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Improving football for kids

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Gavin Strachan | 22:40 UK time, Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Hi, hope you are all well.

During a journey home from training last week, I listened to a radio debate on what age young players should start to play on a full-size pitch.The discussion centred on the fact that in local kids' leagues, lads start playing full-sided matches on full-size pitches when they are at under-11 level .

Having helped out with my little boy's under-eight's team, it is a topic I feel very strongly about.

After coaching the lads since the start of the season, it has become obvious to me that the key ingredient for them to improve is to have as much time with the ball as possible. I would be surprised if any youth coach disagreed. Unfortunately the switch to playing on a full pitch at such a young age runs contrary to this principle.

A former academy director told me that in an average kids' game on a full size pitch , most of the boys will get approximately 50 touches of the ball.This number is simply not enough for them to achieve a meaningful improvement.

To put this into some sort of context, we were told during a recent Notts County training session that you should aim to get 1,000 touches of the ball every day in order for us to improve technically.

I remember that when I first started playing at the age of eight - I was lucky if I got a touch (quite similar to now really!). The back four were so bored that the highlight of the game was the mud fight that took place between them when the ball was up the other end of the pitch.

Kids need to be involved in the play a lot more for them to get the maximum enjoyment and benefits from it.


When you actually consider the events that occur in an 11-a-side kids match on a full- size pitch, it becomes glaringly obvious that there is something wrong with the system.

For example, a goalkeeper, dwarfed by the full-size goal, has little or no chance of doing anything about a high shot. No less daunting for him are his efforts to clear the penalty box with his goal-kicks.

This is not easy for an 11-year-old, especially when you consider the vulture like opposition forward players hovering on the edge of box waiting for a mistake.

If it sounds like I am speaking from experience, I am. I started out as a goalkeeper and before anyone else suggests it, I know, maybe I should have stuck at it!

In games at this level, it is apparent that the biggest, strongest players - the ones who can kick the ball the furthest - are by and large the most effective ones. This is something that will always be an issue in junior football but the more emphasis we can place on skill and technique, the better chance we will have of producing better players.

Unfortunately, I also feel that the attitude of some of the parents is an obstacle to the progress of the players. Rather than wanting to hold the kids back from playing full-size games at such a tender age, they actively encourage it.

A friend of mine, who has a son playing at under-10 level, recently related a conversation with the parent of another boy in the team, who suggested that the lads should at least start playing friendly matches on a full-size pitch to get ready for under- 11 level. "That will sort the men out from the boys!" he said.

This is a perfect illustration of the kind of attitude that needs to be changed in order to bring about a sustained improvement in the quality of our kids' local leagues.

The part of the radio debate that I heard painted a fairly damning verdict on all junior football but I would like to point out that it is not all bad. In fact, from my experience, it is very good until that under-11 threshold.

For example, my little boy's under-eight`s team play seven-a-side games on small pitches, with small goals and rolling subs. It works really well. All the boys get their quota of touches and the games flow from end-to-end, with the emphasis on short passes and technique. Most importantly the boys enjoy it.

The good news also continues with the work being done at the various centres of excellence and academies up and down the country that are run by professional clubs.

The centre of excellence coach at Notts County , Mick Leonard, told me that although our boys start playing 11-a-side games at under-11, they are staged on smaller pitches.

This point was emphasised when I visited the Nottingham Forest Academy during the week - they had all sorts of pitch sizes, specifically catering for various age groups .

Obviously, cost can be a major issue when it comes to implementing such ideas outside professional football, but with the vast sums of money sloshing around in the Premier League and the FA, you would like to think that local football leagues would receive financial backing to fund new initiatives .

Youth football, and how it can be improved, is a complex subject. One of my own hobby-horses concerns the belief that the jump from playing seven-a-side on small pitches to 11-a-side on a full pitch is just too great for most lads. My own idea would be to have nine-a-side games up until the age of 14 on half a full-size pitch.

I would also continue with the idea of rolling subs as it keeps everybody involved, and gives the coach the option to try players in different positions and educate the lads on what the different roles entail.

You never know, the big lad at the back, who can kick it the furthest, might just have an eye for goal as a striker.

As always, I would welcome your views and any possible suggestions you may have.


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