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Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The future of Grassroots football?

As promised, my opinions on a very well delivered presentation by Nick Levett.

Nick is the National Development Manager for Youth and Mini-soccer at the FA.  He was talking about the future of youthfootball in this country – the results of fairly extensive research and what the implications are for grassroots football.

Despite some evidence of ancient games around the world resembling football, it is believed to have originated in the UK.  Whilst the Pepsi advert suggests that football was around in Medieval Britain, it is the origins of modern football that I want to be concerned with.  Early forms of football seem to have engendered a mob mentality, where violence was commonplace towards ‘players’ and property (with streets being used as ‘pitches’).  Rules didn’t exist until the foundation of the FA in 1863, until that point ‘anything goes’ in the pursuit of victory and the local village/town bragging rights.

By 1883 sport was being used to lure boys off the streets and even as ‘an instrument of social discipline’.  Christian groups in particular were drawn into the use of sport for promoting morality, confidence, taking initiative and responsibility, controlling aggression but still cultivating determination and loyalty to a group.  Indeed many current professional football clubs have their roots in these church-based initiatives.  Aston Villa was founded by young men in a Wesleyan Chapel in 1874, with Birmingham, Everton, Fulham and Bolton other notable clubs with a similar heritage.  There was a fear then that football resembled the unruly, violent form of earlier games, with the police often in conflict with groups of boys who indulged in the ‘horse-play’ of kicking a ball around.  This freedom was further restricted by drill sergeants and PE teachers who now dictated the way sport should be played.  Whilst a formal league system allowed for healthy competition between an ever increasing numbers of professional footballers, the amateur game was still being suppressed.

The motivations may be different now – no longer is there a fear of unruly young footballers causing a problem on city streets.  In fact we are creating better places for our young people to play safely, with better equipment and generally better pitches.  But the way the game is controlled has echoes of the controlling nature of the Victorian teachers and ‘coaches’.  I’ve made some of my feelings on attitude that winning is all-important, has left us severely letting down our young football players.

I am pleased to say, however, that Nick Levett and his ‘team’ (under the guidance of Sir Trevor Brooking, I presume) have recognised the need for change.  They have recognised that while youth football is run by adults, in the way adults believe it must be run, it cannot be truly youth football.  The research carried out by the FA asked children what was important to them.  Whereas adults seem to have a belief that trophies and medals are what children are after (evidenced in the thousands of pounds spent on trophies by clubs each year), or even that winning matches and leagues are important, the most important aspect for those children asked was that trying hard was more important than winning and that children play because it is fun.  In my younger days, I enjoyed playing football in the park with my friends – sometimes against other kids, sometimes amongst ourselves.  If we had even numbered teams, and someone else turns up, they play with the team who is losing.  If the situation then changes, the teams are mixed up to make it even again.

While I was coaching a youth team, a team towards the bottom of the ‘C league’, we were drawn against a side towards the top of the ‘A league’ in a cup competition.  Not surprisingly, we were heavily beaten.  So next season, when we were drawn against them again, I contacted their manager and suggested that they have the tie, but rather than playing them, that we mix the teams up or play some 5-a-side games instead – so that players on both teams got to at least play.  The response I got was astonishing.  Instead of agreeing that there was no real benefit for either team to play normally, I was told that we would be reported to the league and that they hoped we would be banned from future competitions!?  Luckily I had already put this to the league committee, who supported what I had suggested (since then, the rules have been changed for top league teams to enter the competition later and hopefully avoid this situation).  Here is a clear example of not really thinking like a child - although it can be hard to argue against it when a team are as successful as this one was.

With guidance from other European countries (from whom we can learn a lot) the FA have suggested a move away from traditional league systems and towards a more flexible format.  Suggestions are that a season may be split into 3, with different formats (from 4v4 up to 11v11) to be played.  There would be a mixture of competition and training with other teams/clubs, all with a focus of development.  Research suggests that smaller sided games increase the number of passes, scoring attempts, goals scored, dribbling skills and general touches of the ball.  Therefore I believe these steps are very positive from the FA, and I believe there are enough adults who ‘think like children’ (as I do apparently) that these changes can be made.  However, there are some major challenges to be overcome.

There are still a large number of coaches and parents who do not grasp the fact that development is more important than winning.  At Grassroots Live, Bill Beswick said that football is not about what you get; instead it is about who you become.  This presents challenges particularly in considering clubs working together – naturally the clubs that will adopt these different formats as clusters will be local to one another, but it is often these same clubs that have the fiercest rivalries.  I don’t believe that children are really that bothered, in fact they would probably welcome the chance to play with some different friends/classmates, but these rivalries (copied from professional level) often lead parents and coaches to lose sight of having fun and the mentality of a ‘must-win’ comes to the fore.

I think county FAs could take a lead role here – the Charter Standard programme already recognises high standards in local clubs.  One award that clubs can achieve is the Community Club Award.  I believe these clubs should be used as a central focal point for a cluster of clubs; much like a School Sports College should do with a cluster of schools.  These clubs should provide support to its ‘feeder’ clubs, can provide training opportunities for local coaches and referees and help place players and coaches where most needed/best suited.  Hopefully this would foster a more co-operative attitude and help to challenge the culture of local hostility.

One thing Nick was keen to emphasise was that this was not designed to lose competitiveness.  The element of competition is important in football, and children do enjoy this aspect of the game.  Without a desire to win you lose the elements of determination, problem solving or simply the need to try your hardest.  Again, Nick’s emphasis on this was very encouraging.

There are some practical issues – new pitch sizes, new goal sizes, perhaps a variation of rules.  But the FA are already taking steps to ensure funding is available and that advice and guidance is readily available.  I have found that football at all levels is quite clique and not always open to new people or new ideas.  Hopefully this forward-thinking by the FA can lead the way in changing youth football.

