Last weekend, another new child joined the Ministry of Football programme. I watched as they took their first steps in their new environment and explored structured football for the first time. I observed how they coped with all the new challenges that faced them, of dealing with new activities and new instructions, and being directed by a new teacher. I noticed their dad who watched anxiously from the side, and offered support and a hug during drink breaks and at the end of the session.
I have seen hundreds of children start their journey in football in this way. They all grow and learn, in their own way and at their own pace. Sometimes they will grow steadily and surely, and at times months may go by without any noticeable improvement. And then there will be times when they seem to suddenly “get it” and they will soar into a whole new level of confidence and ability. We all know that learning doesn’t happen in a straight line.
I am particularly reminded of this now, as we had another child sign for Arsenal academy last week. And if I look back to when he joined our programme 20 months ago, I remember a shy boy who could barely control a ball and who was a novice when it came to directional play and opposed games. I recall his first few weeks when we wondered if he’d stick with football, or whether it would be best for him to give it another try when he was a bit older. What was there in that
first few weeks that indicated he would soar to Premier League academy level in less than two years?
I honestly don’t think we can predict the future ability of the adult footballer from the few clues that a seven-year old child gives us. I am amazed that professional clubs choose to select so few children of this age to be taught by their elite coaches (and implicitly therefore why they have so few elite coaches). Would it not be better to extend the high-quality environment they provide to include more children, and thus extend the possibilities for growth of children who soar later? (Of course, they might say that they provide community programmes for the late-developers, but in reality these are little more than babysitting centres run by a team of much lower-quality coaches).
We divide clubs in this country into two categories: professional or grassroots. They are viewed as different things altogether. The aim of many children (and their parents) is to get selected to a pro Academy. But for every one who is selected, another moves back the other way – dropping back through that imaginary ceiling into a grassroots team with a parent coach and bunch of crazy adults on the sideline. From the child’s point of view this is a massive change, but essentially they are still the same child with the same needs. Do other countries and cultures have this idea of grassroots children’s football, and it being different from the professional version? Or is football just football no matter what? I think our systems would be better if we reduced the gap between the two so they overlapped and provided continuous and more harmonious journeys for the learners they serve. Or better still, we moved away from the idea that grassroots football is different from any other football.
I don’t understand why clubs – whether deemed professional or grassroots – are blind to the advantages of being more inclusive and providing high-quality learning environments across the ability spectrum. They could learn from the way many clubs in the US, Australia and New Zealand are organised, where they have several divisions and dozens of teams that cater for all ability levels of child – from complete beginners to the very top players. It is a shame that a beginner seven-year old in England will only get to play at their local grassroots club if they show in a trial that they have reached a certain threshold of effectiveness. I worked for a club in New Zealand where we had nearly 2000 children, all selected into teams and divisions that were appropriate for their ability. No child was ever turned away because they weren’t good enough. And it was a delight to see each child improve throughout all divisions and teams, and see some of those who were considered low-ability quickly move up to the middle teams and later the higher or possibly highest team for their age.
It is my contention that all we can say about an excellent seven-year old footballer is that they are an excellent seven-year old footballer. There is a very good chance that in the next few years they will be overtaken by those deemed to be not as good. All experienced coaches will have examples of children who suddenly just “got it”, and were almost over-night able to cope and be competent at much higher levels of challenge. Yet what systems do we have to accommodate the over-night soar of a child who has suddenly reached another level? This is important because a massive increase in competence and confidence indicates a new learning need for that child, a learning need that may not be satisfied in the age/ability group they are currently learning with. We have a responsibility to provide the learning-hungry child with an environment that feeds their appetite for development.
At most clubs - even those super-clubs in the US and NZ I described earlier - the most responsive we can be to this change of need is to wait until the following season and push them up a division or two. The systems we have set-up for children’s football mirror that of adult football in that we separate our seasons into years, and select children into groups just once a year. This is not optimal for the needs of child development as children can change drastically in much shorter time periods than a year. We need systems that are responsive to sudden soars and growth.
Here is my ideal "club" set-up:
Inclusive: Has a place for all local children, no matter what ability or experience
Groups children into training groups according to their learning needs (including age, ability, athleticism and attitude - or think FA's Four Corners)
Has systems in place for movement of children between groups on a week-to-week basis, to respond to sudden soars in growth and changes in learning needs
Offers high-quality coaching in positive learning environments throughout the ability groups
Provides opportunities for short-term competition (e.g. tournaments, or leagues lasting just a few weeks) for groups of players at levels appropriate to their needs, without the need for parents to travel for hours to get there
Understands that the current best players have different learning needs than those who are still beginners, but doesn't treat those players (or their parents) differently as people
Has a core belief that we are all (children, parents and coaches) in a learning process and that we are all capable of greatness no matter where we currently perceive ourselves to be
Does this exist? This is what Ministry of Football strives to be. We're still learning. But that's the goal.