Pre World Cup thoughts linked to Youth Development

The World Cup along with the Olympics were the two sporting events that I couldn’t take my eyes off when I was a kid. My first World Cup memory is 1986 and although as an Englishman I should detest Maradona as years went by I couldn’t help watching my VHS 1986 film and admiring the way he lead Argentina to glory. Then there was 1990 and Gazza! As years progressed I admired Brazilian football and particularly the fun, freedom and no little skill that came with it.

What will this World Cup bring and how can coaches and parents of children at all levels relate to youth development???

I would firstly like to point out that children are not mini adults and as such we can’t expect them to perform as adults. However the end goals for any coach and parent must be –

1. fuel the fire to enable your child to fall in love with the game

2. allow your child to be the best they can possibly be (and this is where many coaches and parents fail)

During this tournament there will be endless examples that we can link back to youth development. I’m going to concentrate on four and as a parent/coach just consider how these link to your child’s journey. Are you/their coaches understanding these points and more importantly developing the player.

Bravery on the ball – to play at an elite level players have to be very brave on the ball. For years and years the English mentality was risk free safety first football, “get rid of it” “down the line” “not across your own box” common touchline instructions that are very real today. I’d encourage you to watch and consider how these international footballers deal with the ball under intense pressure. The majority of the time they will try and find a way out of the pressure with a dribble or a pass that might appear risky. There is a great clip of Brazil playing out under pressure here https://twitter.com/contactcounts/status/1006481712887615489?s=21 your young players will make loads of mistakes and they will lose games and goals are a result of trying to stay on the ball or keep the ball with team mates when under pressure. Encourage the players stick with them tell them to keep trying things and be brave and that way one day maybe just maybe they might be able to play like those in the link above. If you don’t and you put pressure on not to make mistakes and don’t encourage freedom it’s impossible to play like those in the clip!

How players receive the ball – this is really interesting just watch how lots of players from a wide variety of nations receive the ball. They use all parts of their foot outside, inside and most interestingly the sole. I have come across many different coaching programs GR, independent companies and pro clubs and the amount that encourage/teach the sole to receive is minimal. Many of the Spanish and Brazilian players for example have played lots of proper Futsal (hard court, 5v5, proper ball ect) and many credit that for use of the sole. Why use the sole? When receiving with the sole the players next move can take them anywhere 360 degrees what’s not to like about that? Think about it back foot receiving (the right decision in some circumstances) can only take the player in a limited direction but for some reason when we teach kids to receive our go to is back foot. The same can be said with outside of foot, it can be the right decision but again can only take the player in limited direction. The sole should be taught as the main way to receive when kids start playing. Watch Neymar and his team mates that will help develop an understanding.

Attackers are defenders & defenders are attackers – at elite level gone are the days where the defenders just defend and the striker just stands up top and waits for service. Defenders must be able to play, be comfortable in possession be able to dribble out and linking to the first point be brave on the ball, even England (well Southgate in fact) are now realising this. Attackers must defend from the front, lots of teams value winning the ball back high in the opposing half but this tactic won’t work unless the forward players can defend. Gabriel Jesus is perhaps the best example of this his willingness and desire to defend and dominate 1v1 both in attack and defence is ultimately why he’s Man City’s main no 9 in big games ahead of the free scoring Aguero. How does this link to youth development? Very simple are the kids doing lots of 1v1 attacking and defending in training and playing lots of games that develop attacking and defending. When it comes to game time are kids been pigeon holed into a position eg only play one maybe two roles? If the answer is yes then the child will not become the very best they can be they won’t have had enough time in a variety of roles. We’ve all seen the adverts coaches asking for experienced 8 year old defenders or strikers, my advice never go near clubs and coaches like that. Unfortunately even at academy level kids as young are 7,8,9 are playing in the same role week after week.

The 11v11 game often breaks down into 1v1 – 4v4 scenarios – adults are desperate for kids to play real football and larger sided games as early as possible; I’ve seen pro clubs playing 7v7 at U6 and U7 which is just crazy. The ‘real’ game often breaks down into a 3v3 or a 2v2 obviously this is for short periods and it quickly moves onto another scenario such as a 2v3 or 3v4. As such it’s vital kids play loads of different small sided games that provide loads and loads of these types of outcomes underloads, overloads, 1v1, 4v4 to create overloads. Belgium are punching well above their weight with such a small population but their program focuses on small sided games 2v2 U5-7 allowing loads of touches and also helping to develop bravery on the ball.

In conclusion the adult game is the end goal (be best you can be). To reach as high as they can in the adult game kids need freedom, no pressure and to be allowed to play with constant instructions. They need to practice and be put into lots of different scenarios be it positionally or during small sided training games.

How will England perform? I like Southgate clearly very keen the team plays bravely and without fear. Quality wise we lack a true game changer; when we won the U17 World Cup we were 2-0 down but Phil Foden at that level was a true game changer imagination creativity and end product but the first team don’t have that yet and in later rounds that will be needed to breakdown top defences. We also look very vulnerable defensively against teams that will dominate the ball against us but overall we should make knockouts and then you never know.

Thanks for reading hope you enjoyed.

Twitter @contactcounts

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What makes a top grassroots foundation coach?!

With the recent announcement from the FA of the foundation phase DNA learning/support material I thought I would look at what makes a good foundation phase grassroots coach. 
Much of the foundation DNA focuses on individual ability on the ball and the encouragement for young players to express themselves and to love the ball. In recent years the national team has had lots of ‘nice’ possession but lacks ability to play under pressure or change the game, where are the waddle, Gazza, Barnes, Beardsley types?! As such I’m all for the theory behind the DNA and it’s clear the majority of kids starting out just want the ball they want to dribble with it, score goals play like Messi and in all honesty who can blame them?!
I am a huge believer that allowing children to play and organically find THEIR way and THEIR strengths is actually the ultimate way in the foundation phase. That way we discover all types, dribblers, proper defenders, passers, poachers and many more different ‘types’. 
In my considerable experience of GR football across the country the majority of coaches are male dads that have played the game at a variety of levels. They tend to adopt adult values and try and impart these on the young kids! Many are obsessed with passing and team play others are obsessed with safety first get rid long ball type approach. 
So what does the ultimate coach at U6-8 (when most teams start) actually look like?! 
It’s really simple it’s the adult with no ego and no pre conceived ideas. The adult that’s only concern is the children and by being open minded they realise it’s the children’s game! The best adult for the role is often a mother that sits the new and improved FA level 1 prior to starting and embraces equal game time, a let them play fun approach with no set positions! Grassroots clubs I’d urge you all to consider and recruit more female coaches. 

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Top Tips

The grassroots football season is fast approaching often an exciting time for both players, coaches and parents alike. Grassroots football is now the very lifeblood of the game, kids are joining teams as young as 4 years old and their first experience of playing football is in an organised environment. Until around 20 years ago kids would traditional have their first football experience playing with friends in the street, field or local park but due to a number of factors street footballers are now pretty much none existent, Wayne Rooney being the last and he’s now 30 years old. The death of the street footballer has seen the quality and type of English players drop significantly; we have not produced a world class footballer since Rooney, where are the game changers (Gazza), the proper defenders (Tony Adams) or the number 9’s (Alan Shearer)?

