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  • Writer's pictureBFCN

Sorry, you can't play...

If so many grassroots teams are acting like academy teams, where do the rest of the kids play?

I find this to be a question worth asking more and more these days. Grassroots football in England is rapidly copying the pay-to-play model of American youth sports. We don't want that future. Kids are priced out of the game, everything is super serious, we lose so many kids from the sport, and very few actually enjoy themselves.

Before I go into detail, I feel it's necessary to preface this with a couple points. Online discussions appear to lack nuance, and the people that partake in them tend to look for point scoring against an opponent in the form of mental jousting, rather than two good-faith adults looking for solutions to realistic problems.

  1. The fact you know coaches or clubs who aren't like this does not mean it doesn't happen, and that it isn't an issue. Everyone anecdotally knows someone who smoked twenty a day since they were a teenager and lived a long, healthy life. There are always exceptions to the rule.

  2. Money isn't bad. Making a profit from the hopes and dreams of kids is the issue. Fields, equipment, insurance, licensing all cost money, and those costs need to be covered. My issue is the rest of it that we needlessly add on to drive the prices up.

Let's tuck in. I've just come back from an event. A fun day, where kids were able to run around, play different games, jump on a bouncy castle, take penalties, eat sweets, kick a ball at a speed gun. We were there to promote futsal. We set up a couple small pitches using our Bazooka Goals, invited in any kids that looked curious, and spoke to parents. The kids were having a great time. We didn't even have bibs or cones. It was like the olden days of yesteryear, where kids played in the park with their friends, only leaving when their parents dragged them off. These games started 1v1, but would soon be 3v3, or even 6v6. Kids came and went, and all they did was occasionally make new teams. Sometimes the kids saw a friend playing and ran straight over. Other times they were a little shy, so I'd intervene. "Boys, stop there! This is Jack. What team is he on?" The kids would look around, assess the teams, and then say "he's on my team, shooting that way." And the game would recommence.

Not one of them knew the score, although some tried to count. Nobody knew who won. Nobody was asking to stop playing so they could wait in line during a drill. Nobody asked if I could take them out the game and stand behind them holing up coloured cones while shouting at them to SCAN! or CHECK YOUR SHOULDER!

The parents were amazed. One pitch had a size two ball, the other had a size three ball. The kids just played. Within these games, they were passing, shooting, dribbling, tackling. They were also communicating, solving problems, taking charge, and managing the games. Some of the boys played for two hours. They would have scored around forty goals in that time. Think of how many passes, dribbles, or tackles they would have done in that time too. None of them knew if they were losing, and none of them cared. They would know if one team was dominating, and would soon readjust the teams. Kids don't tend to care about winning and losing as much as the parents and coaches do. They just want to play. They want the challenge to be about right, and they want to be included. Many of them showed a preference for playing on a weaker team if it meant they could be with their friend or sibling.

Don't get me wrong, it was competitive. There were tackles flying in, there were celebrations, but all this was happening without there being a plastic trophy at stake. Without coaches screaming motivational slogans at them. Without dad promising his son a tenner as a goal bonus. The lesson is; if it's fun and engaging, kids will care and will try hard. Football, if done right, doesn't need any of that.

While talking to the parents, there were a few common themes.

"It's nice to get them outdoors and off their phones or consoles."

I've always said to parents who complain about their kids playing video games for too long; "Who bought the games?" I also say the best way to get kids to stop playing video games is to play with them. Adult involvement is corny and uncool. Become too involved and start to takeover, and your kid will miss the independence. There's nothing inherently wrong with video games, but like a lot of things in life, they have to be used in moderation, and with a healthy balance of activity and exercise. But why is it kids play video games? Why are they so successful?

Autonomy: the kid is the character. They move up, down, left, right, backwards, forwards, quick or slow. It's down to them, what they see, and what they decide. Too many coaches and parents take that autonomy away from the kids.

Challenge: most video games come with a difficulty level, which can be adjusted based on the ability level of the player. The difficulty level always increases as players progress. Complete a level, the next level is harder. It can't be too easy, and it can't be too difficult, as both are boring, and kids will give up. Plenty of U10 coaches enjoy a double figures win on a weekend morning to provide some value to their lives, but the kids on both teams will have been bored to tears.

Engagement: a video game never makes a kid wait their turn before they can play. A video game never gives a kid ten minutes at the end because they don't want to risk a weak link coming on and maybe losing the game for us. The players are always engaged and always involved. We cannot say the same for youth football.

While we were playing, we had kids aged 5-11 on the same pitch. How was this possible? For one, the attitude of the kids allowed it. By not having a hyper-competitive environment, it didn't mirror the exclusive attitude prominent at so many youth clubs. Due to the lack of external pressure, the environment was inclusive. All kids were welcomed in by other kids. Probably the most important thing was the constraints. Small goals meant the big kids couldn't just smash it and hope for the best. Small pitches meant that it was not a game of speed, which naturally the kids closer to puberty would dominate. It meant the spaces were small and enclosed, turning the game into one of skill, intelligence, creativity, and deception.

