"How can we speak of Democracy or Freedom when from the very beginning of life we mould the child to undergo tyranny, to obey a dictator? How can we expect democracy when we have reared slaves? Real freedom begins at the beginning of life, not at the adult stage. These people who have been diminished in their powers, made short-sighted, devitalized by mental fatigue, whose bodies have become distorted, whose wills have been broken by elders who say: 'your will must disappear and mine prevail!'—how can we expect them, when school-life is finished, to accept and use the rights of freedom?" - Maria Montessori, Education for a New World
As a coach or teacher, we have a hugely important role in the young lives we influence. If we want to develop people who can think critically and divergently and who are confident to do things differently, then we need to provide environments for our children that are free and child-lead. This is important for the development of a future generation that can do things better than we can - both in the way they lead their lives and in the way they play their football. Our schools should not be factories, and we should not be trying to produce robots. One size does not fit all. Children are individuals and need education which allows for the individual expression of each child.
In terms of football, freedom to make decisions is essential. It is impossible to accurately create the exact situations a footballer will find themselves in. Football is most successful and most pleasing to watch (and play) when it is spontaneous. Great footballers invent the game for themselves, and do not rely on prescribed answers dictated by a coach in training. Great coaches realise this, and provide sessions which allow players to find their own answers.
In my opinion and experience, children's football is littered with sessions and activities where free play is constrained by adults - to the detriment of learning, creativity and enjoyment. This kind of negative adult intrusion in children's playtime is what I call "Anti-Coaching" (more on Anti-Coaching here and here). I think the children would learn more by just being left alone to play a game instead. If the coach is going to prevent a game from happening, then I think the children would be better off without a coach at all. We need to remember that our children come together to play football so rarely, that when they do they need to be able to play. In an hour's session, a 20 minute game at the end - usually as some kind of reward for their tolerance and compliance during the preceding teacher-centred activities - is not enough.
Let's look at some examples:
As you look at each example, try answering the following questions:
- Is their freedom to play and make choices for all players?
- Is the practice relevant and efficient?
- Could the same outcomes be learnt in a small-sided game?
Children standing in set positions or watching from the sidelines are not children who are free to make choices. They are also not children who are learning to play the game of football in an efficient way. Children who are stopped by a coach every minute or two, or children who are told what to do and what to think are not children who are free to express themselves. (Just forward to 0.51 seconds in the last video, and look at the face of the defender. I think that tells you all you need to know about her views on how included she is in this practice. "Coach! Let me plaaaaaaaay!").
Children playing in 3v1 or 9v2 or other massive overloads are either children whose task is too easy or a defender whose task is too difficult. In order to learn best, players need to be learning on the edge of their ability. In order to learn to play football - with all it's diverse situations - the best thing is to actually play football.
For me the Golden Rule is: If the activity doesn't contain more age-appropriate football learning, movement and decisions than a SSG, then do the SSG instead. You might say that these activities are just warm-up activities, to prepare the children for a game later in the session. But I don't agree that they are necessary. The SSG can provide a much better learning tool than any of the examples above - so let them play for longer and they will learn more. We need to move away from the idea that children need a structured warm-up and a 'stand-on-the-cone' technical activity before they are allowed to play.
One of the challenges for the coach of young children is that teaching in a SSG is often more challenging for the coach than teaching in their well-planned and structured non-game activity. It is much easier to plan what will happen in an activity which is not game-based, and therefore to plan in advance what coaching interventions will be required. However, coaches need to change the emphasis from Teaching (what will I say? where will I put my cones? what conditions will I use? etc) to Learning (how will the children learn?). The children need and deserve Learning a lot more than they need Teaching. Learning is messier than Teaching, Learning is awkward to watch at times, Learning happens erratically and often immeasurably, Learning is much harder to assess than Teaching. But none of those should be excuses.
* * *
I think the way we educate in our culture is too rigid with an emphasis on Teaching rather than Learning. Our schools are really just assessment centres, under pressure to cram information into children and teach them how to regurgitate it at exam time. This type of Teaching has little application to the challenges that the children will face once they finish school. In football, we have copied this model of education. We judge our footy on how well our young teams do in leagues, rather than how well we develop individual thinkers and athletes in the long-term. Usually our coaching is rigid, and it would seem at times that we are actually trying to produce robots rather than footballers.