Grassroots football is about falling in love with the game and participation, if kids ever make a living out the game then that is great but the single most important aspect to grassroots football is that the kids are allowed to have fun in a pressure free environment (sounds like the street to me). There are numerous studies where the kids overwhelmingly state that they play football to have fun with their friends.

My top 10 tips for parent coaches and parents from the upcoming grassroots season:

  1. Let the children play – If in doubt don’t say anything. Parent coaches and many parents are not career coaches and are giving up their own time which is commendable but a constant commentary during match day or constantly stopping training sessions will suck the enjoyment from the kids. Shelve the tactical master plans and the impressions of Premier League managers on the side line. Recreate the street where kids just played, how often in training to kids ask about playing a match? It’s what they want to do, they just want to play.

 

  1. Allow the Ref to referee the game – In many cases the referees involved in grassroots football are still children or very young adults. They are still learning and even the very best make mistakes. Many decisions made by referees are subjective and based on an opinion. All referees are trying their best and without them there would be no game for the kids. Please stop and think before you question a decision or even worse give out abuse. Don’t be that fool that ruins the game.

 

  1. Do NOT provide an in game commentary – The majority of coaches and parents I come across believe that constantly telling the kids what to do is a positive. In terms of children’s development, it is the most toxic part of the game. The kids hate it, numerous studies show this, it sucks the life out of their play and stunts development as well as enjoyment. Kids start to listen for the command from the side line and become robotic, what happens when parent or coach is not there? The kids will be lost and not able to make their own decision.

 

  1. Embrace mistakes – This leads on from number 3 and yes you’ve read it right, embrace mistakes. With every mistake made there is a learning opportunity. It might mean that the team concedes a goal or don’t score a goal but the kids will learn and game intelligence will improve significantly. If a kid continues to make the same mistake week in week out and does not appear to be learning it might be that the coach can provide some assistance in the form of asking a question to make them think about other options.

 

  1. Equal playing time is a must – All kids must play same/similar game time. The kids play to have fun with their friends and there is no reason not to play equal game time. Any kids that are constantly playing less game time will begin to fall out of love with the game and eventually give up, they will feel inferior to their peers. No adult should ever make a child feel inferior and ultimately the only reason for unequal game time is to win a game and in all likelihood massage their own ego.

 

  1. Never pigeon hole into positions – The kids should be allowed to experience every part of the game. There is no logical reason to play kids in the same position every week. Kids enjoy playing in different areas of the pitch and it improves their development. In the very youngest ages I would not recommend playing positions, just let the kids play, they will develop advanced game intelligence as a result. If positions are played all the kids should be encouraged to play with freedom and not be restricted to a certain part of the pitch. I simply tell my U7 and U8 players when we attack you’re and attacker and when we defend you’re a defender.

 

  1. Ask the kids what they want – It’s the kids game, they’re the ones that play the game not the adults on the side line. Ask the kids what they want? Allow the kids to do the team talk, decide who is playing where or run and create their own training sessions of parts of sessions. The children taking ownership is great for football development and life skills.

 

  1. Respect the opposition – Remember they are not the enemy it is kids football. Welcome them to your ground, stand together, share a drink and allow the kids to play together before and after the game. Both adults and kids can make new friends.

 

  1. NO warms ups – The kids do not need to be warmed up before the game. The kids do not need to do stretches or laps of the pitch. Just give them a ball and let them play before the game that’s a sufficient warm up.

 

  1. Be SUPPORTIVE post-match/training – Always remember the kid’s enjoyment is paramount. Always tell the kids you’re proud of them and if things have not gone as hoped on the pitch the kids will have their own disappointment, don’t add to it by giving them the hairdryer treatment. This applies to coach’s post-match team talk (not sure I’ve done too many of these) and to parents. I always say the car journey home is possibly the most dangerous part of kid’s football. Dad might be disappointed his son/daughter did not perform and as emotions run high they tell their child in the car exactly what they think, children are desperate to make their parents proud. If parents keep being negative towards their children, then eventually they will give the game up.

 

The ultimate message is let the children enjoy the game, let them play and have fun. A supportive parent is one that takes their child to the game and allows them to play without pressure and is proud of them whatever their performance on the pitch. A supportive coach is a fair coach, a coach that allows the children to flourish and fall in love with the game. Follow the above tips and the kids will love the environment they play in and hopefully have a lifelong love for the game.

 

Good look to all the grassroots family for season 2016/17 and remember IT’S THE KIDS GAME.

 

Richard – Grassroots football blogger, grassroots football coach (U7’s & U8’s), grassroots football educator and ex academy coach.

Twitter – @contactcounts

Blog – https://justletthemplayfootball.wordpress.com/

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Get Back!

“Get back”, “half way”, “retreat” are all words shouted by coaches, parents and referees on grassroots pitches all over the country! Imagine 10 years ago players being instructed to retreat when the opposition had a goal kick but in 2013/14 the rule was introduced. Between the ages of U7 and U10 teams are required to retreat to the halfway line when the opposition have a goal kick.

The obvious question must be why was the rule introduced? I am under the impression it was predominantly to allow the kids more time on the ball and to encourage kids to play out from the back. More information can be found here http://full-time.thefa.com/NewsItem.do?noticePlacementID=271576681&noticeID=911151889

From research conducted via club website from over 2,000 adults involved in football U10 and below 76% believe the retreat line is a success. I conducted my own poll via my Twitter feed and 71% from 230 votes believed the retreat line is good for development. There is overwhelming support.

Despite the obvious support for the retreat line I remain sceptical as to whether it really does aid long term development. Was it introduced for the kids? I don’t believe so, it was introduced to manage the adults (coaches/parents) that promote long ball football or the adults that are relentless in their pursuit to win and score as many goes as possible.

Within the past month I have had discussions with other coaches regarding the retreat line. At U7’s I have been told by two coaches that my goalkeeper should be waiting for all his players to retreat before playing out. I asked them to explain and comments included that it’s in the rules and it’s not fair. I encourage my players to play as quickly as possible out from the back, I have no desire to ‘coach’ them to wait when the counter attack is on.

My grassroots U7’s side also recently played a grade 1 academy U7’s. I knew in advance that the retreat line is not used generally in these environments having witnessed numerous games whilst watching my son. In the first 1/4 my kids would drop off for a goal kick out of habit whilst the kids from pro club would generally press high. I asked the academy coach for his views on the retreat line and why they don’t use it. He was very forthright in his views basically stating the kids needed to learn to make better decisions whilst under pressure. The decision made from the goalkeeper at goal kicks was ultimately the difference between the 2 sides in terms of the result, my grassroots team lost by 1 goal over an hour and 3/5 of the goals we conceded came directly from the goalkeeper making a poor decision from a goal kick, unfortunately as a team we will struggle to learn from that as its then back to the routine of the retreat line. The kids did really benefit from playing out from the back under pressure; it would be far more beneficial for their development to play without the retreat line weekly (we never use it in training).

