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let the kids play ::

John Allpress, Football Association - England

Back in the 1960s when I took my first tentative steps into the world of sport, particularly football and cricket, we never had any coaching or adult supervision. We were luckier than most living in Hackney in the East End of London as it was one of the few inner city areas I know with plenty of grass Victoria Park, Hackney Marshes, Hackney Downs, Clissold Park and Well Street Common. This was where I played when we weren't playing on the bomb sites or fishing in the canal.

Games were interesting then. There were no team colours, nobody asked how old you were as long as you could play, you could play in as many matches as you liked and there might be any number of people in a team. The most important player was the one who owned the ball. You dropped into the game when you wanted, went home when you wanted and you played as often as you liked. It was a kids game run by the kids for the kids.

So what was so good about these games what was it that made them so special that kids went back again and again? Is the answer to this scientific? Were they good and productive learning environments? Could it be that players actually learn better from the confusion and chaos of playing and be best taught through the active nature of a game situation?? Is it because kids like to have fun, improve their skills by copying their friends, do something they are good at, be part of a team, group or gang and enjoy the challenge of playing with the bigger kids? Or is it just that there were no adults around to tell them what to do? The answer is probably a combination of all those things.

Kids rarely play out now. The streets and parks are regarded by parents as too dangerous.

Should the loss of these games matter to football development? After all they were a very crude affair, a kick about played on concrete, in a yard or, if you were lucky, on grass. The ball was usually plastic, or a tennis ball in the playground at school, with four coats, trees or markings on a wall for goals. Its replacement organised youth football is far grander and you would think much better.

Why then in May 2001 did Directors of Youth from top European Clubs including Manchester United, Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich issue a statement which said that the loss of street soccer was hurting youth development??

Could this statement actually lead us to the heart of the matter? Is it possible that for our very youngest players [i.e. those in the under-11 age range] the increasingly organised adult dominated coaching structures are squeezing out all the fun, spontaneity and creativity that evolved in street, playground and park games.

For me the key could be in the phrase adult dominated. In the games I played as a kid, adults were hardly significant at all. On Well Street Common adults weren't involved at all until the park-keeper came to chuck us off. When I went to secondary school we did have a teacher to take us to matches. However, he did not know or pretend to know much about football - his job was to give out the shirts. When I played for our school 1st XI the teacher knew more about the game but never imposed himself on us. He created a great atmosphere for us to play, and I can remember few formal coaching sessions led by him.

So am I making out a case for total anarchy? Of course not. We need well trained youth coaches and places where young players go to play that are safe and secure as those old days are not coming back. However, I am trying to make the case for greater understanding of the needs of our very youngest players especially those in the 8 to 11 age range, and the importance of creating the right environment for them to learn about the game.

I believe these are the questions we need to consider:

•  How can we encourage those people who deal with our very youngest players to be more imaginative and inventive and less prescriptive, directive and intrusive?

•  How do we create environments for our youngest players that are less predictable, where adult influence and involvement is kept to a minimum and the significance of mistakes in the learning process is understood?

•  How do we create environments for our youngest players that are less judgemental and less threatening, free of adult expectation and authority, where children can be children and play with a high degree of emotional freedom while learning the game and how it works?

If we can answer these questions I believe we can re-create what we have lost in street, playground or park football. The art of under-coaching is often under-valued. Kids LEARN to play the game by playing it so lets let the kids play more.

John Allpress
Football Association - England
Reprinted with permission from Inside™ Soccer
Dr. Javier Perez - Content Manager
European PhD, MPhil, MSc (Dist.), BSc (Hons) UEFA PRO Spain & UEFA A England
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