This might come as a radical concept to some, but bare with me.
Right now, I am in Barcelona. I'm here for a five week coaching course with the excellent guys at MBP School. If you don't know who they are, trust me, you should get to know who they are right away. I have been absorbing their content and enjoying their courses since 2019 now, and was originally supposed to come out in May 2020, but then something happened to cause all international travel to stop for several months. I'm here now though, which is the main thing, and I'm studying the youth football expert course. I'll be creating lots of content over the next few weeks and sharing some ideas and musings. Again, I cannot recommend MBP enough.
The content is so good, that my mind is always racing. Here's my first short blog I'll be sharing with you. And it's to explain what I think is an overlooked, forgotten, and neglected concept. Fun, for many people within sport and education, is for some reason, seen as the enemy. It's a silly distraction from the seriousness of the task at hand. To them, fun is something morons do to occupy themselves from hard work. Fun is goofy, annoying, and distracting.
So let me ask you this. Does this guy look like he is having fun?
Are these dudes having fun?
Does this look like fun?
All three examples are virtuosos. Some of the best in their field, doing something they love, which they have trained hard for, and you better believe that they think what they're doing is fun. Who in their right mind would go through all that time and effort to get good at something they thought was boring? Forget that the ten thousand hours rule is not a hard and fast rule (it really depends so much on so many individuals, ranging from the individual, to the environment, to the task) and just remember the key message; in order to get good at something, you have to do it. In order to get better at something, you have to do it more. In order to get really good at something, you have to do it a lot. That, at least, is not rocket science, and is surely a principle we can all agree on.
I think that part of the problem is that fun is an all-encompassing term. Ronaldinho using his magic in Champions Leagues and World Cups is fun, but then so are the following examples.
Theme park attractions are fun.
Face painting is fun.
Antagonising the cat with a laser pen is fun.
All of the above are examples of fun. Somewhat subjective, as perhaps you prefer to antagonise cats with bits of string. Each to their own. But the difference between the first three and the last three is that the first three require skill, and is something you are doing, while the last three require no skill, and is something that is happening to you. In the first three, you're doing it. In the last three, you're a by-stander.
Sure, there certainly are plenty of examples of people who have achieved success under the watchful eye of over-bearing parents, who employ militaristic strategies and training regimen on their children. But for every one of those kids who grew up to be a success, how many millions grew up hating it, and quit way too early? It's time we stopped viewing kids as collateral damage. Their worth as humans isn't determined by their sporting output, and we shouldn't be churning out thousands of burned out, frustrated kids, in search of that one who comes good.
What do I mean by that? It was once posed to us on a course; do we want to create a team of James Milners, or the occasional Messi? This false dichotomy was to represent the thinking behind two juxtaposed developmental strategies, and supposedly because in England, we're too safe and inclusive, we will have a conveyor belt of James Milners, and never create a Messi. At the time, I don't think Milner had won the Champions League, Premier League, and Club World Cup with Liverpool. As of today, this example likely doesn't carry the same weight it once did.
Milner represented the boring, the decent, the competent, the jack of all trades, the safe, the consistent. Something we are supposed to create in abundance in England. Messi represented the magic, the unpredictable, the game winner, the genius.
It's a false dichotomy because it implies that you can only have one. Put all your eggs in one basket, and gear the entire academy side around developing those one or two special players. Or, work hard to improve everyone, creating a solid team, but at the sacrifice of your flair players. Don't all successful teams have a handful of both? Messi has always had Milner type players around him. And why does it mean we have to pick one or the other, when you consider modern coaching schools of thought, and increases in resources and technology?
So what are we going to do? Include everybody? Or fob off the rest of them, and just work on those handful of special ones? If you're thinking of applying this idea with your U8s, remember that development is non-linear. The best at eight might not be the best at ten, twelve, sixteen, and adulthood. Growth and maturation, home life, societal pressures etc. all affect who goes on to become what. If you are inclined to put all your eggs in one basket, try wating at least until they are of driving age. Even the world's stop scouts say that you can't really identify a top player until at least fourteen. So if the best in the world, with millions of pounds riding on their decisions, say that fourteen is the earliest you can identify a top player, why are we making kids quit and fall out of love with the game before that?
Try and remember these above visuals. Kids all follow different paths. They are born at different times of year, have different body shapes, different rates of maturation, different interests and motivations, different inspirations, different home lives etc. Even in the level football, the team that wins the league will have rough patches where they go a couple games without winning or scoring. Development is the same. There are ups and downs, and sometimes what appear to be backwards steps.
Always keep in mind that we are not developing professional footballers. We're working with conscious, sentient, complex human beings, of which a minute percentage may one day become professional footballers. We are planting seeds for trees whose shade we may never sit under. These kids, as great as it would be to see them playing for England one day, are more likely to be the coaches, referees, parents, fans etc. of the future. We owe it to them, to do right by them, in the long run.