There are a number of negatives in my mind that surround the retreat line –

Making the game too easy – why should the kids not be put under pressure surely looking after the ball under pressure is absolutely vital? Why make it easy for them? I strongly believe most adults don’t want the kids to make mistakes or they want to limit mistakes. Why should we care if a kid loses the ball 9 times out of 10 when under pressure; they will learn to look after it, they will find a way don’t take that away from them. The kids also lose the desire to move into space and create the ‘half a yard’ to receive. I often hear FA tutors and mentors talk about realism well where is the realism in the retreat line?! I wonder on the streets in South America if 7 year old Messi, 8 year old Suazez or 9 year old Augero were allowed lots of time on the ball to develop a passing through the thirds mentality! Of course they weren’t they learnt to find a way to look after the ball whilst under pressure. A huge failing of the English national team for years (obvious during the 2014 World Cup) is our inability to look after the ball under extreme pressure we play with fear and take the safe option does the retreat line help eliminate this deficiency?

Creates the same situation time after time – the retreat line creates the same situation for players again and again. The player on the ball looks up prior to receiving and is faced with 3-4 players lined up on the halfway line ready to charge. The none receivers are not marked and their movement off the ball to receive the 2nd pass is less dynamic than without the retreat line. The retreat line must be really boring for kids. Most coaches dictate which kids receive the ball (usually the same one) and I often see teams drilled to play the same move. A couple of classics are the 1st receiver plays the ball down the line to a kid directed by the coach to stand in a certain position to receive the 2nd ball whilst the opposition charge towards the player with the ball. The 2nd will see the player with the longest kick be first receiver and launch the ball forward in the direction of one or two big and fast attackers, so much for eliminating the long ball. The kids become very robotic very early as a result of the retreat line. I am a huge believer that the more different situations kids are placed in the more problems they have to solve the better for their long term development, surely the retreat line eliminates many different scenarios that the kids would otherwise be placed into.

Stunts development regarding decision making when defending – linked to the above point the situation is always the same and this completely takes away kids decision making when it comes to defending the goal kick. The kids get used to lining up on the half way line ready to charge the receiver. Surely independent decisions from a goal kick would far advance development. Again as a defender they would be placed in lots more different situations than what they currently experience with the retreat line. Defending now appears a dying art and on the face of it the FA DNA focuses entirely on technical players comfortable on the ball with the ability to play a passing game, defenders and game changers are neglected; ironically enough the 2 things we as a national side are crying out for.

The retreat line certainly helps the adults but I am struggling to believe it really helps the kids long term. We seems scared that kids will have the ball taken from them, make a mistake, concede a goal but surely as a result of those errors they will learn how to look after it under pressure? In my experience most kids figure this out for themselves however as youth coaches a small amount of guidance can also help in certain circumstances. I hear the argument that the kid will be upset by making a mistake but in the vast majority of cases that will only be the case if adult attitudes/expectations are wrong. I used to have the ball taken off me all the time when I was 8 or 9 playing with 11 or 12 year olds in the park, did it stunt my love for the game, no way it made me more determined not to keep losing it.

After much pondering and consideration I have concluded that the retreat line was brought in possibly subconsciously to manage adults actions more than the kids. We were playing too many long balls and we needed to build out from the back, that’s fine but a retreat line doesn’t stop long balls or the creation of robotic play directed by adults. Why not just let the kids play let them learn how to manage the ball under pressure and learn how to play with and without the ball in as many different situations as possible. The rule for U7/8 players that are perhaps weaker ability wise maybe it works and that’s a big maybe I’m still not convinced but for U9/10 or players of a decent standard at U7/8 surely it does not aid development it only serves to manage poor adult coaching. I’d suggest the coach and parent education system and structure of the grassroots game is completely overhauled if we really want to produce better all round players.

Thanks for reading

Feedback appreciated

Twitter – @contactcounts

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Are 85% of coaches really poor

To produce better players we need better coaches at the very root of the game.

It has been crystal clear for years that England need to produce more intelligent, technical and fearless footballers in order to compete on the world stage. I have discussed previously that I believe until our culture changes at the very root of the game then our failings are destined to continue. We would produce far more players if we took away the pot luck element of the coach that kids are subjected to when they enter the game. Our culture has a significant effect on long term participation levels which are obviously of equal importance.

Since February I have kept a record of each team I have witnessed play at U7-9 for the entire duration of the game; I have seen snippets of many other games but it’s only fair to record data from an entire match. I have concentrated on 2 huge issues at the root of the game. The first is coach behaviour, particularly surrounding providing a constant commentary and making decisions for the kids or alternatively do they let them play. I also made some notes regarding how teams were set up with regard to specific positions.

Coach behaviour

Good – 5%

Satisfactory – 10%

Poor – 50%

Terrible – 35%

Good – allows the kids to play & make decisions. Offers praise and encouragement but no constant commentary.

Satisfactory – will often let the kids play & make decisions but at certain times will intervene and instruct/make decision on behalf of child.

Poor – provides a constant commentary throughout the game, telling kids what to do at almost every opportunity. Allows for very little or no independent decision making.

Terrible – provides a constant commentary not allowing independent decision making and in addition is openly critical of mistakes and perceived poor play.

Clearly the results are based on my perception but it’s not difficult to form an accurate measurement with regard to constant commentary and instruction as opposed to letting the kids play.

The results indicate that 85% of coaches are bellowing instructions at the kids and generally taking away decision making. Assuming that there are 8 players in each team then 136 out of 160 children are on the end of negative coaching behaviour which is quite astonishing. Assuming those kids stay within that environment how are they going to develop to their full potential and ultimately fall in love with the game?

Positions

None – 5%

Some – 35%

Rigid – 60%

None – the kids were allowed complete freedom to move into any area of the pitch and not placed into a set position by the coach.

Some – the players were laid out into positions but this was slightly more flexible than the rigid category. Kids were not restricted completely to their own zones as is often the case within the rigid category.

Rigid – a set formation kids sticking to certain areas of the pitch on instruction.

Over half of the sides I watched played rigid positions, only 1 game was a 7v7 the rest were 5v5. There were 35% that played with some positions but slightly more flexibility and by this a typical example is that they would always ensure that 1 kid was defending whilst the rest were free and in some cases this would be 1 defender and 1 attacker with 2 free players, certainly far from ideal. I’m not sure how these kids are going to develop and experience a wide variety of situations all over the pitch without being allowed any freedom!?!? No doubt setting out in a rigid system at U7 will produce a better chance of winning and herein lies the big issue.

On reflection the data I’ve collected is restricted to a limited number of games and only 2 leagues however I am led to believe these issues are replicated throughout the country. How can the kids make their own decisions and develop their skills and fully enjoy the game under such restrictive environments?!?! I dread to think what the training sessions are like at these clubs!!

