How Can We Return The Fun to The Beautiful Game

Evening Herald, Monday 23rd January 2012

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