I recently attended a County FA Safeguarding Children course. Like most coaches, I attended because it had been three years since my last certification in this area, and I needed to update my qualification. It was a well-run and well-managed course. The content will be familiar with all coaches who have done the course: We discussed different types of abuse (including for example physical abuse and neglect), poor practice v best practice, and what to do if we were concerned that a child was being abused etc.

The course got me thinking about the way we structure children's football, and how this relates to poor practice and abuse. It seems to me that while there are some forms of abuse which are easily recognisable as awful and wrong, there are other common forms which appear to be acceptable. Most children's football is structured these days, and all football experiences for most children are heavily influenced by the way adults have structured and arranged them. We accept these structures without questioning them, yet in my opinion they are abusive and neglectful. 

The way adults run children's football puts barriers in the way of their rights to play. The way adults typically organise 20 nine-year olds to play football is to have 14 of them playing in a 7v7 game while the other six children watch. This is accepted as best practice. Yet, is it actually neglectful for adults to sideline nearly a third of the children at any one time? All they want to do is play football. If children invented their own football would it include substitutes or would everyone play? Our rigid and inflexible laws interfere with the rights of child to play and express themselves.

In addition, the selection of those who can play and those who must watch is often made based on an adult's perception of the individual children's ability to affect the score of the game. Is it abuse for an adult in children's football to deny a child the chance to play based on their ability? Or because they are a late developer? I think it is. As Messi says in this video, he hopes that "all the children in the world, enjoy their rights fully".  The UN Convention on the Rights of a Child, includes the right to be an education, the right to be healthy, and the right to be treated fairly. If we are to take Safeguarding seriously, we need to look at the way we structure our football because at the moment some children have more rights than others.

We talked briefly on the Safeguarding Children course about equal game time and use of substitutes. But this wasn't talked about with any seriousness, or with any indication that the way we set up games and leagues is abusive to some children. If we have 20 nine-year olds, would it not be better to have two 5v5 games instead (with all the children playing)? We could quite easily change this set-up, and safeguard children better from the neglect of exclusion.

I remember working at Watford Girls' Centre of Excellence a few years ago, and we had away games at Southampton, Norwich, Gillingham, and Brighton. This meant the girls and their families left their homes at 8am on a Saturday, and returned at lunchtime. Some of them played for just 20 minutes. That's five hours taken from their weekend, for 20 mins of play. These girls were as young as eight and nine years of age. In my view this is neglectful of the real needs and rights of a child.

I believe these issues need more discussion on Safeguarding Children courses, and at a national level generally. What are we trying to achieve in children's football? What are the main outcomes and impacts we want to see? What are the needs of the children? And how do our current systems and organisation for children's football serve these needs? Some of what is accepted and described as "best practice" is far from it in my opinion.

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  By Mark Carter, February 2014

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Mark Carter


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