As detailed in previous articles, CFA’s, leagues & clubs need to work together to produce better environments (small numbers are trying) but I genuinely wonder do they even accept we have issues?!?!

Thanks for reading

Appreciate any likes & shares of my new facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/justletthemplayfootball

Richard

Twitter – @contactcounts

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Are 85% of coaches really poor

To produce better players we need better coaches at the very root of the game.

It has been crystal clear for years that England need to produce more intelligent, technical and fearless footballers in order to compete on the world stage. I have discussed previously that I believe until our culture changes at the very root of the game then our failings are destined to continue. We would produce far more players if we took away the pot luck element of the coach that kids are subjected to when they enter the game. Our culture has a significant effect on long term participation levels which are obviously of equal importance.

Since February I have kept a record of each team I have witnessed play at U7-9 for the entire duration of the game; I have seen snippets of many other games but it’s only fair to record data from an entire match. I have concentrated on 2 huge issues at the root of the game. The first is coach behaviour, particularly surrounding providing a constant commentary and making decisions for the kids or alternatively do they let them play. I also made some notes regarding how teams were set up with regard to specific positions.

Coach behaviour

Good – 5%

Satisfactory – 10%

Poor – 50%

Terrible – 35%

Good – allows the kids to play & make decisions. Offers praise and encouragement but no constant commentary.

Satisfactory – will often let the kids play & make decisions but at certain times will intervene and instruct/make decision on behalf of child.

Poor – provides a constant commentary throughout the game, telling kids what to do at almost every opportunity. Allows for very little or no independent decision making.

Terrible – provides a constant commentary not allowing independent decision making and in addition is openly critical of mistakes and perceived poor play.

Clearly the results are based on my perception but it’s not difficult to form an accurate measurement with regard to constant commentary and instruction as opposed to letting the kids play.

The results indicate that 85% of coaches are bellowing instructions at the kids and generally taking away decision making. Assuming that there are 8 players in each team then 136 out of 160 children are on the end of negative coaching behaviour which is quite astonishing. Assuming those kids stay within that environment how are they going to develop to their full potential and ultimately fall in love with the game?

Positions

None – 5%

Some – 35%

Rigid – 60%

None – the kids were allowed complete freedom to move into any area of the pitch and not placed into a set position by the coach.

Some – the players were laid out into positions but this was slightly more flexible than the rigid category. Kids were not restricted completely to their own zones as is often the case within the rigid category.

Rigid – a set formation kids sticking to certain areas of the pitch on instruction.

Over half of the sides I watched played rigid positions, only 1 game was a 7v7 the rest were 5v5. There were 35% that played with some positions but slightly more flexibility and by this a typical example is that they would always ensure that 1 kid was defending whilst the rest were free and in some cases this would be 1 defender and 1 attacker with 2 free players, certainly far from ideal. I’m not sure how these kids are going to develop and experience a wide variety of situations all over the pitch without being allowed any freedom!?!? No doubt setting out in a rigid system at U7 will produce a better chance of winning and herein lies the big issue.

On reflection the data I’ve collected is restricted to a limited number of games and only 2 leagues however I am led to believe these issues are replicated throughout the country. How can the kids make their own decisions and develop their skills and fully enjoy the game under such restrictive environments?!?! I dread to think what the training sessions are like at these clubs!!

As detailed in previous articles, CFA’s, leagues & clubs need to work together to produce better environments (small numbers are trying) but I genuinely wonder do they even accept we have issues?!?!

Thanks for reading

Appreciate any likes & shares of my new facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/justletthemplayfootball

Richard

Twitter – @contactcounts

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FA rip off

This short post doesn’t directly relate to grassroots football but many of the points relate to the FA’s arrogance to their duty to the very root of the game and developing kids love of the game. 

Between 630am on Sunday and around 1030am today I had restored some faith in modern football. I have supported Aston Villa since my Mum & Dad took me on the Holte End in 1985. I think that is the day I fell in love with football!

We turned up at Birmingham Moor Street Station at 745am hoping to catch the 820am train. We were greeted with thousands of Villa fans (and some Liverpool), young and old;  I estimate the ages ranged from 4-85. At about 830am a guy described the line as being 2 miles down the road which I’m sure wasn’t that far off. The atmosphere in general was relaxed and good humoured. That extended into the pubs and outside the ground, kids played football in the streets so many probably fell in love with the game yesterday.

Whilst inside the ground we stood all game and we sang all game (just like the old days). It was my eldest lads (aged 6) first game away from Villa Park. It was like the old days, he loved every minute of the experience. Not a prawn sandwich or suit in sight just a bunch of fans young and old, a community. Granted there were about 20k corporate but majority were real fans (that is not to say real fans don’t go corporate but I hope you get the point).

On the pitch was a local lad Jack Grealish aged 19. He has been going to Villa Park since age of 4, he might even have been at the 2000 FA Cup final a similar age to my lad now. He played with a freedom like he was playing with his mates in the field, the same could be said of many others in a villa shirt, it was so refreshing.

The result went our way and whilst queuing for the train my lad and 2 of my friends lads (aged 9) were full of it and all the talk was of returning for the final. They couldn’t wait to come back to Wembley for the final, they’d fallen even more in love with football. 

Unfortunately despite holding 89k we found out today that Villa/Arsenal will get 22k each with 47k going to the ‘football family’. Many of those young kids that fell in love with the game yesterday might well fall out of love very quickly when a guy in a suit takes their seat. My lad has attended 9 games this season, we’ve spent about £500 between us; he doesn’t understand why he probably can’t go to the final. Those kids that might be able to get a seat still might be forced to miss the game given the huge price increase; a £53 seat will be £90 and a £63 seat will be £120. The majority of these kids are not from backgrounds where parents can afford ridiculous prices. Many of these don’t understand why parents can’t afford to take them to a final.

It is the FA’s responsibility to promote the game to young kids. They need to encourage kids to participate and love the game. They should be supporting the fans of the game, the parents that nurture the kids and introduce them to the game, without these people we don’t have a game. The FA’s only motivation to give over half stadium to the suits is purely financial and a reminder to me that very much in line with their grassroots actions the FA don’t really care about the kids or the real fans or creating communities within the game. Unfortunately money is all that matters! 

Many thanks for reading 

Richard

@contactcounts

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More is Less!

The UK has a large population and huge participation rates when it comes to football; so why don’t we produce more world class players? As readers of previous blogs will know I am perplexed at the lack of genuine game changers and world class footballers we produce. I strongly believe we do not pay enough attention to the very entry level of the game and for that reason we fail to develop players. Most players do not reach their full potential, many more never get close and too many drop out altogether. There are no doubt issues at the other end of the spectrum with talented English lads failing to break into first teams but it is at the very root of the game where big improvements are needed to increase our pool of top players.

The common perception is that a large population and huge participation rate are a big advantage for the national side in producing top players. In theory this is correct, after all Brazil, Germany & Italy have won more world cups than anyone else and they all have huge populations and participation rates.