"Are there any trials or anything?"

No. Why would there be? I was having tales told to me of U8 players being turned away from clubs. "He's not good enough" or "we're full." I struggle with this. Sure, grassroots clubs are volunteer run organisations, and sometimes they're at full capacity. And sometimes there are situations where perhaps a team doesn't suit a particular player due to ability level. But I don't think this is all the time, and I believe much of it is motivated by coaches living out their Premier League cosplay. The kid won't help them win the local U10 youth league division three, so the kid is turned away.

Many grassroots clubs have multiple teams at any given age group. There will be space somewhere. However, these are not run as clubs in the way we think of. Instead, they are a collection of teams, all out for themselves, with the only link being that they wear the same kit.

Let's say you're the division two coach, and a boy has turned up, who is clearly below the level, at the end of the session, you should be on the phone to the division four coach. But this rarely happens. Because they are a collection of teams, not a club.

"How much does it cost?"

Parents shouldn't be asking this question. Unfortunately, they know so many clubs where the costs have risen so high that they are prohibitive. Like I said before, money isn't bad. The problem is when kids are charged a fortune, and that money goes on unnecessary extras, rather than covering the costs of the session.

This is one of the issues coming from America. At many of the clubs in St. Louis, kids were spending $200 - $400 on kit alone.

Full Adidas home kit

Full Adidas away kit

Full Adidas training kit

Adidas Jacket

Adidas Hoodie

Adidas Tracksuit bottoms

Adidas Winter coat

What do kids actually need? A home shirt and an away shirt. Those are the only things that are an absolute necessity. And the kits would last for just the one season. So the parents would have to fork out all over again next year. Why? Because money!

When I tell them our sessions are usually around £4 an hour, they can't quite believe it. Using rough maths, halls are around £30-£40 per hour for kids. You need around ten kids for a session. You want to make a little extra as there's equipment to buy, and you have to pay for many of the sessions up front. However, we're talking a few quid, not the fortunes many are charging.

"Does he have to buy any training kit or anything?"

No. We're not an academy. And if we were, you'd be provided with the kit for free. There are so many of these "academy" teams round here. One in particular does training KIT, not just training shirts, and all tops are initialled. There's a private training coach in the area who makes kids wear his branded t-shirts for his sessions. Brings his personalised rebounders and personalised mannequins out of his branded van. If I were a parent, I'd prefer he spent that money on a DBS, safeguarding course, and a coaching license, but he's made his choice not to, and we live in a free country.

"He's not very good. Does that matter?"

No. Kids are allowed be shit. Everyone deserves to play. It feels like more and more, youth clubs are only catering to the higher end of player, as if only they matter. If kids aren't very good at football, not only is it not typically their fault, but it's also something we shouldn't be holding against them. But clubs these days love to chase the dollar, and find they can get more money for less work when they start to use worlds like "elite" and "academy."

It's so upsetting that parents are being conditioned to think like that. That these questions are necessary. The paradigm is shifting. Football is becoming a game only for those who can afford it, and clubs are only admitting kids that can help them get results. If you fancied yourself as a coach, you'd take the weaker player, and you'd find a way to help them develop. But what I'm seeing now is that most coaches aren't coaches, they're poachers. They scout and recruit. It's lazy and it's destructive.

This graphic from Believe Perform shows what is consistent all over the world. Kids like winning, but in terms of a priority, it's quite far down the list. It's not the main reason to play, and in most cases, they're okay if they don't win very often. Conversely, things like pressure and emphasis on winning, adult constructs, are often cited as reasons why kids quit.

Several parents were telling me how their boy loves football, but doesn't play it anymore. The kid would quit the team because he didn't like the shouty, aggressive coach, didn't get enough game time, and training was fun. A few told me that their boy was smaller, and would therefore be left behind or even hidden by the coach when playing on bigger pitches, which to me is a constraints issue. We go big too soon and play a version of football that deselects shorter, less developed children.

With minimal adult interaction, the kids were doing this for hours...

It's not football the boys don't love...

They were loving it. Two teams, two goals, one ball. They didn't care about kit. They didn't care who was winning. They weren't asking for adults to step in and tell them things. They managed the ability levels themselves. They didn't turn any kids away. There were supposedly two games going on side by side, with one for bigger kids and one for smaller kids, but some kids would often switch from one to the other and back again. Some kids would run off and play on the bouncy castle for a bit, or sit out and eat some sweets if they needed a break. But this was football. Pure and beautiful. As coaches, we are custodians of the game. Don't ruin that. Take your position seriously. Foster that love for the game. And never, ever be the reason a kid quits football. You should never be a kid's last coach.

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