Let’s Make Sure ‘Play' Does Not Become the Next 4-Letter Word.
I have been passionate about coaching our youngest players in the Foundation Phase for almost three decades. This journey has seen lots of changes. Many things have come into ‘vogue’, gone out, before returning sometime later albeit in a slightly different form. There have been different individual skill development, coordination and agility programmes as well as tactical master-classes for our youngest players – all in an attempt to develop the next generation of international football players.
Pete in action - Credit The English FA
I confess to being caught up in all of this during my formative years and, in lots of ways, particularly for my own learning and development, taking the scenic route to where I am now has been of immense value. However, it also serves to bring into focus the things that you could, with a certain confidence, say are the most important.
At the top of this list I would place the word ‘PLAY’.
The single most consistent factor in every individual, every group and every team that I have worked with has been their desire to play the game. The young players come for this; they ask for it and they long for the session to progress so that they can play in the “game” at the end. If this is the case, and my personal experiences tell me that it is, then should we not be promoting the value and importance of play in the development of our youngest players?
“Interest precedes learning” Anon
If interest really does precede learning then we already have a captive audience. The children come wanting to play the game. They arrive, out of breath with a smile and their favourite kit on and with a water bottle in their hand. They are ready! In their lifetime the opportunities for pick-up games in the street, playing with their friends in the park and playing different sports in line with the time of year have, for most, been severely reduced. This is not a nostalgic look back to how things were in “my day” but a recognition that playing games where there is less formality, structure and organisation can be a great place to learn and develop not only as a player but also into a well balanced developing child.
If our children are fed mainly a diet of organised, structured practice and playing opportunities we are missing out on what play can give to our young children. Our children are blessed with the longest childhood compared to any other primates. This is because they need an extended period of time to explore the world around them, a world that is changing rapidly and at breath-taking speed. The future requires people who are flexible, adaptable and good problem solvers. It is difficult to develop these skills within a framework that restricts and confines. In football we want excellent decision makers and players who can change the game and get you off your seat with their ability. This will not happen if we structure, organise and provide every opportunity for them.
“I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they learn”
So what can this look like particularly in our ‘elite’ academies where there is an expectation from most parents that their son will be ‘coached’ and ‘drilled’ into the next footballing superstar?
Pete 'Playing' - Credit The English FA
This might appear quite controversial but I believe that if a player has potential then in the Foundation Phase particularly they should be placed in even more unstructured and informal situations so that they can develop a wider set of skills and abilities (and not all of these are associated with the game). For me an elite academy should understand the value of playful opportunities and as such should provide lots of them. Of course this is combined with help, support and guidance but there is a real emphasis on the player and the ownership they must take if they are going to make it to the very top. This requires coaches to develop a different set of skills. This is not easy but it is worth the struggle and there are some ‘beacons of light’ out there. There are a small number of clubs who understand development particularly as it relates to the young children but there is still much to influence.
In play children have to learn how to self-regulate, negotiate, compromise, empathise and deal with differences of opinion plus many other things associated with their wider social and emotional development. This is a very important part in the development of the executive functioning skills that continue to develop well into the second decade of their lives and help with planning, predicting, sequencing and cognitive flexibility. This approach can help to build skills for life as well as for football.
Our footballing culture is quite a difficult thing to challenge and suggest change to yet I believe that this issue is worth fighting for. Across the country I would like to see more coaching sessions that were based upon “the game“ rather than control and organisation through drill and kill activities. I say this with real passion knowing that this is where I started. I was that coach who held all the power and organised every aspect of the session. However, looking back, I just needed someone with more experience than me to say;
“Pete, have you thought about how you might get some of the things you are practicing out in a game?”
I know this would have opened up a whole new series of thoughts and ideas but the default setting when I was in my early years of coaching was the coach having all the power AND making most of the decisions. This might bring short-term improvements but does not help the players, or the coach, in the long run.
I am willing to be that person who offers some friendly advice.
Play more games in training and work hard to become skilled at helping each individual player with the little bit of advice and guidance that could help them become more effective in the game and as a result enjoy it more. Our children need a varied diet of sport and physical activity and they need variety in what this looks like. Some formal games are needed and some structure can be good but not all of the time. If you have limited time with your players then organise an arrival activity or games night where the main focus is on them playing and you observing critically so that when help and advice is needed you can base it on really detailed observation. This is good coaching and should be valued every bit as much as the “old methods” when everyone had to stop to listen to the words of wisdom from the coach.
My aim is to establish the Foundation Phase as the research and development department for the adult game.
It is a department where exploration, experimentation and creativity are the norm. A department where players are asked to problem solve, come up with alternative ways to do things and begin to construct a complete understanding of the game. All of this is done with a coach who understands the game but more importantly understands children and child development. We need to prepare our players for any and all possibilities.