I would strongly argue that the foundations of football within other top nations are far stronger than ours have been for many years. The general culture within English football has been poor for many years, athletes favoured over technicians and the strong sliding tackle often getting greater acclaim than the mazy dribble at all levels of the game. Despite improvements a negative culture still rules with most within the grassroots game, after all you can’t beat the British bulldog spirt!

I am as outspoken as anyone that this negative environment needs to change and the FA have to do more to change our culture not just within the elite but also within the grassroots. There is no doubt that it is more difficult for a football association to push forward a nationwide philosophy with such large numbers and when a complete change of culture is required. It takes time, finance and most of all top people driving forward change. The FA have no doubt got it very wrong for generations previously, the Charles Hughes era springs to mind. We have developed a negative culture throughout the game. There are positive signs that this is changing at national level, the age group teams are strong and the influence of Gareth Southgate on the U21 is sensational. I am not particularly referring to results (although they’re fantastic) but more the manner in which they have consistently performed. Changing a culture throughout the national set up is proving tough enough but it is at grassroots level where the biggest challenge is. The recently produced DNA does appear to focus more on later age groups and into professional football. It’s the very root of the game at the entry levels where the culture needs to change and if this was to universally happen then I have no doubt that the pool of English talent would increase numerous times over.

I have discussed in previous blogs the behaviour of coaches and parents and the structure of the grassroots game. In general we need huge improvements in these areas. The majority of U7-8 coaches are parents volunteering and their football experience sits within the years of poor culture; the same applies to most parents no matter what level they have played at. They were generally brought up playing and watching football in the 70’s, 80’s or 90’s where long ball and physicality were king for the vast majority. I read a very interesting tweet from Matt Whitehouse (@The_W_Address) – “caller on talksport on ADM. If I was playing against him, the first thing I would do, I was always told a player can’t play with a limp”. Although slightly extreme I witness similar amongst most coaches and parents at U7/8 most weeks. The lad that is best technically often suffers ‘the treatment’ because parents and coaches go to method is to encourage/promote extreme physicality. Such poor practice is not challenged at the younger ages but as those kids move up the ages they will be punished for such an approach and they’ve lost years of practice in defending properly and learning how to deal with skilful/technical players correctly.

The skill and technical ability on show in the Premier League is high but there can be little doubt that in comparison to other top leagues in Europe the Premier League is much more physical and the blood and thunder is really appreciated by most spectators. Our culture was illustrated perfectly recently in the Liverpool vs Man Utd game. Liverpool were being completely out played and dominated by Man Utd so at the beginning of the 2nd half enter arguably one of England’s greatest ever players Steven Gerrard, talked about by many as a world class player, in the same league as players from his generation Pirlo, Xavi and Xavi Alonso. What did he do to try and address the balance? Fly in off his feet with a rash tackle and second’s later stamp on Herrera! What would the other 3 have done? Tried to control the game with skill, intelligence and technical ability? If one of England’s best players ever believes the blood & thunder approach is the best way then that just illustrates the tough job trying to drive a culture change to millions at grassroots that idolise players such as Gerrard.

The poisonous culture is so wide spread that having such a large population & participation rate is a disadvantage when looking at a complete culture change. It’s widely accepted most kids now begin and learn the game in an organised setting not on the street. How do we educated and culturally change so many volunteers? The volunteer’s part is key here, these are not full time paid coaches that can be changed culturally by their employers or governing body.

The tables below are overview of population and participation within a number of established and emerging nations.

Established Nations

Country Population Participation
United Kingdom 64 mill 7 mill
Holland 17 mill 1 mill
Argentina 42 mill 2.5 mill
Germany 79 mill 6.6 mill
Spain 47 mill 2.1 mill
Brazil 206 mill 10 mill (estimate)
France 66 mill 2 mill
Italy 61 mill 3 mill

Emerging/Smaller Nations

Country Population Participation
Belgium 11 mill 900k
Portugal 10.5 mill 800k (estimate)
Urugauy 3.4 mill 300k (estimate)
Croatia 4.2 mill 400k
Iceland 327k 50k (estimate)

I have had to estimate some of the participation levels and I have been generous based on around 8-9% of the population participating.

The tables illustrate the huge pool of participants in the UK. It also illustrates that despite not even 20% of our participation levels countries such as Belgium, Uruguay, Croatia, Portugal and Holland have consistently produced better players in recent times and been more successful in tournaments. Even countries such as France, Spain and Argentina are way behind on participation levels but they’re producing far more world class players.

I have written before about the death of street football in the UK and the vast majority of kids now join a grassroots side or participate in organised coaching environments when they’re starting out. As a result it is absolutely essential that the environment is positive, it’s fun and promotes development, not the win at all costs mentality that currently rules.

It’s fair to say the kids of South American countries are generally developed on the street. The streets of Montevideo and Buena Aires are full of kids of all ages having fun with no pressure or over bearing coach. Street football is also huge within many parts of Holland and the kids in Spain grow up playing with their mates on outdoor futsal type courts.

When I describe world class players I am not just thinking Messi, Neymar or Ronaldo types and talk about defensive players as well. I am a strong believer that informal play and street football develops all types of players often organically and it’s a misconception that it will only produce attacking players. It will aid technical development but the best defenders throughout the years have always been good technical players. During the 90’s and early 00’s England had glut of high quality defenders granted not all as technically sound as some of their foreign counter parts but way ahead of our current crop, Adams, Campbell, Keown, Southgate, King, Ferdinand & Terry to name a few. All those would have grown up playing on the street most days and would not have seen an organised environment until they were at least 8-9. Compare our current crop of defenders and we’re woefully short on quality.

We have to accept that completely informal football in its original form has died out, that’s not to say we cannot invest in recreating organised but informal safe environments that replicate the street. However I see no sign of any emphasis being placed by the FA on introducing informal street courts within local neighbourhoods (like in Spain or Holland). These could be safely managed and would help address so many social issues as well as aid football development.

There is no doubt that Belgium is an emerging force in world football, producing exceptional players all over the pitch. Apart from the brilliant Enzo Schifo and a good performance at Mexico 86 Belgium have never really produced a team of top level players. During France 98 they disappointed and were described by Bob Browaeys (Belgium youth coach) as a functional side, playing rigid 442 or 352 looking at man to man marking and stifling the opposition. As a result the Belgium FA set out to completely change the nation’s culture and approach. They are now clearly reaping the rewards. The changes were quite drastic and one of the biggest challenges was to change the win at all costs attitude to youth football; is this sounding familiar? It was easier for Belgium; they had to change the attitude of less than 15% of the footballing family than we do. Fewer participants mean fewer coaches, less financial investment and more importantly it is easier for the governing body to mould the culture and environment. Would it be much easier for the FA if we had a much smaller population and participation rate?

Iceland are a great example of a country with a tiny participation rate that are now consistently producing very good players and a highly competitive national side with a total population of just 300k! It’s a relatively easy task to nurture players and coaches into a defined culture with such small numbers.

Even countries such as Germany, France and Spain have embarked on change in recent times. I would strongly argue that those counties cultures were generally far more positive and forward than what we are at this time. I keep hearing talk of how Italy are failing; unbelievable really when they won the World Cup in 2006 & made final of Euro 2012. What we wouldn’t give for that?

