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Jon Davies writes a detailed article about some of the issues that crop up in youth coaching and youth football.
If you’ve ever been a coach, parent or player involved in youth football, you’ve probably seen it on a Sunday afternoon in the park; the coach jumping up and down during the game, shouting, bawling and pretending that he’s the next Pep Guardiola. The parent gesticulating and shouting ‘advice’ to his poor, beleaguered kid. The confused child flickering between animated parent and passionate coach before trudging off the field, head bowed at anything other than perfection and a victory.
It’s a vision that sounds too fantastical to be true and once isolated and thrust into the cold light of day, a vision that is blatantly immoral. Yet, it happens and it’s an all too familiar occurrence that poisons the game at its purest and most delicate roots. As a youth coach or parent, you play a vital role in the development of a very fragile player. Or as many often forget, a fragile child!
As coaches, we’re all guilty of it at some point in our careers. During training sessions and games, we see a squad of football players and in each player, we see the characteristics of the professional athletes that we watch on a weekly basis. In our under-10 team, we see little Jimmy with his excellent passing technique and we can’t help but compare such technique to midfield maestros such as Paul Scholes and Steven Gerrard. This is fine and there’s nothing wrong with aspiring to such heights but we must remember that little Jimmy is 9 years old!
It’s a flaw of an optimistic coach that they see potential in their players but that such potential often leads to unrealistic expectations. There’s nothing more exciting as a coach than to see such raw talent at a young age but it’s vital that this talent is nurtured and allowed to progress in its own time. Unfortunately, I’ve lost count (particularly in Taiwan!) of the times that I’ve seen enraged coaches berating young players after a misplaced pass or a bad touch and it happens in youth football throughout the world.
I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to educate kids from a huge variety of ethnic and social backgrounds, throughout my professional career as a teacher and a coach and one characteristic is true of all children. They are inconsistent and they WILL make mistakes often.
Of course this is not only true of kids. We all make mistakes and in the context of any development and learning process, they are crucial. In the numerous professional leagues around the world, results are paramount. Weekly reviews of performances in the spotlight of the world media and the resulting speculation surrounding managerial futures are unfortunately common place. In the convenience of the modern world, people expect instant success and football is no different. Unfortunately, this tendency seems to have permeated into youth coaching. In my experience this is manifested in quite a few undesirable and (on some occasions) unpleasant practices.
Coaches and parents all want the best for their players and children respectively and there’s nothing wrong with that. One of the unfortunate side effects of this desire, however, is that they see winning as the ultimate goal. As Bol Joseph, a youth coach in London, remarks in an article in ‘The Guardian’ newspaper last year, “A lot of coaches have an adult mentality. All they care about is winning, winning, winning” (December 2015). Whilst in the senior professional ranks, gaining three points and winning trophies is the ambition, youth coaching is an entirely different animal.
This might be a bit of an understatement but the English FA has displayed numerous faults and flaws, as evidenced by recent debacles that have surfaced in the national set-up! However, with regards to their attempts to develop youth football, they must be commended. In one such attempt in 2012, they ruled against the publication of results in youth games through the U7 and U11 age groups. Critics suggest that this move risks creating bad losers, teaching kids that competition is something to be rejected. However, such criticism loses sight of the primary aims and values of youth football, namely the development of well-rounded and good people. For further legitimization of these values, one need look no further than arguably the most successful football academy in the world.
At Barcelona’s infamous La Masia academy, they reinforce three key objectives that permeate throughout the entire programme and indeed the whole club. In order of importance, they prioritise sportsmanship and creativity over the third and final focus; the scoreboard. Perhaps food for thought for all involved in youth football, from a structure that has produced and continues to produce more talent than they can even accommodate and one honed by such football luminaries as Johan Cruyff and Pep Guardiola.
The ideas of La Masia may seem far removed from events on a Sunday morning in parks across the world and to a degree it is but the message is clear. Youth football is not about winning. Indeed, why does it matter that a 7 year old kid wins an amateur football match? Winning is merely a pleasant by-product facilitated by the implementation of healthy and inspirational practices. Nothing more, nothing less.
In Taiwan, I’m fortunate to have met and watched quite a few coaches from different backgrounds and with different footballing philosophies. Whilst most are extremely affable and friendly, I have witnessed some extremely questionable behaviour in my relatively short career so far!
