The phone buzzes. It’s an iPhone but it’s got grub in the headphone socket, and for some reason this means it can’t ring, so it doesn’t ring it just buzzes. I swipe and answer, and I know within two seconds that it’s a New Football Parent:
“Hi. I saw your website on the internet and I have two children, one is 8 and the other is 6, and they are keen to start doing football. Do you do teams for that age?” Or something similar.
For many people, especially those new to it, their picture of what kids’ football looks like is based on the adult football they know. They see their child playing in a team, winning and losing games, and being in a league. This is completely forgivable of course. There is no loud and clear message that football for children doesn’t have to be like this.
I pause. Take a deep breath. And then launch into what I hope is a patient and coherent explanation of why we don’t do ‘Teams’. This usually involves at least three of the following five phrases: learning environment … pressure to win … time on the ball … fear of making mistakes … expert coaching. (I usually have to stop myself before I scare them with the reality of travelling to away games, and abusive sideline behaviour etc. Sometimes just the thought of Teams conjures some of the worst things I have seen in football over the years. I remember my first year coaching in New Zealand and one dad punching another dad in the face on the sideline of their five-year olds’ game. That one was an interesting one to sort out).
With a bit of luck, the New Football Parent gets what I’m on about. Some are even delighted that there is an alternative to Teams. Others go elsewhere to find a mini-Chelsea for their kid to “play” for. I remember a few years ago, after hearing my little lecture, a New Football Parent laughed, and said “You make points and league tables sound like they’re evil!” And this got me thinking. And as is my way when I think, it often takes a little while for a conclusion to come, but eventually the Eureka! moment descended: Teams, in themselves, are not evil. Points and league tables, in themselves, are not created by the devil. It is the way adults have constructed children’s Teams and leagues that results in bad things happening.
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My first experience of organised football was when I attended a local summer holiday programme when I was 9 years old. In the morning we had some group sessions, where we probably did things like passing, I can’t remember, and in the afternoon we had World Cup. World Cup was THE best thing about the summer holidays. We were put into teams, and we had a fixture schedule and there was a league table on the noticeboard which changed every day through the week. I remember my first World Cup. I was in Argentina. We lost to Brazil on the first day, but then Adam joined our team as we only had four players and some of the other teams had five. Adam was a bit older than the rest of us, and he had been sick on the first day. I remember we beat Denmark on the second day and I scored a penalty against one of the other teams later in the week. I remember it vividly, even 30 years later. We used flags for goalposts, and my shot just went inside the flag and the goalie didn’t get close to it. It was in the last minute, and we won the game and we celebrated wildly. Argentina finished third in the World Cup that week I think. It was fantastic…. In contrast, I can’t remember a thing about any of the morning sessions.
Being in Teams, rightly or wrongly, engages children in play. Having a league table creates excitement, drama and memories. It creates moments that help children fall in love with football. A child trying to win a game, aiming to gain three points, and wanting to move up the league table are not evil things. They can, however, easily be made bad when adults create leagues which don’t cater for the real needs of the children they are meant to serve, or soil the environment in which Teams play.
If we look back at the experience of summer football that I describe, we see that it was very different from the type of Team football we often see at junior clubs. Looking back now, here are a few of the things that I think made it special:
- There were no parents or spectators on the sidelines of the games. There wasn’t anyone at all standing on the sidelines when we lost to Brazil or beat Denmark. In fact I can’t even remember if there were sidelines.
- There were no coaches. Argentina did not have a half-time talk from an adult about clearing the ball out of the “danger area” for example. In fact I can’t remember if there was a half-time at all.
- Each team had just four or five players on it. The games I remember were manic, with everyone involved in attacking and defending. And without a coach, we had to decide for ourselves what our roles were, who took the penalty for example. The team was small enough to feel like you were part of it. It was OUR team, not some coach’s team or someone’s dad’s team.
- The league lasted a week. The following week a new league started, with new players and new teams. It didn’t matter when we lost to Brazil cos we had another game the next day. And if we didn’t do well in the World Cup that week, there was another one the following week. The consequences of a loss were ours to deal with how we wanted, and they didn’t last long enough to worry about.
- The teams were roughly equal. I don’t remember exactly how this was done, but I think I remember a few players being switched about mid-week to make them fairer. Clearly there was a coaching team making sure all the teams got success. There weren’t any 10-0 wins as far as I can remember, all the games seemed close.