Belgium, Iceland and many others have eliminated the pot luck element that still very much exists in England. I can only speak of the U7-9 environments I have witnessed throughout the Midlands and less so in other parts of the country but I would estimate that just 1 in 4 grassroots environments at this age are positive and I believe that is a generous estimate. When we actually consider that 75% of our kids are not getting the best possible start on their football journey and do not develop to their full potential and often end up dropping out then no wonder we are behind as a nation after all the pool of players then reduces drastically.

Until the FA realise that we must make the culture change from the root of the game then we will never reach our full potential, the huge participation rate is worthless because so many kids are failed by the environment in which they begin their football journey. Some 6 & 7 year olds get snapped up by academies and within a positive environment flourish (not that all academies are positive). Some talented 6 year olds are not so lucky; I’ve witnessed firsthand a number of lads that were excellent technically 12 months ago that are now scared to have more than 2 touches, forced to pass and not allowed to take risks ‘guided’ by clueless coaches & parents often in the pursuit of winning. Those lads will probably never reach their full potential and that makes me extremely sad.

With the introduction of the DNA I thought this would be a bigger step forward than it will ultimately prove. They seem to be targeting U15 through to national team as their main focus and again putting little emphasis on the entry level. I’m constantly told that the mentor scheme is a massive step forward which in theory it would be if there were enough mentors to realistically service even half of the 37,000 grassroots clubs. I’m constantly told that the youth modules are wonderful and I completely agree but what is the FA doing to ensure the volunteer parent of the new U7 team is completing the YM? The answer unfortunately is absolutely nothing; the parent brought up in a win at all costs, Charles Hughes inspired era is allowed to continue in this manner unopposed. They are so detached from reality, volunteers don’t have time or money to complete L1 and then take in a couple of youth modules and continue their education. They work 40+ hours a week and have families to love and support. It’s ultimately the FA job to get in touch with this reality and drive forward a complete change at the root of the game. I don’t know if they don’t have the finances to invest in the change that is ultimately required? But it is imperative that they realise that a culture change starts at the very bottom with the masses, this is the only way we can change our negative culture.

I will use an analogy with business. If a large supermarket employing huge numbers throughout the country embarked on a culture change would they neglect the shop floor? Of course they would not; it’s fair to say that those employed in more senior positions are generally far more receptive to change and they drive the change onto the shop floor. Take the Germans; they made huge investments in producing quality coaches. They along with numerous other countries have far more qualified coaches and as a result they have far greater number to service less participants.

UEFA A, B & Pro License holders (as of 2010)

England – 2.7k

Spain – 23.9k

Italy – 29.4k

Germany – 34.9k

France – 17.5k

Those figures speak volumes and illustrate investment in changing the culture of the masses on the shop floor. This is the model the FA needs to follow. I know a number of excellent L1&2 coaches that simply can’t afford to progress and become full time due to the cost of courses and dire wages for coaches. Most of these are guys in 20-25k a year jobs that would be desperate to coach full time for a similar starting wage. We won’t get overnight success it will take 10-15 years to bear fruit but surely this is the only option?

Driving a complete culture change with such large numbers is tough and in many ways it is a disadvantage and much more difficult to manage; it’s much easier to manage smaller numbers like they did in Belgium but ultimately if we want to take advantage of our huge numbers then the FA must invest. People will be upset along the way, some will drop out but the undoubted collateral damage will reap the rewards in years to come.

Many thanks for reading. As always feedback/comments appreciated

Richard

Twitter – @contactcounts

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Let’s build a new house

Is the structure of grassroots football in England helping us to produce world class players, game changers, intelligent players who are comfortable in possession of the ball when under pressure? On the evidence of the past 20 years I have concluded that we are miles behind other many other nations despite our huge population and participation levels. We have produced the odd high quality player but we consistently churn out robots. I have discussed coaching methods/standards as well as influence of parents on development in previous blogs. In this article I will focus on the structure of the grassroots game particularly focusing on coach education, grassroots clubs and local leagues.

I believe we need to change culturally; we need to change the environment our kids are brought up playing in. Although this is not a straight forward task I am sure that with the right approach starting at the very root of the game with a strong development ethos we can make changes for the better. Let’s educate the new coaches to lead generations into the future and create a new culture within our game. There is no doubt that times have changed and the majority of kids no longer begin their football journey by playing in the street or Local Park with their mates. I have discussed the benefits of playing on the streets previously; the fun, the freedom and an environment with no over bearing adults or pressure. It’s absolutely imperative that this type of fun and freedom is replicated with kids as young as 4 now beginning their football journey with organised coaching often at a grassroots club.

It is absolutely imperative that every single adult (often volunteer parents) that coach children at the beginning of their football journey fully understand the complexities. This is no easy or straight forward task. Without the true and proper education why should an accountant for example fully understand the complexities of young children; primary school teachers have years of education before being qualified to teach! I am convinced that nearly every coach wants the best for the kids and takes on the role with the very best intentions. I recently witnessed an U9 coach turn up around 1 hour before the match, he built both goals himself, he put up the respect barrier and corner flags; he had absolutely no help. I seriously admired this man’s commitment. As soon as the game started it was clear he had set his lads up in a rigid formation and he was continuously bellowing instructions; “away” “get rid of it” “not there” “pass it” were his main phrases I noted. I made some discrete enquiries and the said coach was L1 qualified around 18 months previously and does not hold any Youth Modules. Clearly he cared deeply about the lads but I cannot help but conclude that he and his players have been failed by the system. That coach was desperate to win and I am sure that most coaches and parents believe that results are a measure of success even at the very entry level. This belief has to stop before we can progress.

I am a very strong believer that our current structure is not fit for purpose and I believe the FA coaching education programmes, grassroots clubs and local leagues need a complete restructure. There are certain county FA’s, grassroots clubs and leagues that are very much on the right track but we need a universal approach throughout the entire country. Before writing this article I have spoken with a number of level 1 U7-9 coaches regarding their experiences and the overriding feedback I received was that the course did not fully prepare them for coaching 6-9 year old children. I don’t think anyone can seriously argue that the L1 is an appropriate entry.

Coach Education

There can be absolutely no doubt that coaches can shape the future of each individual child’s football journey both in terms of participation and development. Our population and participation levels are huge but these huge numbers are worthless if only a tiny percentage of children are getting access to quality coaching when they enter the game. In many cases how players develop in their early years is pot luck; a good player can be developed into an excellent player by an exceptional coach and on the other hand an excellent player can be ruined by a poor coach/environment.

Under the current structure and in an ideal world any new coach taking on a grassroots team often at U6-8 completes a L1 FA award. I must stress that I believe many teams are run by a coach without any qualifications. I do get really frustrated when I approach this subject particularly with people within or close to the FA. I always seem to get a defensive response suggesting that the course is fine and that these coaches should be doing Youth Modules in addition. The volunteers already give up enough hours and spend enough money; those 30 odd hours on the initial course are the golden hours and it is vital the FA provide the appropriate education. It is not the coach’s responsibility to find more time and money to learn how to deal with specific age ranges via Youth Modules.