In their quest to win as many games as possible, as seems to be the goal of most native, Taiwanese coaches, they neglect one of their biggest duties; the role of the coach as an effective motivator. Opinions will inevitably vary over how to motivate but one thing is certain in youth football, positivity always rules over negativity. Screaming, gesticulating and making negative comments about one’s players never results in improvement and even if it does, such improvements made under duress are often and quickly forgotten. It’s not easy as a coach, having to stand on the side lines, unable to influence a game that is slipping away from the team that you’ve worked so hard to mould. But perspective in such situations is vital.
Kids are like sponges and they can be extremely brittle. Watching the people, they look up to ranting and raving on the side of the pitch adds unnecessary pressure but it also serves to reinforce dangerous and unproductive ways in which to deal with defeat and setbacks. Football is the beautiful game because it teaches so many life skills and the correct way to handle pressure and defeat is one of its most valuable lessons. With this in mind, the coach should embrace the opportunity to impress these lessons on his players. It is a responsibility, a privilege and never a chore.
The reasons for the ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality adopted by coaches can vary between personal gratification and wanting success for his players but it is an ideology that can provoke ineffective coaching methods with damaging consequences. One of the ways in which this manifests itself in Taiwan, is with the coach attempting to control all aspects of player performance. He sees football as a game of chess and his players as pieces that he can move around at his discretion. Consequently, coaching drills become repetitive, boring and regimented and the play that this generates is robotic and lacks creativity.
In addition to the Barcelona emphasis on creativity noted above, I’m a firm believer in football as an art form. One in which the player adopts a unique style that reflects his personality. As an understated role of the coach; it is our responsibility to encourage the expression required to allow this style to flourish. Creativity is fun and football should be fun. They go hand in hand. Or at least they should.
More practically, a regimented and restrictive coaching programme does not allow for effective decision making on the field. Though he may wish otherwise at times, the coach cannot enter the field of play during games. The onus is therefore on the players to make effective decisions. As we see at the very top level of the game, it is often that moment of individual quality, be it the pass that no one else on the field (or in the stands) sees, the anticipation and a goal-saving tackle or block made by a defender, or that little improvised flick that creates a goal scoring, game-winning opportunity.
These awe-inspiring moments are what make football the game it is, so why should we restrict the next generation and deny them the opportunity to produce such genius? The inspirational coach should always design sessions that challenge and allow players freedom of expression in the context of relevant game scenarios. They are not robots and they shouldn’t be moulded into them.
Kids that don’t conform or adopt such robotic tendencies are often frozen out of their respective squads, dismissed as ‘not being good enough’ by the coach. As well as running the risk of pushing the player away from playing the game permanently, it also serves to set the wrong example to other players and to create a toxic, judgemental atmosphere within the squad. I have seen such a case, whereby the ostracized players were criticised by team mates, to the point that they refused to pass the ball to them during games. Given that technical improvement relies on practice and is based upon ‘ball touches’ during games and sessions, how can an omitted player improve when not given a chance to play?
We often point out to our players that to reach the heights of the professional game, one must practice, practice, practice! Although, this is certainly true, the progression of all children playing football follows a specifically unique curve. Elements such as muscle growth, height, weight and athleticism are largely genetic, meaning that kids grow and develop at different ages. I have witnessed kids that could barely control a ball in the U7 age group, grow and improve to become one of the most talented players in their U11 squad.
As such, coaches should understand that whilst a certain player is now detrimental to the success of the team, that may not be the case in the future. Indeed, he won’t improve if he’s frozen out of the team or in extreme cases, leaves the game altogether. Inclusion is very important in youth football and kids should never be dissuaded from playing, certainly not because of their coach and not whilst the penalties for their failures are so small.
It is extremely satisfying to earn success through developing the same team through consecutive age categories but it requires a determination and perseverance, that is sadly beyond many youth coaches involved in the modern game. This is starkly reflected in Taiwan, as private clubs and academies poach the best players from public school teams (who train together almost every day), train once a week and then attempt to win every competition on the island! Of course, this raises the profile of the club, the coach and leads to financial gain but for the overall game on the island it is highly toxic.
With such behaviour there is a huge disparity between teams, as the best technical players are lumped together and consistently pitted against the worst. Though these one-sided fixtures might raise the self-esteem of the victors and the profile of the victorious team, they are an exercise in futility, as the best players are barely challenged and consequently learn very little. For the losers, it can be even more damaging, as they barely touch the ball and suffer the inevitable slump in confidence after such a humiliating loss. It is a cycle that can be very difficult to break.