Nobody is born a great footballer. Every Rooney, Ronaldo, Henry or Cannavaro has to become that good. Top players have to have had the right mix of attitude and capability otherwise they would not have stayed the course and made the grade. LEARNING is at the core of this process.
Learning about the game and how to play it is both a science and an art. So how did the greats LEARN the game? Matthews, Finney, Puskas, DeStefano, Pele, Best and Zidane – well the answers to that question could be many and varied but what is certain is that they loved the game and they played it as kids for hours and hours, day after day, come rain or shine, wherever and whenever they could, with whoever they could.
They played in the streets, the playgrounds, on grass, on concrete, and on waste ground. They played with their mates – older or younger – with anything that bounced or rolled (and sometimes with things that didn’t). Most importantly they took RESPONSIBILITY and they sorted things out because if they didn’t nobody else would. It was probably unstructured and sometimes chaotic (15 a side on a pile of mud with players of all shapes and ages) but the greats were playing and LEARNING getting in their 10,000 hours of practise and experimenting.
More importantly they were FREE. Free to have FUN. Free to copy their heroes and their mates, free to pretend they were playing in the cup final, free to mess around with a new trick, free to take risks in their play, free to make their own decisions, free to solve their own problems, free to use their imaginations to find clever solutions because they were the little kid playing with the big ones or the big gangly kid who has to deal with the tricky little one. FREE to make their mistakes without an adult saying ‘NO you can’t do that there’.
Kids that love playing football want to PLAY FOOTBALL. All the greats LOVE the game. An important contribution to the fact that they became great is that they actually played lots and lots of football without adults being involved. So is there a message there for those of us involved in youth football?
When I look at youth football in England today I see the opposite to what I believe youngsters need. I see structure not freedom. I see more attention paid to rules and regulations than to the needs of the players. I see too much over coaching and not enough playing. I see children playing adult football from seven years old. I see grown men on the sideline behaving worse than their children – questioning the referee, shouting out instructions often in jargon the kids don’t understand.
So how can we help our kids? Well why not give them what they want and need! Fun games and football with variety and challenge where they can run, dribble, shoot, score, tackle, turn, gets lots of touches of the ball and compete with bigger stronger, older kids or learn to look after the smaller younger ones. Maybe we force them to grow up too early! Maybe we should let them play as kids play so that they can LEARN the game as kids learn – purely and simply.
Then what should the adults do in all this mayhem? Well model good behaviour yourself because the youngsters look to you and also enjoy them for what they are – kids who love to play the game. So set up (or get them to set up) activities which allow the players to practice and experiment. Laugh and cry with them. Cheer for them, congratulate them and put in the boundaries they need to function as people - show them how to respect the referee, applaud good play (the oppositions’ too) and behave well in victory and defeat. If you do you’ll see some fantastic football played by happy kids doing what they love.
But it won’t be adult football. It will be kids’ football played by the kids for the kids not for you.
They may not mark up when they should or pass when they should or dribble at the wrong time in the wrong places but that doesn’t matter, they are learning the game they love playing high risk football, making mistakes, solving problems and making their own decisions – experimenting with the game itself building up the ‘know how’ they need to carry on playing the game as teenagers, young adults, adults, professionals, amateurs, world cup winners, champions league winners, veterans, mums and dads and grand-mums and grand-dads kicking about in the park with the next lot coming through.
Remember you’re just along for the ride, and what a ride it is, the roller-coaster ride of a lifetime. So relax, chill out and enjoy the thrills and spills it brings with it.
The adult impact on young players today is immense. Everybody is a ‘coach’ – and football pays homage to the ‘coaching culture’ but when people become coaches especially of kids they pick up a great responsibility – a responsibility to become a student not simply of the game of football but also a student of the people who play it and the needs they have at particular times in their football career. Coaches must accept early in their coaching careers that some players will never need them.
When players are young they need boundaries regarding standards of behaviour and effort but within these boundaries they also need the freedom to express themselves in an environment that is free of FEAR and the fear of FAILURE. What is inside a young player must be encouraged to flourish not flounder on the rocks of adult expectation.
Adults must understand that the youngsters are responsible for their own LEARNING and the adults’ job is simply to provide more opportunities to play football and support when the players need it but not to interfere when they don’t.
Adults must also understand that the young players don’t necessarily want you to give them the answers to the problems the game throws up at them (they really like to sort those out for themselves and it is much better for their learning if they do) but what they may need are clues to what the answer may be. Here with knowledge, skill and planning coaches can design the football activities which provide the clues the players may need.
Probably the most important question a coach or player can ask is…..what if? It has taken me years to understand that it is OK if I say to a young player – I don’t know the answer to that. Shall we see if we can sort it out? Just the same as it is OK for me to say to a youngster who is struggling with a new skill or idea that it’s OK not to be able to do it today.
The giants of the premier league and Europe are beginning to look all over the world for the talent that will keep them competitive in the future. Africa and South America where the kids are still free to play the game they love seems to be the where the richest pickings are to be found. Have we ever stopped for just a moment to ask ourselves why that could be?
Unfortunately to play for England you need to be English somewhere along the line. So we are restricted to the 48 million people who sit with that tag and when it is compared to the population of the world it has to be seen for what it is – a very precious commodity indeed.
The FA work to a 4 corners model for player development and learning – technical; physical; psychological and social. All four corners have their vital part to play but possibly the social corner has not be stressed enough in player development.
The days when thousands of kids played in the street or over the park in unstructured freedom are probably not coming back. Society and our culture may have changed to such an extent that such luxuries are no longer possible in our modern western society – but the people growing and developing are still human beings and they need to go on their own LEARNING journey firstly as children, then teenagers, young adults and adults – learning whether we like it or not is a life long process.
Football is a learned activity and has a special learning journey of its own. It is essential that the young players are allowed to follow their own football learning journey and sometimes as adults we fail them by attempting to short cut the learning process for them by thinking that we can accelerate things, but often slower learning with skills and ideas taking a little longer to take root and evolve is the best learning. Learning that sticks.
So what do we the adults need to do – the key is that we have to understand the needs of the young players as learners. People always need to be given responsibility for and ownership of their learning – after all 90% of the process goes on at their end. They need to be given the licence to experiment with new things free of the fear of failure, they need to be challenged in a variety of ways and they need to be trusted to get on with the learning (playing football) within the boundaries of respect for others and good behaviour that we (the adults) set and model. But most of all they need to have FUN and ENJOYMENT playing the game they love because that’s how they LEARN best. If we can do these things the adult impact may well be a positive one.