Parents – The Key to England’s Improvement

Written on 26 June 2012.

Another international tournament. Another penalty shoot-out defeat. Another tournament showing the same deficiencies in the English game as the five tournaments before this one.

More questions asked. Fingers pointed. Blame apportioned.

At least in 2012 there is more of a sense of realism amongst England fans, in that more people are realising that England just aren’t as good as they have been built up to be. They’ve been built up by the British media, from the tabloid press to the pundits on any T.V. station showing football. Sometimes the players haven’t helped these unrealistic expectations spiral out of control as they’ve always, before this year it must be said, gone along with the “We can win this” quotes in the daily red-tops.

Sadly, it’s the same problems that have been England’s downfall. An inability to keep possession of the ball has ultimately led to the England players becoming fatigued far quicker than their opponents as they’ve spent the majority of matches chasing the ball whilst squandering it themselves.

Yes, England undoubtedly looked more solid as a group than in previous tournaments, and only conceded one goal in matches against two good teams in France and Italy. But England still never looked comfortable in possession and were never able to keep it for prolonged periods in any of their four matches. Too often an England player in possession only has one option to pass to, and not enough players within reachable distance for a short pass on the ground. This leaves a predictable pattern of play that the opposition can read in advance and close down the avenues available easily, often forcing England defenders into playing the ball high and long into the channels or for a striker to challenge in the air with a centre-back.

Not enough movement off the ball. Not enough players really wanting the ball. Not enough patience on the ball and willingness to play simple passes to keep the opposition moving.

The FA are finally doing something about this. At the end of May this year, FA shareholders voted with an 87% majority to redevelop youth football in England. The changes will see:

  • 5-a-side football for under 7’s and under 8’s,
  • 7-a-side football for under 9’s and under 10’s,
  • 9-a-side football for under 11’s and under 12’s,
  • 11-a-side football only introduced at under 13’s level.

The changes are long overdue and still won’t be fully phased in as mandatory changes until 2014/15. But at least it is a step in the right direction. It will see young children playing more enjoyable games on smaller pitches where they will get more touches of the ball. It will develop their technique with more touches encouraged by the appropriately sized pitches and smaller-sided games. It should improve their mental approach to the game too, which should be more noticeable in their adult years. This will be in the form of comfort with the ball at their feet. A calmness on the ball and an instinct to pass the ball rather than the average approach you will see in kids football in England – kick it and chase it up a pitch that is far too big for them so that the bigger, stronger, faster kids excel (or appear superior anyway).

The issue of a lack of quality, qualified coaches in this country is another obstacle that needs to be overcome. There are less than 3,000 UEFA qualified coaches in England. This compares to 35,000 in Germany and 25,000 in Spain. I’ve believed for a long time that the FA’s pricing of courses seems to price out many people from average walks of life that would have the knowledge, intelligence and enthusiasm to be great coaches. It seems to favour ex-professional players, many of whom aren’t exactly students of the game and don’t understand the tactical side of the game or the correct way to coach children to improve their game. What’s more, ex-professional players that are members of the PFA actually get discount off the cost of their course with the help of the PFA, so the ones who can probably afford it on their own are the ones getting the financial help towards it.

The number of coaches will always be increasing. And with social networking sites helping aspiring coaches share ideas and philosophies over the internet, the quality coaches could see their ideas and approaches adopted as best practice on a broader scale before long. The changes the FA are making to grassroots football can only help. I say it can only help, it will only help if the parents of the young kids playing junior football get on board with the idea too.

Too many parents are loud on the touchline, screaming at their kids. They want them to win the match, the league, the cup and come home with medals/trophies. Maybe some see it as a chance to relive their own youth where they weren’t quite good enough. Maybe some think the more trophies their kid has, the better chance they have of making it as a professional. The truth is, most of the stuff shouted from the touchline by these overzealous parents is absolute rubbish and is detrimental to the development of the kids on the pitch.

“Get rid of it!”

“Put in the channel!”

“Get if forward!”

It is bad enough when you hear the above three commonly used phrases shouted at a professional football match. But to hear it at junior level, screamed at kids as young as 8 or 9 years old, is shocking. There’s no wonder so many English lads grow up to have no confidence in receiving the ball under pressure, no patience when they’re on the ball and play in games where they spend most of it running about without having many touches of the ball.

Many parents would be delighted when their kid comes home on a Sunday having won 15-0. Why? How will that make him a better player? The winning team and the losing team both get nothing out of a game like that, despite the short-term opinion of the usual majority that think the winning team is great and destined for professional careers.

Most parents would rather their kid be involved in a match where his team wins by 7 or 8 goals than a match they’ve drawn but played some excellent football. What the focus should be on is how the kids played. Did they enjoy the game? Did they get plenty of touches of the ball and look to pass it to team-mates? Were they patient rather than hoofing it up the pitch for the big striker to chase?

Too many parents start to moan when the team their kid plays for isn’t winning. It isn’t about winning at that level. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Let the kids play. Let them enjoy themselves. When they enjoy themselves they will get on the ball more often and not be afraid to make a mistake. They will try new things and start to be creative and imaginative.

The parents of the next generation of footballers need to let the coaches coach. Encourage the kids to play well rather than to win. If they take the changes on board and embrace them, it could be a winning combination. And we could begin to see the results by the time the 2020’s come around.


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