks of games of late and haven’t yet seen any child that’s played in goal come off their line yet. Why aren’t children being taught the whole game? Again the instruction from the adults isn’t that of intelligence but more aggression and the Dunkirk spirit.

At such frustration one grand dad told his grand son just to boot it up the pitch «it might as well be up there so they don’t score.»

I have also seen a rise of the wannabe match reporter. They too talk of scores, winning and so on. Gladly the team my son has begun playing for doesn’t promote this. The kids don’t know the score. They carry on playing after the game. They have the social and psychological corners catered for. They are answering questions and behaving in a nice manner. They are playing. An opposition coach stated his team had won ‘again’ 11-7 (I think). He told his player as they didn’t know of course. Then proceeded to hand out the M.O.M award to claps from parents. My sons team thankfully carried on playing with each other into one goal still smiling. Not one asked «why don’t we get a medal?» This particular game, whatever the score was full of «pass, pass, down the line,» but a goal was scored from a dribble with the player not listening. Good job he didn’t really. «we won» said the coach; the other team had shared equal playing time and taken off the two better players not concerned of the score. They changed the goalkeeper 3 times. The kids had fun. This information wasn’t taken into account by the ‘coach,’ as so many only live off the end result not the process. They don’t see the potential 16 year old.

I write this with a huge passion for developing young players. I have seen some excellent kids thrive in the last 10 years and unfortunately seen some with great potential be ruined by coaches. Coaches that aren’t really putting themselves in the kids boots.

Compare the smile to the serious pressurised face and I know which id rather see.

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