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This content is taken from the University of Birmingham & The Football Association (The FA)'s online course, Youth Football Coaching: Developing Creative Players . Join the course to learn more.


“Everything I have achieved in football is due to playing in the streets with my friends.” Zinedine Zidane

“Whenever I find a player I like, I ask how he started in football and if he says ‘The Street’, I know he means 5-a-side and I instantly know he understands how to defend, keep the ball, pass the ball and finish. If combined with good vision and understanding, he will have all the technical tools to be a top player.” Arsene Wenger

If play is viewed as a valuable part of development and not seen as time wasted then we will harness its true potential. When coaching young players, play should be seen as the time when they are encouraged to innovate and improvise. It should be seen as a time for fun and enjoyment and be included because of the progress and learning that is possible when players are highly intrinsically motivated and fully engaged in the activities. We also want to produce coaches who are flexible, adaptable and creative so they can engage with play in such a way that benefits all our players.

In 2017, The FA will launch a more detailed volume of content as part of the DNA for Foundation Phase coaches and players. In the article below, Pete Sturgess, who has been leading the development of this content, highlights the significant role that play has on the development of young players and creativity.

1. Deliberate Play

Characterises a form of sporting activity that involves early developmental physical activities that are; intrinsically motivating, provide immediate gratification and are specifically designed to maximise enjoyment (Cote, 1999).

These might be arrival activities that the children engage in where they set the rules, decide the activities or take part in activities set out by the coach. They are also the times when the players are encouraged to express themselves and try things without fear of criticism. Street football with friends and other informal, un-structured opportunities fall into this category and should be encouraged.**

2. Specific pedagogical games designed to improve performance (TGfU, Game Sense)

These might be the small number game formats with a specific tactical or technical focus. Rules and conditions might be applied in order to increase the repetition of certain aspects and the coaching methodology is player centred and includes time for questions and exploration relating to the “problem” the game has posed.**

3. Structured practice activities typical of organised sport.

These might be the small number formats that challenge players by manipulation of numbers, space, task and equipment.**

4. Deliberate practice activities (Ericsson, 2003)

These activities are designed to improve a specific aspect of a player’s game. They are concentrated, may not be enjoyable and involve feedback and adjustments of a small, specific nature.**

If we understand how to construct our activities so that they appear ‘playful’ to the players but are bringing returns in all 4 corners of development, then progress will be possible. To do this the role of the coach and the approach taken when coaching the young players may be different from how it may have looked in the past.

Some activities will be conducted with the coach adopting a withdrawn yet observant role. This will encourage players to make their own decisions and play with a freedom knowing that help and advice is on hand when needed. This is not poor coaching or bad practice. This is showing an understanding of what can be gained by giving more ownership and responsibility to the players.

However, this will be balanced off with coach led activities to promote the development of ball manipulation abilities and the important ABC’s of physical literacy. The coach in this phase must know how to facilitate and promote learning as well as offer the right piece of advice at the right time to each player.

Connecting back to Week 2, Futsal is the perfect game to embrace the notion of play, freedom of expression and enjoyment. As the street games and informal “pick-up” games of the past continue to disappear, the rise in the popularity of the game of Futsal could not be more timely. The game is organised and formal yet playful and informal. The game is too fast-paced for the coach to play every pass and influence every decision. It is the perfect game for young players to develop autonomy in their decision making, whilst facing a challenge in all aspects of their development.

Some potential discussion points

  • The coach’s use of coaching styles and their help or hindrance in the learning process. Telling v guiding v leaving. Short term success v long term learning.

  • Importance of play, purposeful practice, having a go and trial and error

  • Importance of players being provided the opportunity to solve problems.

  • The importance of knowing your players

  • How do we treat the slow burners? Do they get the same opportunity and playing time as the early learners?

  • If we want to develop players who are learning ‘sponges’ who can think for themselves, then how does this impact on the approach that we take?

  • There is a strong emotional attachment/response to learning new things. Resilience is a fundamental skill for learning so if we only focus on mistakes then the experience can become negative.

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This article is from the free online course:

Youth Football Coaching: Developing Creative Players

University of Birmingham