Football has seen a huge change over the last decade or so. More top-level sides are adopting a possession-based style of play and realising it’s not all about strength & speed.

But has the Football Association’s change of approach improved youth football at the grassroots level?

I still see on a regular basis long queues of children waiting for their turn or constant instructing from the sidelines from coaches and parents to ‘get rid of it’ or ‘stop trying to be Messi’.

Stop trying to be Messi?!

Are we really discouraging our young football players to not play like the best players in the world?

This is not another article bashing our volunteer coaches who are brilliant for stepping up when no one else would.

What it will discuss is how grassroots coaches can prioritise what is important in youth football and that is the player’s development.

What to Avoid

As mentioned earlier, traditional methods of coaching are still a common theme in grassroots football.

Often I see practices all over social media that resemble a personal training session, not a football practice. These sessions get a ton of shares because of the fancy tools on display and everything runs like clockwork.

But ask yourself one thing, would they do this in a game?

In a match situation, will a player sprint through some ladders then jump over hurdles before smashing the ball towards a goal?

Not likely.

Another common trend is the view that in order to look like a good coach we have to dictate everything to our players.

This is not the case.

How can we expect young players to play independently if we tell them what to do all the time?

We should try to avoid the ‘do this, do that’ drills and adopt ‘realistic practices’. A ‘do this, do that’ drill is when every element of the practice is pre-meditated and follows a routine i.e dribble in a straight line through some cones then pass to a partner who will bounce the ball back for you to shoot.

For the process of using a child-centred approach to begin, we need to first recognise where we can improve.

Whenever you plan a session always ask yourself does this encourage my players to problem solve (make decisions) & is this realistic to the game.

Creating an Environment for Problem Solvers

Throughout our childhood, we are forced to learn from the situations that face us.

Before we take our first steps, we fall to get back up, fall again and this process continues until we learn how to walk.

The first time we cross the road it is with the guidance of our parents, only telling us before we cross the road that we should ‘look both ways’.

Notice that in both scenarios the environment was never altered, yet you learned how to do them anyway with the guidance of your parents.

This is how we should look at the sessions we plan, how can we create an environment where the coach is just the facilitator?

Don’t get me wrong, coaching should still take place but only when it’s necessary. Set the task & demonstrate as always but only step in to help guide the players to the solution.

Guide not dictate

As coaches, we are there to help the players find the solution to the problem.

For this to happen, every practice should have an element of realism to help the player understand how, where, when and where they should use that skill.

When you have set up and demonstrated the practice you should only step into a) make your next coaching point or b) when the players are struggling to find the solution to the task.

When you eventually step in, ask the players questions to encourage them to come up with the solution. Involving them in the coaching process helps accelerate the learning process with your players.

If done correctly, your players will make better progress this way. Constantly telling your players what to do in every situation will not help them to make decisions in the game.

Positive challenges

One thing I like from the English FA courses is the introduction of setting challenges before and during sessions.

Setting positive challenges before matches can also be effective as it creates a link between your sessions and the game.

Individual – You must take a minimum of five touches? Challenge individual players to take a ‘minimum of’ rather than a ‘maximum of’ touches.

Team – Can you keep the ball on the pitch and win the ball cleanly when challenging (every time the players kick the ball out without thought it will be a free kick to the other team)?

Can you see how this can be effective?

It becomes even more powerful when you educate your parents on how to use positive challenges with their children.

You see, parents have more contact time with the children than we do so involving them in the coaching process makes sense. Teaching them to use positive challenges will help benefit the development of the players and the team.

Is it messy? That’s ok!

Football is a chaotic game with many unpredictable moments yet many coaches try to control all aspects of the training sessions.

When the players cross that line on Sunday it is down to them and hopefully, you will see evidence of what the players have practiced.

One of my coaches once told me ‘you must always practice what you play’ meaning you should always train as you would play in a match.

In a match, it is very chaotic and messy at times, especially in youth football. The players are confronted with many 1v1 situations and different problems that they have to solve.

So why do we see many coaches line up players in big lines or shout instructions on the sidelines? The game is not played this way so don’t teach it this way. Shouting instructions from the sidelines will eventually just become a distraction for the players and places unnecessary pressure on them.

Embrace the chaos in your sessions and don’t worry if it doesn’t look perfect. Making mistakes is where true learning takes place and it is up to the coaches to help guide (not tell) players to the right solution.

This can only happen if the players are placed in situations that resemble the game.

Summary

Remember, this doesn’t mean you should just play matches all session, it means you should create game-like scenarios in your training. You are still expected to do some coaching but with more ‘guided discovery’ and less ‘do this, do that’.

The environment you create normally sets the tone for the session, so take time when you plan to get this right.

Don’t be afraid to involve your parents in the coaching process. When used correctly, they can be excellent for developing players.

The players will make mistakes (lots of them) and lose games, but how we help them understand why this happened is where the real coaching comes in.

True teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross them, having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create their own”

Niko Kazantzakis

Kurtis Pottinger founded Let’s Play the Game to provide a better standard of technical sports coaching to young people and primary schools across the West Midlands (UK). The mission is to help children learn the skills they need to excel in sports and beyond, within a fun and inclusive environment. Let’s Play the Game also offers high quality, free content in the form of articles, videos, eBooks and webinars.