It is crystal clear that age appropriate education is a must for all coaches. If a coach is going to run an U7 side then they should be provided with an education that is appropriate for that age range. The current level 1 includes heading, warm ups and passing. Those 3 topics would be far better off put back on the shelf and replaced with aspects of the youth modules or similar. Below are lists of some points that often get lost when coaching at entry level grassroots –

  • Kids are not mini adults. How do the age in question learn/develop best (eg 5-8 year olds)
  • Mistakes are not bad they’re great for learning
  • The dribbler should be embraced – would you scream “pass pass pass” at Messi?
  • Development over winning
  • Leagues & trophies are of little importance
  • Set positions are negative
  • Practising set plays or drilled moves only creates robots
  • Bravery is not only about a strong tackle or ‘head in where it hurts’
  • Equal playing time important
  • Constant commentary from the side is not helpful
  • Chaos is positive for learning
  • Challenges through fun games in training are great for development
  • Free play, kids setting rules and no adults is great
  • Fun environment on and off the pitch is positive
  • Learn about each individual
  • Embrace the opposition make friends (maybe mix teams)
  • It’s a friendly grassroots match not a premier league match
  • Learn and embrace other cultures eg La Boca & Dutch street soccer

I am sure I have missed plenty but the point is that education of coaches has to focus on creating the right environment and be age appropriate.

Parent education is also a huge subject that needs further education. Dealing with parents should definitely be part of any coaching course but I see it ultimately as the league/county FA responsibility in conjunction with the grassroots club to ensure parental education is driven forward.

Grassroots Clubs

There is no doubt that the structures of most grassroots clubs need huge improvements. Some clubs are huge with over 30 teams at a variety of age groups others are smaller with possibly only 1 team at each age. The absolute ideal is that the club would have a full time development officer working at the club; effectively owning responsibility for development. I appreciate that funding would be a huge issue and this is why it’s vital that campaigns such as save grassroots is supported because increased funding will support education and development. Even a part time role in the larger clubs would be a start. We need good people that get development to be driving forward our grassroots game. The development officer would spend hours with the new coaches particularly in their first and second years ensuring that the correct development path is being taken. The theory of the FA mentoring scheme is fantastic but it does not reach enough clubs for long enough; we need more. We need every single child to have access to a positive environment on entry we need to eliminate pot luck.

The selection of coaches is also vital; I believe at this time most clubs take the first volunteer throw them some kit maybe book them on the level 1 and tell them to get on with it. I actually believe those in control of the grassroots clubs are naive enough to believe that the level 1 is fit for purpose and if the coach delivers a trophy then they see that as the ultimate success. In reality clubs do not conduct due diligence; these coaches should be subjected to checks and asked questions. This would obviously be done in a relaxed way but it would help clubs identify particular needs/lack of knowledge that coach might need help extra with.

The clubs should own responsibility for parental behavior and education. I believe it should be compulsory that every parent undertakes a 1-2 hour parental education session run by either the club or league/county FA. Each and every team should have a parent that takes responsibility for parental behaviour. Parents must be encouraged and allowed to participate within the club; many parents really enjoy the social side. Make them feel important and wanted and the majority will respond positively. I strongly believe that grassroots clubs should be environments that build social skills. Club houses are a vital part of big grassroots clubs, kids will benefit from un-organized play (not necessarily football) after a match or during organised club events; let’s build a community.

However what almost every club and individual team in the country forgets is the voice of the kids. At every grassroots club kids should have a very prominent voice, their ideas are often far more creative than adults. When holding parents and club meetings it’s vital that the kids are involved it’s their club. The same applies at training and match days give the kids responsibility and let them have a voice. The same applies at league meetings, why not have a child representative there for each team?

Leagues

This section will combine the structure of leagues and possible changes to rules particularly concerning the youngest age groups. Rules are obviously dictated in the main by FA. In the pursuit of better technical footballers I would consider looking at the following rule changes to 5v5 & 7v7 –

  • A certain number of fouls per half – I have no doubt that generally physicality rules over technique on the U7 pitch each weekend. The standard of defending as well as attacking would improve with this rule. It would also help to keep a more controlled lid on many parents and coaches. I have witnessed teams at under 7 & 8 that have blatantly been coached to foul in certain areas particularly when kids are clear through on goal. In one instant a lad was applauded by a group of parents for a ‘professional foul’ in the last minute because it meant their side won by 1 goal – how pathetic!!!
  • Head height rule – this would be discretionary but the main purpose would be to eliminate the hoof up field; a tactic which is used far too regular even at U7. If a kid produces an akka or rainbow flick then you have to let that go.
  • Kick in not throw in – keep the ball on the ground and played with the feet.
  • Reduce the height of the goal – the height of an U7 goal should not be nearly 5ft tall. I have constantly seen big strong 7 year olds shooting from just beyond the halfway line because the goals are too big. Again this promotes physical players.

I am very torn on the fouls & head height rule. I don’t want adults constantly getting involved in the game and would prefer to let the kids play without lots of rules. The big problem at the moment I feel is the win at all costs mentality and general poor levels of coaching dictate that we need rules to aid more technical players. Of course long term better coach education and generally better environments would eliminate the need to consider such rules.

I also believe we go to 11v11 too early. I would personally prefer smaller sided for longer. I had an interesting discussion with 2 coaches and group of parents. Both sides had 8 players and they all thought that playing 6v6 or even 7v7 would be better. I suggested 4v4 but 2 games and the arguments against it were that it’s even less like “real football”. I again concluded culturally and without proper education the majority do not understand development.

I strongly feel that huge improvements could be made to the approach of local leagues and their partnerships with the County FA. I hear of some very pro active work from leagues and the FA in the North West in particular but my feedback for many other parts of the country is not so positive.

Firstly I feel that over time each and every coach that is responsible for a grassroots side must present an appropriate qualification card to the referee and opposition before each match, much like they do with players now. Referees will also be trained in recognising negative behaviour and will fill out an appropriate and quick report after every match, helping league officials identify consistent negative behaviour.

There certainly needs to far more presence at grassroots matches of league representatives monitoring and reporting upon poor behaviour. It’s vital that the leagues become pro active and not reactive as I feel most are at this time. Most resources would need to be put into the younger age groups to drive high standards and create a long lasting positive culture.

The question of resources is very relevant. It has baffled me for a long time why leagues don’t create mini festivals between clubs each weekend. Surely having 4-8 grassroots clubs in the same location at the same time has multiple benefits. I am a firm believer in the winter months being futsal and outdoor football should be played March-November. This will be a lot more manageable with small sided games at younger ages but this again comes back to creating and managing a positive culture and environment that clubs can then take responsibility for in later age groups. This environment will allow league officials to monitor the behaviour of coaches and parents; allowing any negative behaviour to be tackled. Creating a great playing and social environment through festivals will have multiple benefits for kids. I wouldn’t advocate leagues or cup competitions initially at these festivals; although I would not be against this if eventually the environment was right where fun and development rule. I have never seen an award for most creative/technically proficient player or team and I cannot see any negatives regarding such recognition.

