By Horst Wein and Dermot Dalton


For many clubs, coaches and parents now is the time when we must choose between winning medals and trophies or allowing our children the chance to enjoy the game of football and develop in a more appropriate structure than currently exists.

For the sake of the children themselves, most importantly,  and then for the sake of the game, we need to seriously, not just look at alternatives, but find ways to implement them,  and sooner rather than later.

Jose Mourinho puts it well:
“The problem is, in England (and many other countries), you teach children to win the game, in Spain, we teach children to play the game.”

Horst Wein who designed the first age-appropriate, optimal development model more than 30 years ago recommends:

1. No league football before 11 years of age. Having a league for children as young as 7 is entirely inappropriate. Young children do not think too far ahead into the future and having such long term consequences can weigh very heavily on them.

If winning the league is all that matters, then many serious problems arise including:

  • The Jekyll and Hyde effect on adults. Parents and coaches have a tendency to change personality once there is something at stake, and quickly lose perspective. Some local games are treated like Champions League finals, as if there were millions at stake. This pressure  and the behaviour of adults at many schoolboy games ruins the game for children.

 If the enjoyment of the game is taken away by adults who rant and rave on the touchline and the grassroots game becomes, in effect, a computer game controlled by dad’s,  the opportunity for young players to plant the seeds of a lifelong love affair with the game will be diminished.

  • The “selection” process denies many children an equal opportunity of participation. When winning is all that matters, the smaller creative kids don’t get much of a look in. Usually the bigger, early developers get more football with suits a more direct style of play.

Unfortunately in all sports the relative age effect, where children born early in the sporting year are chosen over the late-born kids, means that many kids lose out badly in the short and long term. Studies show that more than 80% of kids who make it into the elite level of sport are born in the first three months of the year while less than 10% are born in the last three months.

Imagine a club who selects the “best” players to play the highest league at a very young age. (Children as young as 11 years of age are playing 11-a-side, which is very damaging to their development). In a squad of 16 players, most clubs that are aiming to win the league, will have a first 11 and 5 “squad” players. These unfortunate 5 substitutes will get very little game time during the year, and these are supposed to be among the best 16 players at the club!

Many kids are late developers in sport, but unfortunately, the win at all costs system does not cater for them at all.
When you put all these factors together,  it is this authors belief that anything from 50—70% of all football talent is actually wasted rather than developed in the current system of competitive league football at the younger ages.

  • The quality of football suffers as coaches become more concerned with results than the style of football played or the natural expression of creativity and skill by the young players. “Kick and rush” and the “long ball” prevails. The constructive possession-based football that we have all come to admire at FC Barcelona and Spain cannot flourish in such a climate.
  • The quality of coaching suffers. Playing in leagues at very young ages means that we don’t actually encourage coaching at all, we create managers, who specialize in winning tactics and not in developing players.

While a small number of players may do well by playing in early league formats, the majority do not do well, especially the late-born, smaller, quieter players and the late developers. But even those bigger players who do well in this system often suffer as they come depend more on their size and strength and often fail to continue to work at the skill and creativity elements of the game. They are often over-played, even sometimes playing at older age-groups and unfortunately many suffer burn-out and end up dropping out altogether in their mid-teens. In the long term, there are few winners and many losers in this system!

2.  An environment of creativity, innovation, exploration and FUN must be created by forward-thinking organisations, clubs, officials, coaches and parents. The adults in football would do better to act more like adults and create an environment where children are allowed to be children. Some progressive organisations have already made great strides by introducing less-competitive structures and small-sided games. This will go a long way towards creating a healthy environment where young talent flourishes.

3.  Emphasize more constructive football rather than “kick and rush.” It takes courage to stand against the tide of winning at all costs and the style of football that it engenders. Hats off to all those who are beginning to show such courage, playing constructive football and allowing the children to make mistakes and learn from the, they will reap the benefits, in the medium to long-term if they are willing to sacrifice short term gains.

4.  Less shouting and stress for the players during games. Parents and coaches shouting from the sidelines is very unhelpful to young players for so many reasons. Firstly, they often cannot actually hear what is being said, and often it is confusing when there is more than one voice to listen to. Secondly, none of us responds well to orders, and thirdly, it puts the players off their game. This culture of over-coaching and too much “input” from the sidelines actually thwarts the decision-making ability of young players, which is a very important part of their development if they are to make it to the higher levels of the game.

5. Rolling substitutions and equal playing time even for smaller players.
All players should have a right to equal playing time as youngsters. The competitive league football will come soon enough (probably best from 12 years old or later). Equal playing time engenders a better team atmosphere, gives all kids a fair chance and benefits both weaker and stronger players.

6. Late specialization. Allow players to play in multiple positions up to 14 years of age. Most small-sided games,  including FUNiño, FORMino and  5/7/8-a-side  ensure  a natural rotation of players and fluid roles in the game, and also include many transitions from attack to defence, thus giving ample opportunity to learn all aspects of the game. This will develop more rounded players who are all comfortable on the ball and can defend, attack and keep possession as well as show creative flair when it is required.


The Horst Wein model has been proven, refined and expanded over the last 30 years with the feedback of over 12,000 coaches globally. It has been the official model in Spain for more than 20 years and is rapidly growing  around the world, especially in countries like Germany and Italy and in South America.

Next week we will look at the importance of a player centred approach in youth development.

For more information check out www.thebeautifulgame.ie or email dermot@thebeautifulgame.ie