This article has been provided by Dr Lucas S. Capalbo.
Fostering friendships through football; the challenge of keeping young players focused while allowing for socialisation
As a serious coach that I believe I am, I expect players to stay focused and work hard during training sessions. My goal, no different than most coaches, is to improve players, develop a competitive team, and finish the season at the top half of the table (if winning the league isn’t too much to ask). I take my time during the week to reflect on our previous performance to then design a training session worth of getting us to the top. On training days, I arrive early, set up cones, fold bibs, and imagine how the session should play out as my 16-year-old players arrive one by one. We shake hands, ask how each other is doing, or anything else about our lives, until they eventually turn around and go engage with their teammates. That’s when the chatting begins. They’re excited to see their teammates. In these conversations they talk about school (especially GCSEs), food, romantic relationships, places, and above all, football. The boys are having a great time… until my whistle blows. “Bring it in! Bring it in!” I shout as I wave my hands in. They take a few seconds to react and one by one they turn around and start coming my way. My Cristiano Ronaldos/Philip Lahms engage on a light jog towards me and are the first ones to arrive while my Neymars/Pogbas really take their time to join the huddle. Their conversation never ceases as they walk towards me. They laugh and push each other jokingly. When everyone is in, I begin, ‘alright folks, today’s session will be focused on…’ until I get interrupted by someone, ‘hey, please pay attention!’. ‘Based on Sunday’s game’, I continue, ‘we’re going to…’ while two or more players are whispering and giggling in the back of the group. Sometimes I address it, sometimes I ignore it, but that’s definitely not (in my view) the attitude of a player who wants to be at the top. After a while I learned to anticipate my players’ chattiness and distracting behaviours by reminding them to be quiet beforehand. This strategy usually works and they tend to pay more attention… or at least not distract others.
Going back two months ago, my academy manager and I paid a visit to one of our players who hasn’t attended sessions in a while. One of his parents contacted us to say that she was worried that her son was skipping football to hang out with his friends (who may or may not be the best of influences). We arrived at their house on a Saturday morning as his mum waited for us with a big smile. Our mission was to convince him to return to football as we believe this would be good for him and for the team (he’s a decent a player). His mum left us in the living room with the player and we began to chat. He’s a sound young man and loves to talk. We talked about his experiences in football and how he enjoyed his early memories of the game. His eyes lit up when he talked about it. It’s amazing to see what the beautiful game does to people – especially to the youth. As our conversation went, he started talking about some of the reasons why he stopped attending sessions. One of these reasons was the lack of connection with the other players in the squad. This player in specific came from a different socio-economic background than the majority of his teammates, and consequently, he lived far away from the others and attended a different school. The only time he had to engage and hopefully build bonds with his teammates was during the two sessions and one match per week we have. However, as I mentioned in the beginning, the players don’t have much time to socialize before the whistle blows. Over our 90-minute sessions, the players are only able to socialize before the session starts, during water breaks and after the session is over. The latter moment, I’m usually rushed to go home and some of their parents are apprehensively waiting in the car to head out too. As adults, we work the entire day and can’t wait to go home, enjoy a nice meal, and pass out in bed.
After my academy manager and I left the player’s house we began to reflect on what is truly our role as ‘professional’ grassroots coaches. Have we been able to set up an environment conducive of socialization? How much seriousness and focus are we supposed to expect at the grassroots levels? If football is indeed that good to keep kids away from the streets and bad influences, are we doing a good job fostering opportunities for players to prefer training over hanging out somewhere else? What about them going from teammates to friends? Sure, they don’t have to be friends, but are we allowing them time for them to try? Youth football is more than the X’s and O’s, the beautiful game can be an opportunity for young people to engage with others (especially those who are different than them), make long-lasting friendships, and accumulate memories that will accompany them forever – hopefully these memories will also include lifting some trophies.
Here are some questions to help us reflect and find solutions to foster responsible socialisation in the season:
How much time should we allow for players to socialise at the beginning of the session?
How often should we set up moments in the session where they choose their own teams, create their own rules, and have no pressure to perform under a certain tactical standard?
How can we create opportunities for the players to socialise beyond training sessions? Movie night? Laser tag? McDonald’s?
How can we create opportunities for our players to engage with the opposition after matches? Barbeque? Potluck? Snacks?
Dr Lucas S. Capalbo is a professional youth football coach at Bloomsbury Football Foundation (London) and a Lecturer in Sport Psychology and Coaching at London Metropolitan University.
Follow Lucas Capablo on Twitter.
Follow Lucas Capalbo on LinkedIn.