Nick also addressed the ‘relative age effect’ across sport.  This is already a very long blog post, so all I will say is that it is good that these things are being taken into account.  I also saw some very good coaching sessions at Grassroots Live, particularly from Coerver Coaching and Ryan Byrne (Birmingham City U12 coach), that really allowed young players to express themselves and build confidence on the ball, whilst developing their technical skill.

I have to say I was quite inspired by GRL – I’m about to complete my FA Level 2 Coaching badge and I’m looking to get back into coaching at youth level and possibly even get involved with our local league and help them to implement these changes.  I would highly recommend Grassroots Live for players, parents and coaches – there’s a lot going on and a lot to be learnt from the range of ‘experts’ speaking throughout the weekend.

Reference:         Holt, R. (1989) Sport and the British: A Modern History

Friday, 3 June 2011

Role Models in Football?

I spent today at Grassroots Live at the NEC in Birmingham – only the 2nd time I’ve been and the first time I’ve actually attended some of the Q&A sessions.  I enjoyed my day, helped by having the company of my friend and colleague Joseph.

The two sessions I decided to grace with my presence with, on paper, might conceivably be linked.  In reality, this wasn’t the case.  The descriptions for these sessions were ‘Do our role models have a responsibility to the grassroots game?’ and ‘What should youth football look like in five to ten years time? What formats of the game do we need? How do we put in place a child-centred competition pathway without imposing adult-values on those of children? I want to talk about the second in some detail, so will write about that tomorrow.

The role models session was hosted by local BRMB sports presenter, Tom Ross.  Tom frequents the stands at Villa Park and St Andrews and has a lot to say about football in the Midlands.  It shouldn’t then be a surprise that his guest has played a bit of football in the area, the recently retired Welsh international, Robbie Savage.

Savage got off to a good start by acknowledging that professional football players are role models for young players, particularly at grassroots level – it got progressively worse from there (in my humble opinion!).  Savage himself is a pretty good example of what can be achieved with a good work ethic and staying out of trouble off the pitch – having been released by Manchester United at 19, after being told he wasn’t good enough by the great Sir Alex Ferguson, he signed for Division 2 side Crewe Alexandra.  He soon moved to the Premiership with Leicester City and spent several seasons in the top tier of English football with Birmingham City and Blackburn Rovers, before ending his career with Championship side Derby County.  All in all, he played over 600 league games as well as 39 games for his country.  Not bad for a player who, by his own admission, did not have that much ability.

Savage spoke about his desire to play football and how managers (namely Martin O’Neill) told him that his place in the team was mostly down to his ‘big heart’.  But where does desire turn into over-exuberance, or even a ‘win at all costs’ mentality?  Savage accepted that his 158 yellow cards (from the horse’s mouth) were perhaps not such a good example to younger players, but made no apologies for doing whatever was necessary to win the game.

There was quite a bit of discussion around respect for referees – Tom Ross suggesting that referees should not be announced until just before a game, to prevent the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson making comments.  Savage was quick to defend players who dive, claim for throws, corners etc and even being somewhat aggressive towards the referee, but also pointed out that referees must be better at making correct decisions in order for players to fully respect them.  Incidents of blatant cheating were brought up (Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ and Henry’s more recent example of how a hand can be a useful method of scoring), with Savage suggesting that they were justified based on the outcome.  Worryingly, when asked, about 50% of the audience also agreed that winning at all costs is acceptable in football!?  I guess I risk offending half of the readers of this (including my companion for the day who rose his hand tentatively in agreement with Mr Savage), but frankly I find this disgusting.

There are two main reasons for this – one on an ideological (perhaps ethical) level and one on a footballing level.

I love football – not for the winning (Villa tend to let me down on that front), not for the money (because none of it comes to me) but for the enjoyment of the game, the enjoyment of playing with friends and the challenge of trying to be better.  Football, in its purest form has elements of problem-solving, teamwork, effective communication, a sense of belonging and worth, not to mention all the physiological benefits.  The sense of achievement when you win is totally diminished if it is accomplished through breaking the rules.  A sense of injustice overrides any feelings of pride in a good performance, even in defeat, when cheating is involved.  At professional levels, there is more at stake than achievement or pride – unfortunately these seem to be less and less of a motivation.  Instead, money and pressure from ambitious owners and fans, develops a culture of winning no matter what and results in players diving in the box, surrounding referees and using illegal parts of the body.  The real problem is how ingrained this attitude is – Robbie Savage didn’t see it as a problem (I think some of those in the audience would at least agree that it isn’t a desirable situation) and I suspect many professional footballers wouldn’t think twice about conning a referee.  At grassroots level this is devastating, and brings me on to my second point.

If a player has to cheat in order to gain an advantage, this only emphasises a lack of ability.  Maradona was forced to use his hand because he simply wasn’t tall enough to use his head, players dive because they have lost the ball, or because they aren’t good enough to beat the defender.  If players and coaches can’t acknowledge their deficiencies, how can they improve?  Maradona was a player of the highest quality, and a lack of height was probably very useful at times, but at grassroots level, cheating to gain an advantage will only prevent players from improving – why do they need to if they can win by cheating.  If players at grassroots level are learning to win at all costs, they will grow up, in footballing terms, with the wrong attitude and some serious issues in their footballing ability.

What can be done?  Well Nick Levett’s session addressed some of these issues (see next blog post) but there has to be a serious intervention from the top – RESPECT has been taken seriously, coaches must stamp out cheating in their players and players must take responsibility for their actions.  Unfortunately I don’t think that the current culture within the professional game will not allow change quickly (if at all).  Maybe the best we can hope for is a new generation of players who have a different outlook on football, or maybe a painful period for football in this country, with the promise of a brighter future at the end.