Clearly identifying poor coaching methods and environments very early on has many benefits. How leagues and local FA deal with poor practice/discipline is vital. A fine and a telling off have no significant impact. Education holds the key, be it coach, club or parent education. If leagues can get hold of the consistent offenders and re-educate them they will be able to drive forward positive environments long term.

Mark Senior (@markproskills) made an excellent point recently that leagues should be named after old players. This makes perfect sense embrace legends and what they stood for, teach our kids these values embrace history and great players. My local league could definitely be more Duncan Edwards than Carlton Palmer.

Creating world class footballers starts at the very root of the game. Kids with talent placed in the wrong hands for a significant period of time can be destroyed and another kid that ends up as a robot or drops out altogether. Fun and freedom in a positive environment can only increase quality and participation. This can only be achieved if every child that enters the game enters the right environment and this can only be done with a complete revamp of coach education programmes, structure of most grassroots clubs and leagues.

Please don’t forget to sign the save grassroots petition http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/66835

Thanks for reading & feedback is welcomed

Richard

Twitter – @contactcounts

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Pitches For Pigs

This weekend I witnessed U7 and U8 matches played on pitches that resembled mud baths and would have been more suited to a group of wallowing pigs. These scenes are mirrored throughout England most weekends through the winter months. Such conditions in my view undoubtedly limit/restrict technical players and hinder the production of genuine ‘game changers’ that English football seems to be constantly devoid of.

Prior to both matches I heard a variety of comments from parents and coaches that included “If you don’t come off filthy today than you have not tried hard enough.” “It’s going to be a real battle today lads, roll your selves up and get stuck in” “No messing about with the ball on this today lads” and “This used to be my type of pitch, stops the quicker lads running with the ball”. Most comments were directed towards the physical side of the game and an acceptance that it would be more of a ‘battle’ than a technical game of football. Surely this is not the way we should be bringing up 6,7 and 8 year olds kids to play the beautiful game?

The U7 match was of particular interest because the same 2 sides had played each other 2 weeks earlier on an excellent surface. The first game saw team A display some good technical ability, many excellent dribbles and skills and it would be fair to say that they dominated that game on the whole. Team B were set up with each lad having a specific position and the lads took very few risks particularly in their own half, the goalkeeper and ‘defender’ often kicked it long and generally they were a much more physical side. The first match was dominated by Team A and although I do not know the exact score (not that it matters) they were about 3 goals better but more significantly much better technically. The reverse fixture played on the said mud bath was a completely different match. Team B were much more effective with their approach and ended up being a couple of goals better (again not that the result matters). Picture the scene on the sidelines as lads flew into slide tackles, greeted with roars of applause, “good lad” “come on get stuck in”. The contrast between Team A and Team B’s approach remained. Team A tried to dribble out or pass out from the back but often the ball got stuck in the mud dictating that the said pass or dribble was often unsuccessful or much less effective; I have to commend the majority of the lads on Team A as they did keep trying to dribble and pass to feet. Although I found it really significant that my lad found himself with the ball at his feet around the edge of his own box facing his own goal later in the second half and he kicked it straight out for a throw in as a player approached him. That is the first time I have ever seen him kick it away, he will always try and dribble or pass out. After the game he’d had great fun and was enthusiastically asking me if I had seen a few of his ‘skills’ obviously I told him how great they were. I discretely asked him why he had kicked it out for a throw in and his response was that lots of the dribbles he had tried in the centre of the pitch did not come off because the ball was rolling so slowly in the mud (or words to that effect). He added that he had loads of mud on the bottom of his boots (blades) and he did not feel he could run at full speed or dribble as effectively. As a result when he felt somebody right behind him he kicked it out.

I actually believe that playing on certain surfaces that would be considered substandard would enhance our players technically. The dust bowls of South America, Africa and Southern Europe are generally firm surfaces often with lots of bumps and bobbles but the main difference is that the ball rolls quickly and fairly consistently thus allowing the technical player, the dribbler, the player with good technique and speed to excel. The slide tackle is almost eliminated (unless you want a few stitches or nasty burns). The same rings true of the concrete and streets that I grew up playing on in the 80’s and 90’s and many others did for decades before. In these environments kids naturally learn to appreciate that ball mastery is key. Contrast that with the said mud bath where the dribbler and technically advanced players skills are nullified.

We cannot change our climate and often from November – February outdoor football is pot luck. Lots of training sessions and matches are cancelled and if they are not cancelled they are played on surfaces that aid a more physical approach as detailed above. I have read numerous accounts on twitter and some teams have not played for 2 months. This is clearly not benefiting the kid’s long term development; especially as such a tiny percentage plays any football outside of an organised setting. The countries with warmer climates do not have such issues but take Holland, Germany and Belgium as examples of countries with winter climates not that dissimilar from ours and they still produce ‘game changers’ and generally better technical players. What do they do different? Do they play on mud baths throughout the winter? I have seen pictures of kids in Holland training on car parks; surely this is better for technical development than playing on the mud bath.

My initial thoughts on this were quite simple, why not play March-November and have the winter months off?!?! Whilst I have no doubt this is a much better option than the current structure there are still concerns regarding summer holidays and playing of other summer sports (cricket in particular always crops up). There are ways that this could still work with an August break, more midweek games and better communication between sports. I can also picture a scene on council pitches where the grass is ridiculously long (as it often is in summer months) and technical players are again hindered.

After careful consideration I actually think the season should remain the same. The difference would be that an indoor futsal season would run Dec-Feb. The benefits of futsal in producing technically sound footballers are well publicised. This has to be better than losing lots of fixtures and playing on awful mud baths that only encourage a more physical approach rather than the creative and technical approach that we undoubtedly require. Some will raise questions with regard to facilities and cost but I strongly believe with the correct league structures and a proactive approach from the local associations that we have enough facilities to make it viable. How many school sports halls and gyms are empty on a Sunday morning? Why not promote multi games each Sunday; for example 4 teams at each location instead of just 2. Kids will get more game time and it’s more cost effective. I also believe this will help with participation numbers long term. I do not see much enjoyment for kids standing on the side line for up to half the game in the winter freezing cold and/or wet through.

If we continue in the current vain then we will continue to not produce the ‘game changers’ and the larger number of rounded, intelligent footballers that we crave. We will continue look in awe at other smaller countries that seem to produce them year after year. No doubt the approach of coaches and parents has to change in conjunction with any changes to playing months and introduction of futsal. On the whole the introduction of a winter futsal season would be a significant step forward to developing better technical players as well as increasing enjoyment and long term participation.

Those that have not already please sign the save grassroots football petition; more investment in grassroots would really help increase the quality of coaches and facilities epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/66835 

As always all feedback, comments, shares and retweets appreciated

Many thanks

Richard

Twitter – @contactcounts

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