The misconception with fun is that it is not serious. That's completely untrue. I loved football as a kid. I played Subbuteo, FIFA, Football Manager, kicked soft balls around in the hallway, designed kits, watched any game on TV, and even collected these guys.
Let's be real. You don't do all that if you're not serious about it. My Dad even showed me a game where you can make your own cup competition with a sheet of paper, a pen, and a dice.
Try it. It's surprising fun. Make your own. There's even an online dice.
But can you see what football does to us? We are obsessed. And what this does, is it brings out our creative sides. It also drives us to do things which are difficult or time consuming, because we believe in it, because we love it, because it is fun. So as a kid, playing these games, and now as an adult coaching, I take it seriously. And it's fun. I take it seriously because it is fun, and it is fun because I take it seriously.
It's a form of intrinsic motivation. All coaches should know about that by now. It's very hard to be a coach in it for the money in England, due to the lack of money for all but the 0.01% of us. So why do we spend a fortune on petrol money to travel around the country and neglect our families and other responsibilities? Because it is fun. We love it. This is an intrinsic motivation.
People tend not to put effort into things they don't care much about. Yet many adults make kids not care about football. Often the adults treat it like a transactional relationship. The match at the end is treated as the reward, which kids only get if they appease some arbitrary standard of an adult. The match should be the most important, most prominent part of training. How could it not be?
And this is where fun becomes a by-product. Our goal isn't necessarily to have fun, although that is a value which remains consistent throughout. Our goal is to improve, to compete, to win, to include, and all the other things that form your identity and values. Specifically, when it comes to training design, I never plan with fun in mind, yet I'm frequently told that I'm the fun coach, or that my sessions are always fun. Care to take a guess why? Because we do football. Strange, right? But in my sessions, we do football.
Football is fun. And you need to do football to get good at football. So we do football, because it makes us better at football, and we have fun, because football is fun. It's that simple, really. When your drills, games, exercises, and activities look and feel like football, your players will get better at football. When your drills, games, exercises, and activities look and feel like football, your players will have fun.
What makes football fun? What elements should we include? Consider the following;
-Competition. We love having a way to win.
-Opposition. We like having someone to beat, or someone who can test us.
-Teammates. Football is a social game that requires the coordinated behaviour of a large group of people. It can be great to kick a ball around alone, but it is immeasurably better when you and your mates are connecting and succeeding together.
-Challenge. It needs to be in that goldilocks zone. Too easy and we don't care. Too hard and we give up.
-Ball contacts. Our first love is the ball. If we don't get to spend time with it, we'll feel left out. Make sure that the games don't require lots of standing around, waiting, or have a skewed ball:player ratio.
-Goals. Where you can, include goals in your session. Sure, we can love a save, tackle, block, skill, or defence-splitting pass. But nothing really compares to beating the keeper and seeing the ball hit the back of the net.
-Autonomy. Give them an idea on what to do or how to do it, then let them get on with it. Watch kids play video games. They have complete autonomy and are not craving adult intervention or instruction.
-Directional. Activities are so much better if you have a side to defend and a side to attack.
-Space. If it's too big of an area, it becomes more a game of cross country rather than football.
-Simple. The more complex, the more rules, the further the activity deviates from football, the less fun and less learning occurs. Adding some constraints and challenges is fun. Turning it into the Crufts Dog Show is taking it too far
Let's consider the three initial examples at the start of this article; Ronaldinho, Led Zeppelin, and Nasa Astronauts. Are they having fun? Yes. Are they working hard? Yes. Did they train a lot to become the best in the world? Yes. Are they fully focussed and concentrating on the task? Yes. In each example, they are in a state of flow.
Flow occupies the state between anxiety and boredom. How can we apply this to coaching? One is to do with environment, and the other is to do with task design.
Anxiety: Are you, through your words and actions, creating an environment as coach, where players may feel too tense or too pressured? This includes things like punishments for losing or making mistakes, benching players if they mess up, screaming or losing your temper, and placing too much pressure on results and outcomes. If the player becomes anxious, they will not hit that flow state where good performance comes.
Boredom: Now consider the activities you are using. Are they too easy or too hard? Do they look like football? Does the player see the value in what you are doing? Do they have to wait in line for ages? Do they get to interact with their friends? Do they get to spend time with their first love, the ball? Are they confined to a limiting role or position? Do they get to earn points, compete, and score goals? Without these, the player disengages, loses focus, stops trying, and ultimately will not be having fun, nor improving.
Here's a great way of looking at it.
As you can see from this article, it's all linked. Everything is linked, all the time. What can you do? Think of the Golden Circle. Start With Why.