I recall watching South Korea play England in the U17 Women's World Cup a few years back. The England team looked like they had just come straight from a UEFA A/B coaching course. Whenever the goalkeeper got the ball, the full-backs rushed to stand on the same spot of grass they had been taught to go, the wide players got high and wide, etc (anyone who has been on the UEFA A or B course will know the drill). When the full-back recieved the ball from the GK, all the other players made exactly the same moves each time, to provide the same long passing options for the player on the ball. The England team's movement and decisions were robotic; they showed no flair, no confidence to do anything they hadn't been told to do, and no creativity. The Koreans on the other hand were brilliant to watch: They supported each other much closer to the ball than the English team (important I think especially for u17 women's team playing on a full-size pitch), rotated positions spontaneously, provided numerous options for each other, and were tricky to mark. It was like watching very accomplished five-aside players in 11v11. In terms of developing players who can solve problems without the reliance of a coach, the Korean team were light years ahead of the English.
* * *
"It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom. Without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail." - Albert Einstein
An Alternative: The Treasure Hunt
Here is an alternative way to create good decision makers while at the same time giving the players some freedom on how to play and what to do. It also encourages players to experiment with a diverse range of decisions, and to work as a team in order to succeed.
Two teams, small-sided game (SSG e.g. 4v4). Normal pitch set-up, normal game rules, no conditions.
On a whiteboard, each team has a table with their names in the first column, one name per row. Each of the other columns contain a type of skill, such as 'Through Ball', or 'Interception'. Here is the one we used last Sunday at MoF. We were focussing on In-Possession play with a Learning Outcome of "Developing skills to penetrate opposition defence".
Before the game, each player chooses two or three skills that they want to try to achieve during the game. As they play, they need to choose when is the correct time and place to execute each skill. When they achieve a skill - a 'Split Dribble' for example (a dribble between two or more opponents) - they come straight over to the whiteboard to tick that skill off against their name. They can then add another skill to aim for, and return to the SSG.
We tried The Treasure Hunt for the first time two weeks ago, and have since added some extra dimensions to it. Firstly, we progressed the session so the children had the aim of completing all the skills for all the players on their team. This meant that when one player had completed all the skills for themselves, they now needed to see if they could help their teammates. This brings about a whole new set of skills, such as "How can I help Lucy make a through ball?"
In the most recent sessions, we used a Defending theme. We asked the children to choose the skills to aim for, and they came up with: Doubling Up; Showing away from Goal; Tackle; Interception; and Counter-Attack Pass/Dribble. In this way, the children came up with their own specific Learning Outcomes within the theme.
The Treasure Hunt provides a continuous SSG. There is no need for a warm-up, just get into teams and start playing. This is advantageous to the children as it maximises the quantity and quality of learning opportunities in their session. It is also what the children want to do when they come to sessions, as SSGs are enjoyable.
The Treasure Hunt is a clever SSG though, as it provides the children with a choice of what they want to practice and aim for, and it provides the coach with information on what each child is trying to achieve. For example, the coach of the above session will know that Alex is trying to practice a Through Pass or Overlapping Run. This enables the coach the opportunity to support Alex if needed. The coach may see that Alex is struggling and help him out by taking him aside for some quick 1-on-1 coaching.
For the 1-on-1 coaching, I used an iPhone app called Coaches Eye. With Coaches Eye, you can make and easily edit videos (use slow motion, zoom in, annotate etc). The children responded to this well, and it allowed me to recreate situations for them, without having to stop the entire group. This is important as it meant I could coach without interrupting the SSG. A session of one hour cannot be of maximum benefit to the children if they are constantly stopped during play. My interruptions were specific to the particular child I was coaching, and this didn't involve all the other players standing around bored and inactive.
It may be a while till we see coaches comfortable with coaching with the iPhone, or all the players engaged in an SSG with their own chosen Learning Outcomes. And I may be naive in thinking that our adult or professional players would respond positively to a game of Treasure Hunt. But maybe if we give the children of today (tomorrow's international players) the right kind of creative, free, expressive sessions, then they will be better able to produce creative, exciting, successful football in the future. And in doing so, we may also help to produce a powerful future generation that undertands the true meaning of freedom.