Let them play

My brain seems to be programmed to never stop. It seems constantly active, always full of thoughts, eternally chattering away to itself. It seems particularly occupied with remembering past events, and planning for the future. Sometimes it gets stressed and manic, and most of the time it is fairly calm. But it is always full of words and thought. A constant conversation with myself is going on, and on, and on... Even when I am watching TV or talking to a friend, my brain will be chatting away to itself: “Is that true? Is he right? Do I believe it? What would I have done?” etc. When I think about it, this continual internal conversation has been going on for as long as I can remember – which is 37 years now.

But I am one of the lucky ones. I have found something that shuts my brain up! And it is not meditation or alcohol or drugs. It is playing football. When I play football, my brain stops “thinking”. What I mean is that I have no words in my head, there is no conversation. Certainly my brain is still functioning because it is making decisions about where to move and what to do. But there is no internal discussion involved, the brain is working in a much more intuitive and instinctive way.  When I play football, the past and the future don’t matter in the least. My brain is completely switched off from anything except the Here and Now. And in that focus on the present moment, the brain finds silence and peace.

Football has always given this to me. It is its finest gift I think. Even as a child, too young to realise the importance of “brain-peace” and not having the eloquence to describe it anyway, football gave me a meditation of sorts - a time every day when my brain could give-up the natter and just bathe itself in the immediate beauty of Now. (What a gift!)

And what has this to do with football coaching you might ask? An awful lot I think. For it seems to me that the children we coach have very few opportunities to find stillness and peace. They sit all day in stuffy classrooms in results-hungry schools immersing information for upcoming exams. There is very little play-time for them, just lots and lots of pressure to perform well academically. And there is no adult-free play-time after-school anymore either. Their free-time is now full of classes instead: sports classes, music classes, extra tuition etc. More hours of being taught, less time for play. Is it any wonder many of them choose to silence their brains by zoning-out on the PlayStation?

I think that for many footy-mad children of a certain ability, they find Joy in playing. They may not be able to describe it, but their minds are in a state of Flow when they play football games. They are completely immersed in what they are doing. The words have disappeared from their brain, and they feel alive. The internal chatter has gone away, at least for a bit. All that matters is Now. (They are lucky too, they have found something that shuts their brains up!) . In the madness of their day, they have found time to meditate. I think there must be some real benefits for them in the rest of the lives if they can continue to find time-out for this joy and play.

So –[ I am getting to the point here, I promise!] – to the role of the football coach when the children are immersed in Play and Joy: Is it really ok to interrupt their Flow so you can make your coaching point? I truly don’t think there can be many coaching points that are worthy enough to interrupt their game for. Imagine if someone did that to your game every 2 minutes. We must remember that most children don’t have any time in their weeks for un-adulterated play. Let them get lost in play, it may be the only chance they get.

As football coaches, we talk about developing footballers who are better "decision-makers". Yet we need to acknowledge that the way the brain makes decisions when it is in a state of play and flow is completely different to any other decisions it makes. The type of decisions a child makes in the joy of a game (whether to pass or dribble, for example) is not a decision that is thought-out with words or sentences. The pros and cons are not weighed up in the same way they might be if the child was in a newsagent standing in front of the chocolate bars with 50p to spend. Because these decisions are completely different, we should not expect to teach them in the same way either. To stop a game in mid-flow to recreate a situation that has passed is not effective. To stop children while they are playing to discuss with them why they dribbled instead of passed has no relevance to the child's actual experience of the game. They will learn these things by playing, not by talking about playing.

I went on the FA Youth Module 3 in the summer. I now refer to it as the “What’s stopping you playing forward?” course.  Each game was interrupted constantly by well-meaning coaches asking the same questions over and over again. If this is the answer to the country’s football problems, then we will produce a generation of young adults, obsessed with passing it forward at every opportunity, who can answer three or four of the coaches questions very well. But many won’t still be playing football at that age because they’ll have got pissed off with the coach constantly stopping their game. (Would they play on the X-Box if someone kept forcing them to discuss “What’s stopping you kill the alien?” every five minutes?)

If we allow children the space and time to become immersed in the game they are playing, then I believe that two things will happen: Firstly they will find Joy in the stillness that is left when their internal conversation pauses. And secondly their skill level will improve as they have more exposure to learning situations and explore which solutions work for them.

It is my opinion that coaching in any form is not the answer to the country’s football problems. Children don’t have the opportunities previous generations had to play without adult interference. Without this time for play, children don’t develop their love for the game. Neither do they develop their own creative and individual responses to the game-situations they find themselves in.

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  By Mark Carter, September 2011

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Mark Carter

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