Equal playing time at youth level


Although the Charter Standard recognizes that ‘it is natural that winning constitutes a basic concern’ (FA 2003c, section 4) for clubs and coaches, the code was‘not intended to conflict with that’ but demanded ‘coaches to disassociate themselves from a “win-at-all-costs” attitude’ (FA 2003c, section 4). This was supported by the notion that clubs should not ‘in all activities, discriminate or in any way treat anyone less favourably’ for ‘the selection for teams’ (FA 2003c, section 8). However, this said, the Charter Standard documentation did not explicitly state that players must be given equal amount of playing time and stopped short of stipulating that teams should consist only of players of greater ability. Indeed, such stipulations were a ‘guide only’, which could not be rigorously enforced, and were designed to ‘persuade people that it is the right thing to do to provide opportunities for everyone at the club to play football regardless of ability’ (FDO Interview, 24 March 2006).


Where is the implementation in sport policy and programme analysis? The English Football Association’s Charter Standard as an illustration p. 16


But as we all know, the right thing to do doesn’t necessarily happen. All over England, youth clubs favour certain players, whether it’s the coach’s child, or their star player. The FA are unable to police every club and player and count their minutes, so they cannot mandate equal playing time. The assumption is that if a child is being sidelined at a club, they will either move teams or drop out, so the problem will solve itself. But that only solves the problem for the club, not the player who is marginalised and isolated.

What are the practical issues with unequal playing time?

Matches are a vital source of development for youth players, giving them the chance to make decisions under pressure with a meaningful outcome on the line, and to perform in front of spectators. Both of these factors help not only with their development as players, but as people also. There is an intensity to match day that is almost impossible to recreate in training, where the pitch seems half the size, and every mistake is magnified.

If your best players are getting more match time, they’re going to progress at a greater rate than your weakest players, who will get left behind. This will only increase the disparity in ability in your squad and make selection more difficult. If you’re promoted to a higher league due to the efforts of a few strong players, your weaker players will only struggle even more in that higher league. Your ability level as a team is the mean average of the ability level of the individuals within it.

Development does not happen in a linear fashion, and the best player at age six is not necessarily going to be the best player at age twelve. Certain qualities are also less evident at a young age, for example a seven year old with great concentration and patience may not stand out in the manic ball hunting that occurs in matches at that age group, but it will serve them well in a defensive or holding midfield role as a teenager.

Some qualities are better suited to the sort of football that occurs at younger age, for example a talented but selfish player can often dribble an entire team on the playground at seven years old, as the opposing team have no concept of defending as a team. However when that child grows up, that selfishness may lead them to dribble endlessly down dead ends, lose possession, and frustrate their teammates.

Similarly you cannot with any great certainty predict the adult physicality of a young player, even professional academies have to let players go for not being strong enough. Young children are relatively similar in physical ability, and their ability often stems from basic co-ordination skills, technical, and tactical ability. According to then head of youth development at Arsenal Liam Brady, they released Harry Kane on the basis that “he was a bit chubby, he wasn’t very athletic, but we made a mistake”. Clearly so.

Positional equal playing time.

I would go even further than advocating for equal playing time, I also believe players should spend significant amounts of time in different roles and positions within their team. Too often a child with less technical ability at a young age is pushed into a defensive role, or put in goal, and they never leave those roles. They’re told ‘not there!’ if they try to dribble, or never to pass across their own goal. They’re limited in ways that players further upfield aren’t, mainly in terms of opportunities to take risks.

Risks are where the learning happens. If a risk doesn’t pay off, you have immediate feedback about what works and what doesn’t. Further up the pitch, mistakes can be forgiven, but when a defender or goalkeeper makes one it often gifts the opposition a goal and draws the ire of parents, coaches, and teammates. So often they fall into an overly-cautious, risk-averse playstyle that forever limits them to playing at the back, hoofing away anything and anybody that comes close.

