How can we return the FUN to The Beautiful Game

The first phase of developing soccer players is called the FUNdamental stage, with the emphasis on FUN. This applies to children from 6-9 years of age. It is the critical formative period when these young kids can develop a lifelong love for the game, as Rinus Michels, the great Dutch coach and creator of “Total Football” in the 1970’s says:

‘For all these recreational players, the youngest youth group lays the basis for a unique atmosphere, which will always remain with them, no matter what direction they choose. The same goes for me with my unforgettable memories of street soccer.’

But the question for us today, as we observe these young children of the tender 7-9 years of age is, “where is the FUN?”

Having to play in formats that are way too complex for them, having parents shouting at them and the coach barking instructions, and on top of that having at least a  50% chance of losing the game that seems to mean so much to the adults around them, does not sound much like a fun environment…

In study after study around the world, the main reasons why young children take part in the game can be roughly summarized as follows:

  1. Have fun
  2. Learn new skills
  3. Enjoy full participation
  4. Keep fit and healthy
  5. Excitement
  6. Being part of a team
  7. Scoring goals

Even 7-side football is too complex for this young age group. There is less participation for some of the smaller kids, and less chance that they will score a goal! All around the world the movement is towards 4-a-side small-sided games for this age group.  From the learning point of view, we would recommend an even more effective game known as Mini-Football which has 3-a-side teams playing with two goals at each end. In this format, young players participate far more, score more goals, get more touches on the ball, achieve more success and ultimately are given that all-too-precious opportunity to fall in love with the game.

On top of that, because the result of the weekend game has taken on such importance, the coach usually puts the kids through the traditional menu of drills and running exercises deemed necessary for winning, instead of letting them get on with playing the game during training as well.

Soccer is a late specialization sport, a fact recognized by every soccer authority around the world, which means that it takes time for players to develop and that there are specific phases (building blocks) that they must complete before progressing to the next.

The other phases of the development model describe a gradual, progressive pathway, but if young players do not achieve – what we believe to be the most important goal of the very first FUNdamental phase – i.e. have fun and fall in love with the game, it is unlikely that the other phases will be as effective and more likely that these kids will drop out before they have completed the whole process.

 Dermot Dalton and Horst Wein

The Beautiful Game

How young players suffer in a “Win at all costs” soccer culture

Many young players are forced to play competitive league football at a very young age all around the country, even before they have hardly learned to kick a ball. On top of that, the games themselves are far too complex for the age-groups concerned which creates more mistakes and, even more shouting from the sidelines.

With the pressure on to win from coaches and parents, only the biggest, strongest (and indeed mentally tough) kids will survive. The easiest way to win a game is to play “Big Boys Football.” Give the ball to the biggest most athletic player on the team, as the other players look on and watch him win the match. Or hoof the ball up the pitch as far from your goal as possible and force the opposition into a mistake.

This game of “kick and rush “ is not just prevalent in Irish youth football, (although we would like to acknowledge the many brave coaches who try to stem the tide) but also can still be witnessed in the premier league on any given weekend.

Unfortunately, though, at the development age this approach causes one major problem –  many kids get left behind, and indeed will drop out of the game forever as teenagers. The kids can get left out, either through very little participation on the pitch (as they watch the bigger “stars” run the show)  or indeed spending too much time on the sidelines, or else they are given very little attention during training, not to mention the criticism they will often incur for their “ineptitude”  or just simple mistakes. The kids that mostly fall into this category include:

Shy kids and quiet kids – those kids that buckle under the pressure and shouting first.

Smaller kids – some kids are genetically smaller than their peers (usually they are not much good for winning headers and kicking the ball up the pitch or shooting from distance with oversized balls).

Late-developers – All players do not mature at the same rate and there can be years in the difference between two kids of the same chronological age.

Late-born kids – a high percentage of the kids that fail to advance to the highest level for their age are those kids that are born later in the “playing year,” i.e. if the cut-off for a given age group is the 1st of January, then those kids that are born in early January  are almost a year older than kids born in late December of the same year. Because they are usually bigger, kids born in the first quarter of the year often get the greatest playing time and associated advantages and indeed this persists right through to the professional game.

The result is that many drop out of the game without ever giving it – or it giving them – a fair chance.

It also begs the question, how many smaller, or late-developing  talented players are lost to the game every year because of the pressure to win rather than develop young players. Indeed, one could ask the question, “How would messrs. Xavi, Iniesta or even Messi have fared if they had the misfortune to be born into such a culture?”. In Barcelona, they quite likely will not play 11-a-side until 12 years of age nor play competitive league soccer until even later than that.

Dermot Dalton, The Beautiful Game

10 Critical Conditions To Develop Creative Potential In Young Footballers

1.      Delay Playing 11-A-Side For As Long As Possible

The great Brazilian World Cup Winner Juninho, did not play 11-a-side until he was 13 years of age and the same is true of many great players around the world today. The game must be tailored to suit the young players, not the other way around.

Games like Mini Football (3v3 with 4 goals), 5-a-side, 7-a-side and 8-a-side should be used before kids play 11 aside at 14 years of age, ideally.

 2.      More Games And Less Analytical Exercises (Drills)

The “global method” of coaching using simplified games is far more productive than drills.

 3.      Let The Kids Play

Playing uninterrupted games exposes the kids to the unpredictable nature of football, which is essential for both fun and learning and especially creativity.

 4.      Play In All Positions And In Reduced Spaces

Young players up to 13 years of age should play in a variety of positions in order to stimulate their creativity. Smaller, simplified games give them frequent exposure to the different roles within the game: attacking, defending, possession etc.

 5.      You Must Enjoy The Game To Be Creative

Players must experience variety and not rigidity in their games, this leads to fun and enjoyment which awakens their creative instincts. Rigidity only inhibits creativity!

 6.      Let The Players Create Games And Rules

While the many variations of mini-soccer help to broaden their learning experiences, from time to time, the coach should allow the kids a time to play freely and make up their own rules. This freedom helps to encourage responsibility, initiative and improvisation, risk-taking and even leadership, traits that will serve them well into the future.

 7.      Dare To Take Risks And To Improvise

Younger players should be allowed to express their natural experimentation without having to fit into the rigid adult way of playing, even if this means not playing the right pass when it is on, or not playing safe to ensure the win. There will be plenty of time for such rigidity later in life…

 8.      Train The Right Side Of The Brain

The left side of the brain is for logical thinking, learning by rote (memorizing) and typically answering closed questions (with fixed answers), the coach should create situations to stimulate the right side of the brain,  where open, flexible answers or multiple solutions are required to stimulate creativity in his players.  There is more than one way to skin a cat!

 9.      Creative Coaches = Creative Players

Creating a more informal environment without fear of punishment for their “mistakes” (not conforming to the norms of the coach)  allows players  to experiment and try new moves that occur to them spontaneously – much like the “street football” that we all hark back to. Creative play or creative answers should be recognized and encouraged. The global method of playing games is preferred to drills which offer only closed experiences.

 10.  The Environment As An Enemy Of Creativity

Our kids live in a very strict, closed learning environment where adults incessantly demand that they conform to the norms and the answers that are already pre-determined for them. Learning by rote is the predominant mode in schools.

 In football they are also dominated by the strict instructions of coaches who demand total control during training.

On match day when winning the game is at stake this anxiety is even more heightened.

This environment inhibits creativity as the players fear chastisement from their coaches and also other adults present and often their team-mates.

As coaches we need to address this by creating less-formal learning environments during training and on match days for our young players – to create a haven  where they can safely express their innate creativity.


Horst Wein