- There were no substitutes. Everyone played, all the time. If that meant a team of 4 played a team of 5, then we just got on with it. Playing with slightly unequal teams was certainly a better option for us than taking a turn watching from the side.
- No parent pressure. I don’t remember even telling my mum about the World Cup. Maybe I dreamt every night about our next game against Italy or whoever. Or perhaps I forgot about it the moment I got in the car. But there was never a Did you win? or How did Argentina do? when I got picked up at the end of the day. It was MY thing.
At Ministry of Football, we have been running a 4-aside Mini-League over four weekends every term for the past year. The Mini-League is a work in progress and we are always on the look-out for how to improve it. Our first attempt was met with mixed reviews. We held the games outside, with parents on the sidelines and no referees. Since then, we have found different ways to create the kind of environment we want. Here’s how it works at the moment:
The Ten Commandments of Teams and Leagues in Children’s Football (ages 5-11)
- Ask the kids: What do you want? Really. Take time to find out from them. Ask them everything. Do you want a referee? How big should the goals be? Let this influence how you do things. But also be mindful that children don’t always know what’s best for them. (Here’s a good question to ask them: Should football be for ALL children, or should we hold trials and only allow really good players to play?)
- Work with parents. Take time to explain why you are doing what you are doing. Print flyers, newsletters, send emails. Tell them your philosophy. Ask for their feedback. Listen to what they say.
- Keep it local. Children’s football shouldn’t be about sitting in a traffic jam. The total house to pitch and pitch back to house travel time shouldn’t be longer than the amount of football play time the child enjoys. (If you have enough children, keep the league "in-house" - that helps with commandments 7 and 10 also).
- Short duration of league. A day or weekend tournament. A league lasting four weeks. Not. Nine. Months.
- No substitutes. Everyone plays. No exceptions.
- Small-sided. Go beyond the recommendations of the FA. 3v3 or 4v4 for these ages. (As well as being better for learning, smaller team size creates a higher number of teams, and this helps with the next commandment…).
- Roughly equal games. Group children into teams, and teams into leagues, based on ability and learning need. Not just age! Age is not a good reflection of learning needs. The aim of this is to make sure games are close contests. Have a plan on how to deal with lop-sided games.
- Rules within games. These should maximise learning. Try dribble-ins instead of throw-ins to keep the game moving. Keep physicality to a minimum – this prevents the early developers dominating at the expense of the physically less-mature children.
- No coaches. No coaching from sideline.
- Control the environment. In essence, this means keeping any adult anxiety away from the children’s play area during games – and ideally before and after games also. Children should not be afraid of making mistakes. Adults who want to win create anxiety. Note: This is probably the most difficult commandment to obey.
In support of this, there needs to be a clear and coherent message and campaign coming from the FA that ensures the environments we provide for our children meet their learning needs. It is all very well for the FA Youth Modules to preach the messages of child-centred sessions, learning through trying new things etc. But this is contradicted by the FA putting their name to leagues that do not follow the same philosophy and offer an abusive, pressured environment where the focus is on winning. It is more contradictory still to give clubs FA Charter Standard status when they host and provide leagues and games that are plagued with adult sideline hostility. The FA need to get rid of leagues and teams that don’t provide the type of environment they advocate. If they can’t get rid of them, then at least they need to distance themselves and stop promoting them. If that means only promoting and supporting a handful of very carefully supervised leagues that fall within their philosophy, then so be it. Otherwise what integrity do the FA have? (And consequently, what cohesive and consistently-delivered plan exists for children’s development?)
The message that children’s football is not the same as adults’ football is every bit as important as the FA’s Respect message. If we didn’t have the types of learning environment that Teams usually creates, most of the Respect problems would go away anyway. Or put another way: If you support and advocate leagues and Teams without controlling the environment they exist in, and you surround kids with win-hungry adults in mini-adult football, then certainly you’ll need a Respect campaign to calm the angry adults down. But if you eradicate these environments in the first place then kids are protected and respected from the outset.
Football providers shouldn’t be afraid of points and leagues and doing Teams. They are not evil things. It is possible to do Teams without the madness seen at most current junior club games. Children know this already of course. It is the adults involved in children’s football that create the problems. Collectively we wreck it for the kids. We need to recognise this, and take on our responsibility to ensure Teams can happen within a secure, protective, positive learning environment. Then maybe my phone would buzz and instead of “Do you do Teams?” a New Football Parent might ask “Do you do Teams where my child can play and learn without pressure and on their own terms while I read the newspaper in the car?”
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