You're not a trained S&C coach. You don't have an array of fitness equipment. You barely even know what you're doing at the gym. So why are you doing bleep tests with kids?
This summer, across the many camps I've worked, I have been inundated with stories from kids and parents of how their coach is insisting on preseason fitness work, and this invariably means bleep tests. I know it's not becoming to bash volunteers, and ripping on grassroots coaches trying their best is not always fair, however, these kids deserve better.
What is the job of a grassroots coach?
In a nutshell, grassroots coaches are custodians of the game. Your role is to inspire and develop a love of the game within children. Because of the work you do with them, they should be lifelong participants in the game of football. Whether that is as players, fans, coaches, future football parents, or even referees. Are you fostering that love, or extinguishing it?
Get everyone playing. Play is the highest form of research. By doing the thing, that's how we get good ad the thing.
Create an environment where mistakes are okay. It's how we learn. If kids are afraid of you and/or others in the environment, they will stay within their shell, and will avoid risky and dangerous situations, to avoid mistakes and being shouted at.
Educate them about the game. Teach them some skills, teach them some concepts, and help make them better footballers. If they can start to do the cool things like the skills, the passes, the goals, they'll enjoy the game more.
Teach them important life lessons. Winning and improving is hard work, but the hard work is worth it. Being part of a team is a vital skill for life. Dealing with setbacks like mistakes, refereeing decisions, or playing better opponents are things we're going to face every day in the reality of adult life. Use sport to prepare them for that.
Show them how to be an adult. If you're ranting and raving at referees, you're showing them how to lose their temper and blame others. If you're digging them out for mistakes and making them feel small, you're showing them how to bully and intimidate. Show them how to lose gracefully, act respectfully, and reflect internally to make improvements and strive forward.
Why do kids play football?
It's fun. Football is the most popular sport in the world because of how enjoyable it is.
Football is the most played sport in the world due to how accessible it is.
Their friends play and they want to play with their friends (have you ever split up friend groups in your pursuit to win plastic trophies?)
Competing and striving for better is an innate human desire.
Being part of a team creates social bonds and an identity.
What do the kids say?
See how far down the list winning is? Yet to coaches and parents, it is often number one. And this is where, as custodians of their game, adults get their priorities wrong. When adults get involved, the weaker kids stay on the bench. When adults get involved, teams play risk averse hoofball because making a mistake near your own goal can lose the game. When adults get involved, there are punishments like laps and press-ups for losing games and making mistakes. When adults get involved, the environment is less about one of discovery and exploration, and more about anger and aggression. When adults get involved, the remedy to most problems within the team setting is to demand faster and stronger players.
We didn't defend well enough? Well obviously it's because we're not fit. We didn't connect enough passes? Obviously players aren't fit enough to run into space. We kept losing the ball from our own goal kicks. Obviously it's because players aren't fit enough to fight for the ball. We couldn't get the ball off the opponent. Obviously it's because our players are too slow to keep up with them. You see the backwards logic? These are all issues of shape, positioning, understanding, game intelligence etc. yet too many coaches resort to running and other fitness exercises.
When kids used to play on the playground before schools banned ball sports, and when they used to play in parks before parents shoved flashing, beeping screens in front of their kids' faces, kids would take charge and solve their own problems. If the game was too one-sided and a team was winning by several goals, they'd mix the teams up. If players started to tire, they'd make the pitch smaller. They'd find ways to incorporate younger siblings by making rules like the little kid gets two touches before they can be tackled. Sometimes the challenge would be to get the younger sibling to score a goal. And if they didn't fancy a match, they would play ends, Wembley, crossbar, headers and volleys, free-kicks, penalty shootout etc. The possibilities were endless, and always heavily featured the fun parts of football; scoring goals, performing skills, playing passes, making tackles, making saves. None of that is involved in the bleep test.
What's actually wrong with the bleep test?
Firstly, if you're paying good money to hire an expensive astroturf, with floodlights and goals, only to keep the balls in the bag and force kids to run, you need to have your head examined. Let's ask ourselves the following questions;
What are you actually trying to improve? A bleep test doesn't improve speed. It doesn't improve game understanding. It's a test, to measure a specific kind of stamina.
Are you actually going to do anything about the results? The vast majority of coaches keep a record of results, do nothing, and then perform another test further down the line.
Are there not other priorities? I worked with kids this summer who were on self-titled "academy" teams, who did regular bleep tests, but they couldn't manage more than five keep-ups, and struggled to strike a ball with any real power or accuracy. I would think that being able kick and manipulate a football would be one of the most important things a footballer needs in order to enjoy football, but several local coaches are making their kids do running.
Is it even that realistic to football? Football requires change of direction and change of speed, often moving laterally or backwards. Bleep tests have players run in straight lines at the same, pre-determined speed, with no breaks. In football, we move our bodies in different ways, to different areas of the pitch, based on stimuli, such as where the ball is, where our teammates are, and where our opponents are. We're also communicating, thinking, and kicking the ball.
Is it fun? In sixteen years, across seven countries, I've never heard a kid be excited for fitness tests. I'm not saying there's not a time and place for it, but what I am saying is that the time and place is not in grassroots football. It's not a beneficial exercise, you're not doing anything with the data, it's not fun, and it's time they could be playing football and enjoying themselves (you know, the thing they signed up for).
Are we even measuring the right things?
