Growing up I was a street player, I was raised in a quiet cul de sac that led to an entrance of a Junior School, so when school was finished for the day the road was virtually deserted. We played 3v3, 4v4, 5v5 or whatever we had at our disposal with the fencing all around used as goals and a rebound surface.
Those games were fantastic, we learnt to deal with the ball and understood the importance of hitting the target when shooting (the fence was a nightmare to climb) and all of the kids in the road were good players and competition was fierce, just how we liked it.
That cul de sac was our own little Wembley, to such an extent that none of us played for clubs until we were 13-14years of age, the occasional school game was all we played.
A footballing education like above has now gone. Compare this to now! We have coaching organisations working with players from as young as two and small sided structured games for under 6s I believe in most areas if not under 7s.
Is this helping our young players on their footballing journey? I am not sure! Lots of you out there reading this will be saying, yes but with the introduction of smaller pitches, non competitive matches, 5v5, 7v7 and 9v9 that this will not happen anymore! I personally agree with lots of the FAs latest proposals so please do not accuse me of bashing the FA, but are organised fixtures of any kind (competitive or not) helping our younger players become better individual players.
One thing that worries me is the huge number of young players that are playing for teams from such a young age without the skill foundation required. It’s like a child doing their A levels before their GCSEs.
I have stolen a quote from John Cartwright about matches:
‘Competitive games throughout the whole of the development period should be an EXAMINATION of practices completed or underway, not a MATHEMATICAL EXERCISE in the gathering or losing of points’
Instead of a giant of an 8year old dominating the small sided game outmuscling the other players, with little emphasis on his skill capabilities we must work with this player on these critical skills, a skilful player with game understanding is a must.
When I watch small sided games I think back to my own ‘little Wembley’ and the big eight year old defender who dominates the small sided game would have certainly been picked last and almost certainly would have found himself in goal!!
However hard you work with your young players during your practices the urge to get the ball forward during games as quickly as possible to those shiny white goals is one that many young players (nor parents/coaches on the sidelines) can not overlook and this is not conducive to possession based football hence why the giant eight year old often dominates the game. How can we expect a boy of 6-8 years of age to be patient when parents and supporters can not be?
I really believe that by holding our young players back from games and letting them develop the necessary skills through realistic and challenging practices that are not traditional goal orientated will help to develop a more thoughtful and possession conscious player which can only be a good thing firstly for the individual player and secondly his team when he decides to play.
My biggest piece of advice to anyone out there working with young players would be to forget about the goals, during the early development phase and adopt the Premier Skills approach of ‘gates as goals’ individualism, skill and ball retention even at such a young age will improve drastically. You will be on your way to producing thoughtful, skillful and cunning INDIVIDUALS.
The great Michael Jordan said all he strived for was his team mates and himself to improve by 1-2% every year and the results would take care of themselves! If we adopt this approach and think about our use of small sided games football will be the winner. Lets Develop not destroy!