Playing time in junior football

Next week at my son's primary school it is 'Walk to School Week'. He came home with a letter yesterday and it says:

"The public health minister has urged that parents take more responsibility for their children's weight and fitness. By taking steps such as encouraging children to walk to school, they (their parents) can help ensure their children lead an active life."

With one-third of children leaving primary-school overweight or obese, certainly weight and fitness are an issue, and the school is correct to be asking parents to consider walking instead of putting the children in cars or buggies. Children strapped to seats are not moving children, and they are unable to learn physically during this time. When I walk my boy to school, we climb on walls, we kick stones, we leap across the white lines on the zebra crossing. We have fun moving, and we get better at balancing, jumping, and co-ordinating ourselves along busy pavements.

MoF has already studied Active Learning Time in PE lessons in primary school and found that only a third of a PE lesson contains opportunity for movement and for 'learning by doing'. Despite recognising the importance of campaigns such as Walk to School Week, primary schools offer very little movement opportunity to children in the school curriculum. Many parents know this already, and many families rely on after-school and weekend sport to fill the void in movement and physical activity. For football children, the obvious solution is to join a local football team.

However, having been involved in children's football and competition for decades, I have long suspected that the children's football experience contains very little football and an awful lot of being strapped to seats. This blog post will look at the 'Game Day' experience for primary-school aged children at football clubs.

Over the past few weeks, I have collected responses on a survey about team football for children aged 7-11. In total I had over 60 parents complete the survey, from teams across England. I asked them 10 questions about their trips with their children to football games on the weekend. My survey included questions on how many children were in the team and the squad; how early they had to arrive before kick-off; how long it toook to travel to games; and how they travelled. With this information, I was able to calculate the average team football experience for 7-11 year olds. Here is what it looks like in grassroots football for primary-school aged children: 

The graph is a time-line of 'Game Day' for the average child (an average of home and away games). Assuming families leave the ground almost straight after the end of the game, the total time is 1 hour 59 mins. Starting from the left hand side, here is what each colour block represents:

  • The first purple block is the average travel time to games.
  • The light brown block is the time pre-kick-off when teams arrive, get changed, warm-up and have team-talks.
  • The green block is average playing time.
  • The red block is time spent on the sidelines as a substitute.
  • The final purple block is the trip home after the game.

The figures are in minutes, and they are the length of time spent in each activity.

  • The take home message is that children need to invest 4 minutes of their weekend for every minute they are on the pitch playing.
  • Three-quarters of children spend more time on 'Game Day' being strapped to a seat than they do playing the game of football

Remember, these are primary-school aged children, many playing under-8 or under-9 football. As adults who govern children's access to football play, we should be ashamed of ourselves that this is the system we have come up with for kid's footy.

I know it's not necessarily helpful to hark on about the good old days, but when I was at primary school and wanted to play a game of footy, I walked round the corner to the park and played for hours at a time. Here is what my experience of 1 hour and 59 minutes of footy might have looked like in comparison:

In order to keep children physically active, and in order to enhance the quantity and quality of learning that children get in team football, how can we change what we do? Does creating a mini-premier league for children really fit their needs as young learners and young movers? Do we really need to start team football to farwaway grounds at such young ages?

Of the 56 children in grassroots football whose experiences were captured in the survey, only one walked to games. All the others travelled by car (what hope for footy-mad children from car-less families?). Importantly, three-quarters of children who attend junior team football sometimes bring a non-playing sibling along to watch. In my experience this is often because there is no other option for that sibling; they are forced along as there is no-one else to look after them. For them, they are strapped into a seat for 40 minutes of their weekend and stood on the sidelines for over and hour - with no play time at all. Really folks, it's madness.

Is it any surprise we have HUGE drop-out rates from organised footy in ages 11-16 when this is the children's and families' experience of football in primary school? Once given the chance to decide for themselves, which 15 year old really wants to spend their weekend travelling all over for such limited amounts of playing time? And which parents still have the patience and energy to be a taxi service once it's clear their child is not going to 'make it' (and they want their weekend back after years of away games)? We overdose children and families too soon. The child's journey through football is a marathon not a sprint.

Selection for Academy or Centre of Excellence

For many families, there is joy and pride when their child is picked for an Academy or Centre of Excellence. They are happy that their child's skill and dedication has been recognised and they are excited at the presumed growth in ability that they foresee happening now their child is training and playing at a higher level.

My survey on children's team football also looked at the experience of boys at a Championship Academy and an FA-run Girls' Centre of Excellence. The Game Day experience for these children can be seen in the graphs below, compared to the grassroots experience (which I have rescaled to show a comparison in timings with the Academy and CoE):

For a primary-school aged girl in a Centre of Excellence or a boy in an Academy, it is normal to have to spend 6 minutes of weekend time for every one minute of football play time.

You will see that for the Academy boy, there is a commitment of 3 hours of travel per week on average. On away days, this can be much more, especially for parents who cannot drive or commit the time to travel with their child. They will need to rely on the club minibus to transport their child. On these days they will need to get their child to the club, and then the club will take the child to the game. For children from these families, it is normal for the child to spend over 4 hours being strapped to a seat, for less than an hour of football.

Is it immoral to treat children aged 8 and 9 like this? The dream of professional football is a big dream, but very few get there. Surely along their journey, no matter where it leads, the child's real needs should be put first. [Even if the sole aim is the production of great young footballers, then the current league system in elite children's football is daft and inefficient. Do the best 9 year old girls in Gillingham really need to play the best 9 year old girls in Bristol? Whose purpose does this really serve?].

As coaches, how often do we say or think "I wish I had the children for more hours each week!". We often have to make tricky decisions as to what we teach children, knowing that we don't usually have enough time to complete all the technical practice they need and provide enough game-related practice for them to begin to master the game. Well actually, if we used children's time better, then we would have far more of it than we think. Football families are giving up between 2 and 5 hours of their weekend for football. How would we arrange this time if we could start all over again? What would benefit children most?

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  By Mark Carter, May 2015

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Mark Carter

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