We all know kids grow at different rates, right?... Right?! As in they're not the finished article? And some are going to be ahead of others because they are at different stages...? So are you measuring their stamina or are you measuring something else?
Have some of the kids had a long day at school and already had PE or played sport? Then you're not measuring stamina, you're measuring fatigue.
Many kids play different sports and for other teams. Some kids would have trained the night before too, while others would have had the night off. Are you measuring stamina or are you measuring their state of recovery?
Around adolescence, some kids hit growth spurts and begin turning into adults, other kids are still very much children. Are you measuring stamina or are you measuring puberty?
Kids can come from different backgrounds. The level of nutrition at home will vary from one household to the next. Due to parents' work schedules and sibling schedules, some kids may be able to get a good meal before training, and others wont. So are you measuring stamina or are you measuring socio-economic factors?
Despite how much you emphasise fitness, some kids just won't care, and will completely half-arse the exercises. Are you measuring stamina or are you simply measuring who can be bothered to appease the coach?
Having done the bleep test many times, and suffered the consequences of not hitting certain targets, some kids may start to figure out some strategies. If kids are punished for not improving their scores, some kids may decide to hold back during the initial test. Are you measuring their stamina or are you measuring their skills at strategising?
What should we do instead?
Play football. The same principles apply at all times;
Does it look and feel like football?
Do the things that happen in the game happen in the exercise?
Do the players make relevant decisions with realistic pictures?
Do the players get sufficient repetitions?
Do the players have a degree of autonomy instead of following a script?
Do the players have a way to win, score points, or be rewarded for the desired behaviour?
Do football to get good at football. Playing smaller sided games will mean more involvement and more intensity. When we have footballers come and play futsal, they are gassed after just three minutes. Not only is the fitness more specific to football than the mindless running of the bleep test, it's also actually fun. Which is the most important thing. Don't forget what is called "the hidden curriculum." For example, if you're working on passing within an opposed possession game, although your focus may be passing, other things are happening; controlling, moving, communication, defending etc. It's the hidden curriculum that provides context and realism to an exercise that allows for learning to occur.
Just like if you want to work on switching play, you have a wide area for there to be space wide to switch to. Or if you want to work on counter attack, you have space in behind the opponent to play into. When looking to improve fitness, whichever element you prioritise, the exercise must allow for it. Always remember the FITT principle; frequency, intensity, time, type.
Stamina - make the area larger and play for longer periods. The frequency of running is that players will likely not stop, while the intensity will be relatively low as a larger area encourages fewer sprints as players look to defend space. By increasing the time of the exercise, players have to work for longer.
Sprints - play a game that is 1v1, 2v2, 3v3, with plenty of vertical space to exploit, and work for shorter amounts of time. Perhaps even a wave practice, for example a 2v2 between three teams. When a goal is scored or the ball goes out of play, one of the teams is replaced. This allows players to have brief periods of rest, meaning that when they work, the intensity will be higher. Instead of number of repetitions, it becomes quality of repetitions.
When we do futsal practice, if we only have ten players, we do more stops. After seven minutes, the intensity drops significantly. When the intensity drops, players don't track as well, they don't think as quickly, they don't press as effectively, and therefore the challenges presented by the task of the game become too unrealistic for learning to occur. We have a long break, let the players recover, and then go again at game speed. If we have subs, and can play 5v5 from a pool of fourteen or so players, we can play the game longer, as players are able to be replaced, and therefore energy levels can be replenished.
If not bleep tests, what should be measured?
Smiles. Do they go home from your session with a smile on their face?
Sweat. Do they leave the session dripping in sweat?
Attention. Do they concentrate in the session because it's fun and they are engaged, or do they easily break concentration and focus elsewhere because it's boring?
Attendance. Do they turn up regularly, or do they make excuses and hardly show up?
Friends. Do they try to bring their mates along?
Concepts. Are they demonstrating the ideas you've been working on?
Risks. Do they feel empowered to try skills and take risks, or have you scared them?
It's often intangible, and hard to put a number to, but these are the things we should be measuring. A few weeks ago, a U13 grassroots goalkeeper told me 50% of their training time is running. Their coach made them show up every Saturday at noon for two hours of extra training, and the first hour would be running.
Why is a goalkeeper spending an hour running?
The girl struggled to take her own goal kicks. Is that not a bigger priority for a coach?
Why is a coach making kids train at twelve on a Saturday for two hours?
Why are parents buying into this?
A U12 girl at a local academy told me that her coach, the fitness coach of a local men's professional team, made them do lots of fitness drills. Half their session would be devoted to sprints. They'd do various goal line to halfway line sprints. And it was justified because clearly coach knows what she is doing, as she works for the local men's pro team. This U12 girl, on our camp, genuinely asked me for advice on how to kick the ball high. "How do I kick the ball and make it go in the air?" At eleven. At an academy. Training twice a week. With a coach from a pro team. The detail I was showing her was literally where to put her standing foot, which part of the kicking foot to make contact with, and where she needs to kick the ball. She had no idea that the direction of the standing foot largely determines the direction of where the ball is kicked. That is a shocking failure of an academy system. But the girl was tall, lean, very fast, and physically developed for her age. The way that some play football, that's all that matters. But my question is; how can she truly enjoy the game of football if she doesn't know how to play it?
So please. Delete the bleep test app from your phone. Get the balls out of the bag. Show them how to play football, and send them home smiling.