“Can you do a Pogba or get a step-over in?” is bellowed to the apprehensive kid who bears down on goal with 20-yards between him and the out-rushing goalkeeper.
I’m watching an encounter between two under-9 academy teams, and the coach is challenging the young winger to “express himself” as the fledgling finds himself in a one-against-one situation. Having seen his attempt at a double step-over result in the ball getting away from him and into the grateful hands of the keeper, the disheartened 8-year-old is complimented for “being creative”.
The English national team have been given a hero’s welcome come from Russia just days before and the country is swept up in hysteria for football after Gareth Southgate’s men reached the final four of the 2018 World Cup.
The English FA are preaching a ‘patient, possession –dominant’ approach to academies, requesting that they ‘play through the thirds’ in the English DNA, yet the under-20 and under-17 World Champions, nor the senior team played anything like that brand of football.
In the 2017/2018 season, more than 28% of Premier League goals came from set pieces, and only three of Southgate’s men’s 12 goals in Russia came from open play.
Although the Three Lions impressed, England’s elimination resulted in the customary critics, and Chris Waddle was giving his bi-yearly cry for more creative players to be produced within the English system; but does the football culture and general lifestyle support that?
Gone are the days of one-two passes with lampposts and the conjuring up of methods to avoid crunching tackles from the biggest kid on the street, as a stunning majority of today’s youth choose to spend their leisure time indoors and online gaming instead.
According to the Office for National Statistics, children aged 8 to 15 years in the UK spent just over an hour (68 minutes) of their average day taking part in an outdoor activity (this includes break times at school) but how much of this will be without the shackles of rules and guidelines constructed by adults who are present?
An average day for a British child will start in their house and end in their house with school being the only other place they’ll go in-between. Apart from the journey to and from school (if they travel without a guardian) every single moment of the day will be spent within a controlled environment.
Even kids who go to clubs after school or on weekends will constantly be with grownups responsible for governing where they should be and what they should be doing.
If a coach is demanding a child to “be creative” then are we being realistic in expecting creative footballers to develop within this robotic way of living and coaching?
A nation that claims they have the answer to that question is Sweden. With a population of less than 10 million, the Swedish FA has reformed child and youth coach education in the hope of designing a model which enhances creative individuals. They have translated both national and international evidence-based findings into guidelines for coaches and coach educators. The emphasis is on the young person, their perspective, their learning, their development and needs.
“Children and young people who devote their heart and soul to football deserve responsible and knowledgeable leaders- We have high goals.” Urban Hammar (Swedish FA Head of Coach Education)
I travelled to the capital in order to speak with AIK Fotboll’s player and coach developer and educator Mark O Sullivan who is doing an embedded PhD at the Stockholm-based club that have taken the decision to remove any selection process up until the age of 13 in an attempt to ‘keep as many as possible playing and increase the development and promotion of players to their senior team as well as increasing the number of players in the under 16-under 19 section.’
“I don’t personally like the terms “academy, talent and product” when dealing with children. We’re developing human beings and what we’re doing here is just common sense.”The Irishman points out the behaviours and interactions they’re looking for as we watch 2 v 2 sessions take place in small grids with neutral players: “Look, he never looks at receiving the ball, he’s constantly focused on the information around him and what he’s doing next. It’s about the education of attention and external focus, and that’s what makes it more difficult for his opponents. You could just tell the kids to do it, but if you create the environment where they have to make the best decisions in the right places, that’s completely different!”
O Sullivan proudly shows me video footage of his youngest child taking his first steps “Look at his eyes; his focus is here. He’s looking at what’s out in front of him and where he needs to get to instead of what he’s doing. These are his first ever steps in life!”
He continues “How many England players could have brought Maradona down before he scored that famous goal? He was continuously adapting to what was going on around him. Muhammad Ali was the same; he was a genius. He understood time and space and knew where he was going and what he was going to do way before his opponents could react. He’d position himself an inch out of their reach.”
“If we deliberately design sessions with focus on information, keeping perception and action coupled, then the players automatically create and achieve great moments. Let the players direct the session by involving them and asking them questions such as “What’s more difficult to defend, a big or small space?” we observe what they’re doing next and why, and if you step in as a coach then you better add value!”
“All exercises and sessions are representative to games; the area sizes and number of players change, but there’s always information that simulates aspects of the game for players to discover and exploit. We want to develop players with a better understanding in the game, rather than just of the game.”
Following his session, youth coach, Alfred Johansson, joins the conversation and we immediately get onto the importance of freedom and creativity in kids playing on the streets. “That’s the only place where a child is 100% themselves. They made the decision to be there; there’s no organisation or rules on what they can and can’t do. They learn so much about themselves in that environment.”
He continues “If street football is fading away then we need to help the children find themselves. That maybe through various coaching methodologies like guided discovery or we can even mix into analytic styles, but the aim is to keep every child’s focus external and out in front of them.”
Can we teach a youngster whose favourite pastime is watching YouTube clips of somebody else playing a video game to possess the cunningness to unlock a stubborn defence? Can those creative traits be coached or are they just in the DNA and nature of an individual?
With every song, game and film available on demand, life is lived in the moment by the children of 2018. It is our responsibility to teach the virtues of ambition, determination and being strategic – but remember, they’re only kids.
By Alex Clapham