Our Coach Education group is set-up to share ideas and best practice among football coaches. We look forward to connecting with you.
Why do children want to play football? If you are not sure, then it is certainly worth asking them. Find ways of allowing them to express what football play means for them. You will probably find a mixture of responses. As coaches, we need to consider what meaning and purpose playtime has for the children, and respond to these reasons. For some children, just having time to connect with their friends means everything, for others it will be the thrill of competition or delight in scoring a great goal, for others it will be the joy of moving and playing. Almost all children on MoF tell us their best part of sessions is game time.
Joy is very different from fun. Whereas fun may describe a skin-deep feeling, joy is a fully immersive experience. (You can read more about that difference here). What does joy look like? It may not be a fun, smiley face, more likely a "game face" - a focused grimmace, a child trying hard to win a ball back, or playing with intensity and determination. Joy is hard to find, for some children, but football can provide it - if we serve it up right.
Joy - like play - is a fragile state. It can disappear in an instant if the activity becomes too easy, too tricky or too start-stop. We need to recognise the brilliance and importance of joy and play, as they are rare (and getting rarer) in the lives of children. Joy and play can make lives better, make life more meaningful and deeper and enriched. Humans were meant to play together, and to find joy and connection in doing so. Life is poorer when we lack this joy and connection.
As adults we have the power over children's playtime, and we are custodians to those meaningful (but fragile) experiences of joy and play. With great power comes great responsibility, and we need to ensure that we are serious enough about our duty of care, that we allow and nurture environments for children which let them free to play, uninterrupted. We may have our focus on a child's poor first touch, and we may have the magic coaching skills to start correcting this, but perhaps the most important thing this child can learn is not their first touch, but that the immersive state of play in football games gives them a deep and meaningful experience of being alive. That is such vital learning for a child (and so un-talked about on coaching courses) that we need to make it the cornerstone of our reason to work with children. We must make every effort to recognise it, to talk about it in coaching circles and with parents, and find better ways of assessing each child's experience so we can improve their ability to find a state of meaning and joy in their physical experience.
When a child goes to the shoe shop, they don't walk in and say "How old are you?" and the child says "7" and they say "Well, here are the shoes for a 7 year old". No, instead they will measure your feet, suggest a couple of sizes, allow you to go for a walk in each pair, and ask you what it feels like. They will respond to your feedback and try other shoes, until they find something that fits perfectly.
A football game, like a pair shoes, should fit perfectly. This has very little to do with how old you are.
Flow is the immersive experience of joy which can be found when you are truly engaged in an activity. Time flashes past, and you have no other experience but the Here and Now (more here).
The diagram below shows a relationship between skill and challenge, that has an effect on how we feel during an activity. If the level of challenge is too high for us, then we may feel anxiety, and if it is too easy, then we may feel boredom. Either way we lose our ability to experience flow and joy.
Game time, and intensity of games and sessions
Flow and joy are hard to find in unopposed technical work. The game of football (and futsal) is the most popular in the world for a reason - it is super-charged to deliver joyful experience. We must ensure that games are the basis of our sessions, and not the reward at the end of boring, monotonous drills. Start lessons with games, make the entire lesson games, use game-based coaching approaches.
The intensity of the game is important. Coaches and teachers will need to try different approaches and ideas in order to find what works for a particular group. The children will keep score and be competitive without prompting from the coach, but it may be that recording scores or goals or points on a whiteboard will help keep the game intense.
In order for the game to be competitive, both teams need to feel like they can succeed. So if the teams are uneven, then it may be a good idea to either switch the teams around, or identify realistic challenges for each team, based on their ability, so they can each reach towards success. Try asking the children what they want to do if the scores are unequal and the competition is less intense.
The coaches role during uninterrupted game time
The coach has two roles. They should take on the lifeguard role described here. And they should also be like the shoe shop assistant, checking in on the 'feeling' of the game for each child. Where a child's skill level is greater than the challenge (usually provided by the other children) then they might be moved to a higher ability game or group, or challenged with some other task perhaps (as long as it doesn't detract from their enjoyment). Where a child is struggling to keep up, and cannot therefore access joy or flow, they need help - perhaps by moving them to a game which better suits their ability, or by helping them with adjustments to their game such as the introduction of safe areas or "superpowers" (e.g. player holding the bib can have two touches before being tackled).
It is a fine balance between keeping control of the group, including everyone, ensuring progress towards learning, and also providing freedom and opportunity for creativity.