The issues with the English game as I see them:
- Children are moving away from outdoors activities as a whole
- Children don’t enjoy 11 a side as much yet are being put into full size adult pitches from 13yrs old
- Direct football dominates every single level of grassroots football
- Pitch rental is pricing people out of the game
- Pitches are unplayable for significant chunks of the season at grassroots level
Pitch size and type
Currently we play 5 a side until 9, then 7 a side until 11, then 9 a side until 13, and 11 a side from then on. All of which are on grass pitches, where possible. I have personally never seen a youth league match played on an astro pitch. The result is that during winter you can easily go a month without a match, and it can be even worse during rainy months as the pitches need to be protected.
Grass pitches also favour a direct approach to the game, as hoofed balls are more easier to control in the opposition’s box. It also means more defensive errors, so defenders often want to get the ball away from them as quickly as possible. The grassroots game is meant to imitate the professional game as early as possible, but why? We’re not professionals, and even they struggle on cut up pitches. The risk of playing out from the back is nowhere near the potential reward, we don’t have the training time to practise neat possession moves to escape the press and take advantage, so we just end up bypassing it. Hitting and hoping.
Some of our current young English stars like Zaha and Sancho come from an environment very different to what we’re providing for kids. They played on estates, which the Americans would know as ‘projects’, where there was a single small general sports area in the middle of the blocks of flats. I’ve played in these games and they can be absolutely brutal. You have to earn the right to play. France has a similar environment in the Parisian banlieue, which has provided players like Mbappé and Dembele. We offer the opposite of this, a very adult-controlled environment where children are handed the ball instead of having to win it. They’re taught the importance of having to defend, but often the coach feeds them the ball to start the drill.
As a result, I would mandate smaller sided games up until age 16, and greater options for futsal and astro-based 7 a side from then on. The academies of professional and semi-professional clubs would be exempt, as they are providing a pipeline to the pro game. There are the occasional grassroots to professional success stories but they are so few and far between that I don’t think the current system can be said to be working.
I would also heavily favour funding the development of 7 a side astroturf pitches, which should hopefully reduce costs as you can fit 2 in the same space as a single 11 a side pitch, and they can also be used year round. I would also look to create a greater number of 2v2/3v3 pitches like this one. Small sided games also mean that players cannot sit back nor blame anyone else, they have to take responsibility for themselves.
I love the spectacle of the professional 11 a side, but it is so far removed from youth football that it’s not worth emulating. Children pretending to be adults don’t have as much fun as children who are allowed to be children.
In terms of coach education I would have a very simple mantra. ‘Start from the game and work backwards’. Lots of coaches try to replicate specific scenarios, for example the left winger dribbles through cones representing defenders, then has a shot at goal, or balls are continuously crossed for players to head in. This approach neglects the decision making and game reading aspect of football, and hinders transfer to the pitch. Speed of thought is one of the most important and most neglected skills in football.
Instead, I would work backward from the match itself. If I wanted to work on heading I might use a simple constraint, where headed goals are worth 10 but all other rules stay the same, and then use my interventions to help them achieve that. Or I might have unopposed wingers in the wide channels who played for both teams, in a 5v5+2 type game. So whenever one team has the ball, the neutral players are on their team, and they are unopposed in the wide areas so they can put a cross in.
The majority of coaches are volunteers working maybe an hour or two a week, who don’t have time to investigate all the different potential coaching styles, or go on all the courses. So the ‘work backwards from the game’ approach suits their needs. It also gives the players more autonomy, which is a large determinant of motivation.
The psychological approach would be vastly refined. Currently we have ex-professional players taking coaching courses and teaching psychology, which is inappropriate. Child psychology is very different to the sports psychology used with professional players. For all that we head about teams ‘wanting it more’ from pundits on TV, we don’t investigate what it means to any degree. Psychology would be a vital foundational skill for coaches at every level, and the psychological aspects of every coaching course would be delivered by a child or sports psychologist.
I would also mandate that every licensed coach had to complete CPD courses yearly. These courses would be focused on giving them ideas to adapt to their context, rather than directing them how to coach. As anyone who has been on a coaching course knows, some people will nod their heads throughout, then return to their club and do the exact same thing they were doing previously.
Again, most coaches are volunteers without high level playing experience. So an example CPD event might be delivered by a previous high level player talking about something they understand well, for example the role of the captain. Or a sports nutritionist talking about how to create a performance diet for your team without having a team chef. Or an academy director talking about players playing up or down an age group. As opposed to the current system where the same person delivers every aspect of a game that places physical, technical, tactical, psychological, and social demands on you.