I’ve wanted to write this post for a while now, but in truth it was a thought that wouldn’t properly crystalise in my head. I knew what I wanted to say but I was struggling to articulate it. However, over the last few months, while we’ve been working hard to set up the new club and watching our teams play (there’s that word again – play), we’ve witnessed the very best, and unfortunately, the very worst of grassroots football.
You will hear people harp on about technical development (us included!), about Elite Player Pathways or the quality of Football For All (F.F.A) sessions, which are aimed at helping those newer to the game develop. But within all this talk, it has become oh so easy to completely overlook the fundamental fact of why any of us first kicked a football.
A few weeks ago I sat on the sidelines with Tony after a long weekend, at a very well run tournament, and watched the u11s final. On the pitch we watched a committed and talented group of players, passionately compete. You could see the desire on their faces, the drive and determination to win. Now remember this is 10 year old children we are talking about here. As we watched the temperature rise we sadly saw the game boil over.
We witnessed two incidents.
Firstly we saw a team of parents flood the pitch, one literally taking his shirt off and swinging it around his head in celebration, when their side scored in extra time. I have to stress, this wasn’t the final whistle, there was still several minutes left to play. In fact, as Tony and I sat thunderstruck watching these parents, their children - the players - literally stood at the centre circle, ready to kick off again, but unable to as their mums and dads were still celebrating on the pitch. I ask myself, what must these children have been thinking? More to the point, what did they take from it and how will it affect them, both on and off the pitch, moving forward?
Secondly, only minutes later, in the corner right in front of us, we saw a late challenge. The tackle wasn’t the issue. The young boy who made the foul sat on the floor, crying, repeatedly saying ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry’ as not only the opposition player loomed over him, but also a parent who had walked onto the pitch to confront the child, screamed down at him. Again, to reiterate, we are talking about 10 year old children here…. Moments later the ref blew the final whistle. The young player who committed the foul was on the winning side. His side broke out into wild celebrations. He remained on the floor, on his own, in floods of tears….
Are these kind of incidents a rarity these days? They are certainly extreme, but I wish I could say with total confidence that they were isolated.
We are fortunate enough to work with the full spectrum of players at Pass+Move, from those new to the game all the way through to young players who are knocking on the door of professional academies. Our problem - our point - or to be more precise, ‘our challenge’, is to keep all these children ‘free’ on a football pitch. To make sure they ‘play without fear’ no matter what stage they are at in their development. They need to be unencumbered when they have a ball at their feet.
‘Pressure’ is the key word. Now I’m not talking about that natural drive to do well. That desire to get on the ball and affect the game. That is a characteristic to be nurtured and protected, a good form of pressure. That is a trait that you will see on any rec, a self-imposed pressure you’ll witness at lunchtime on any playground.
So what am I getting at? How about I ask you a question, one I’ll leave us all to ponder on our own. We have an national team made up of Premier League superstars who crumble when they pull on the England shirt. They struggle to deal with the pressure and expectation of a nation. On a smaller scale, but arguable a more crucial level, we see the same trait within our youngsters. Children are not born with that trait, they do not feel pressure the first time they decide to kick a ball in the back garden! So my question is this - this fear, this almost debilitating, unhealthy pressure we see so often in young players, where does it come from….????!!!!
Now I truly wish I could sit here and say I’ve never got things wrong as a coach, that I’ve never said the wrong thing or allowed my competitive nature to leak out during a match. But I can’t, and I know Tony would say the same. ‘I’m still learning’ and I’m not embarrassed to admit that.
This weekend I watched one of our most talented players hesitate when his team mates turned to him to take a penalty at a crucial juncture in a match. We heard his moment of doubt but said nothing. We watched, and without prompting or cajoling from the sidelines, he made the decision to take on the responsibly. He backed himself and what happened next is frankly irrelevant.
That could have been any of our players within any of our age groups. The lesson isn’t whether he scored, whether there were tears of joy or sadness, the lesson is in his decision. It was him making the choice alone, unencumbered, without fear or ‘undue pressure’. It is about teaching them to never be afraid on a pitch. To never hide from the chance to have an impact (a mantra that rings true for all areas of a child’s life). It’s about reminding them, and more to the point reminding ourselves, that this game at its core is meant to fun.
So we say, next time we as parents, or us as coaches for that matter, when you feel that passion we have for this game swell up and threaten to spill over (albeit from joy or frustration), look at the young men and women we are watching and simply remind ourselves ‘there’s a reason they call it ‘playing’ the game….!