These roles demand individual sacrifice, concentration, and communication, skills that every player should be given an opportunity to learn. Too often responsibility is passed off, and a hierarchy emerges among teammates. Players begin to identify themselves not as footballers, but as positions. Sometimes my defenders will have a shot in training that goes wide and their excuse is “I’m a defender, I’m no good at shooting”. This is an example of a closed mindset, and a limit imposed on the player by our youth footballing culture.

I absolutely practice what I preach. My players spend roughly 50% of their time with me in their preferred position up to age 12, when they begin to specialise. We often rotate goalkeepers multiple times a match, and everyone who wants to have a go at it can do so without having to worry about getting shouted at, because I don’t allow it. Since having conversations with parents and teammates about the pressure we put on goalkeepers, we’ve all started being more supportive of them, and more and more outfield players have asked to have a go in between the sticks.

Rotating positions also gives insight into your teammate’s and opposing player’s experiences. Centre backs can learn how to better defend against strikers by playing as a striker themselves, and strikers can learn how to exploit defensive mistakes by playing as a defender. It can also develop empathy between your players, as they learn that goalkeeper can be a very lonely role sometimes, or that the striker needs to touch the ball often in order to feel involved.

Philosophy.

Grassroots youth football clubs exist to serve their communities, not the other way around. The only fans are the families of the young players involved. The success of the club is the success of the young players within it, and success can take many different forms. If a child develops a love of physical activity as a result of their experiences at a youth club, and participates in sports throughout their life, or ends up coaching themselves, that is a massive success for a youth club. It’s almost impossible to measure, which is why trophies mean so little at youth level.

The debate about playing time always comes back to the balance between development and competing. The idea being that you have to choose between the two. Advocates of unequal playing time often state that players stop engaging if their team isn’t competitive, however that reflects more on our youth football culture than anything else. The FA surveyed thousands of children on their motivations to participate in youth football, and a tiny percentage even mentioned winning. It’s a much bigger factor to adults than it is to children.

I’ve seen 7th division u11s teams pushing this line about staying competitive, using it as an excuse to not only sideline players and ultimately push them out of the sport, but also to play cynical, safety-first football. There’s no win bonus, let alone contracts, at that level. Bar maybe a dad buying his kid an ice cream if he scores. And the negative trade off is enormous.

Counter-arguments.

In the interests of fairness, I’ve welcomed differing views in recent weeks, inviting conversations with those who believe the opposite to myself. Some speak of a meritocratic environment, where players are rewarded for working hard with time on the pitch. Personally I’ve never felt that to be an issue at youth level. Children under 12 don’t tend to suffer from a lack of energy unless they are seriously disengaged, which I would suspect would stem more from the adults in their life than from some personal failing on the child’s part.

People have said that children won’t work as hard to get into the team if they feel their playing time is assured, but there are multiple motivations to work hard and that is only one of them. If a player feels part of the team and wants to support their teammates, they’ll work hard. If a player cares about their improvement as an individual, they’ll work hard. In my experience, people will work hard as long as they identify with the aim of the work, in any walk of life.

Some clubs preach a performance focus as building habits for personal excellence, using competition as a motivator and a measure of improvement. For children on the route to a professional contract, this may help them acclimatise to the often unfun world of professional football, but that route has a massive amount of drop out along the way. No Hunger In Paradise by Michael Calvin states that “Out of all the boys who enter an academy at the age of 9, less than half of 1% make it. Or a make a living from the game either”. Is it really worth winning the race to the bottom when it comes to professionalising children at younger and younger ages?

The only reason I would deny a child equal playing time to their peers would be for a behaviour infraction, or to manage an injury. In the first case, it is just to curb behaviours that will severely impact the experiences of the rest of the team, which isn’t fair on them.

Conclusion.

Youth football has the potential to create happy memories that will last a lifetime, but only if the player is given the opportunity to. Your identity as a player is wrapped up inextricably with your identity as a person, which is undeveloped in children. They can gain a huge amount of confidence from being the star striker at age 5, confidence which can give them a boost in every area of their life. The inverse is also true. A child’s parent was recently telling me that he wasn’t ‘sporty’, but that he was very intelligent, as if the two were exclusive. Everyone has the potential to be sporty, if only our sporting culture could encourage them.

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