Inventing the game

How can we help create players who can invent the future of the game? (for coaches of under 12 year old players)

There is little doubt that skill levels among top football players have evolved over the past 30 to 40 years. Players like Maradona and Ronaldinho have lead the way in evolving new moves and taking skill levels beyond what was thought to be possible. Cruyff made a particular turn famous — so famous that it has been named after him and appears in almost every skills coaching manual.

More recently, Cristiano Ronaldo delivered a straight and spinless free-kick against Portsmouth that whistled over the wall and dropped suddenly into the net, defying science and questioning what decades of coaches have been telling their students about how to get a ball up and down quickly again. The game is constantly growing as more players are adding to what we know is possible. Someone looking at today’s game from the viewpoint of thirty years ago would be amazed by what some of today’s players can do.

There is no doubt that football will continue to develop and evolve. Creative players from all over the world will extend what is possible. What will the game look like in twenty or thirty years time? How can we as coaches help develop our players to be the ones who invent football, have new moves named after them in future coaching manuals, set new limits as to what’s possible, and play football that inspires and brings joy?

Adults in a children’s world

Our society no longer allows for street football or playground football in the way that it used to. These environments have been replaced by more ordered and structured football practices, usually lead by adults. As well as reducing the time available for children to play and learn football, the adult-centred environment is often also more pressured, more restrictive, and less fun.

As adults in a children’s play environment — whether that be as a coach or a parent — some of us express our perceived role as leader and organiser by rigid command, and even shouting and screaming.

For example, if a child in a game has the ball near his own goal, the parents will shout ‘Kick it!’ from the sidelines and they are very happy when the child hits the ball as far up the field as they can. The child, responding to the parents’ anxiety, learns to boot the ball up the field as far as they can each time they get it. As well as creating anxious children, this type of command coaching means that we develop players who are dependant on sideline coaching and do not have the skills to solve problems on the field for themselves.

Far too often, adults put winning at the top of our agenda. We often enforce this agenda on our young players, often at the expense of creativity, enjoyment and invention. I have never believed that competition is not important in children’s sport — some children will naturally be more competitive than others. I have coached 7 year olds who want to win as much as any adult I know, but it is not an adult’s place to interfere with this competitive desire or lack of it. If we want our players to invent the future game of football, we need to allow them to take ownership of it, allow them to make their own rules and set their own limits. For young children this means allowing the goalkeeper to come and take the throw-in if that’s what they feel like doing, or letting the defender dribble out of the penalty area (even if they’ve tried it once and it lead to a goal conceded). There’s a great poster I saw recently that sums this up. It was designed for the parent’s viewing area at an Academy: A picture of a little child sitting under a tree reading a book, with a caption — ‘You wouldn’t shout at me while I’m learning to read!’

Invention doesn’t happen the first time

In order to allow children to invent their own football, we need them to be self-expressed and creative, and to have the confidence to try new things. Along the way, things will not always go according to our adult-centred plan, and our players will make many mistakes. We need to create learning environments where it’s ok for our players to try something different, for it not to work, and still want to try something new again.

If we look back at Cristiano Ronaldo’s free-kick: I am quite sure that goal was not the first time he tried it. He must have practised for hours on a training ground to get that technique just right, and made many mistakes along the way. Imagine if he had had a coach that didn’t allow for those mistakes, someone that insisted that he shot the ball in the agreed Beckham way instead? He would never have been able to invent the game and extend for everyone what is now possible.

Teach, but don’t set limits on what can be learned

As adults, we often think we know best. We think we know exactly what a child is able to do or not do, we think we know how good they are and how good they can become. We set limits on their learning, we tell them what to do. We limit for them what is possible.

Of course, we need our players to master all the techniques we know about — to be able to turn like Cruyff, to cushion the ball to the floor with the knee, to bend it like Beckham. We need coaches who can teach these techniques, and teach them well. But we also need coaches who can challenge their players to find other ways of achieving the same outcome — to invent their own part of football, to take ownership of their learning and set their own limits as to what’s possible. We always need to consider that we adults don’t know everything, that one day someone will do something with a ball that we never thought was possible — and would never have dreamed to teach.

In practice this means giving children time to explore and create. For example, when teaching the technique of turning or changing direction, the coach could give time for each of the group to invent a turn of their own — something that works best for them. Then in pairs they could teach their new turn to each other (thus putting them in a position of being both teacher and learner). By doing this, we let the children discover for themselves that there are a huge variety of ways of moving a ball. We do not limit their imagination by telling them there are only a five or six turns that exist. We keep the possibility of discovery open to them, and the magic of creativity in football alive. Remember, that it was largely due to this creativity and freedom in children’s playtime that street, park and playground football were so popular for previous generations.

Implications for Coach Education

Hundreds of coaches take Level 1 and Level 2 courses with the FA each year. I would say that their experiences are mixed, influenced mainly by who runs the course. In my experience some coach educators are hugely better than others; as in all courses of study, the quality of the student’s experience is more dependent on the quality of the teacher than on the content of the curriculum.

Having said this, there are changes we could make to the content of the courses that would improve the student coaches’ ability to help develop inventive players. We must have a Coach Education system that aims for our children to learn beyond what we know is possible. Rather than just teaching within what we know, we must aim for the new generation of players to surpass us adults — to evolve the game and invent the future. Although the type of Stop-Stand-Still coaching we see at Level 2 and 3 has its place, we need to give coaches many more tools than this.

Beginner coaches need examples of how to enhance creativity among children. They need to be shown how children can be encouraged to take ownership of their own learning, how to create child-centred environments, and how to guide young learners to new answers and different solutions through exciting and varied games and activities. Team coaches need the skills to manage and develop teams of people. They need demonstrations of how to coach effectively from the sidelines without restricting the player’s natural urge for self-expression, how to set process goals with the parents and players, and how to help their team to review these goals at half and full-time.

The FA are re-structuring the Coach Education courses to include pathways all the way to UEFA ‘A’ for coaches of particular age-groups of player. So it will be possible to do Levels 2, 3 and 4 — all for coaching ages 5-11 for example. This is definitely a step in the right direction. I have no doubt that the content of these courses will be much more relevant to the needs of coaches working with particular age-groups; the biggest challenge for the FA is whether they can find the dynamic, empowering and inspirational coach educators capable of delivering them at a level which really makes a difference at a national scale.

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  By Mark Carter, February 2008

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Mark Carter

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