Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Constraints in children's football

"We didn't need a proper pitch, goalposts, kit, people to coach us; we threw down coats, played chaotic football in our street shoes, sharpening ball control and decision-making. All the greats will have known that experience, Matthews on the streets of Stoke, Pele growing up on the dusty roads of a railway junction in Brazil, Maradona in a deprived area of Buenos Aires. In this country, street football has long since disappeared. In its place we have a system that simply doesn't work well enough."
John Cartwright

Do constraints in the informal game help with football development?

The informal game that was played on the streets, parks and in the playgrounds by children of previous generations and to a lesser extent this generation, had many constraints in terms of where the game was played, the number, age and ability of the players and the equipment available.
Do these constraints help to produce the basics that are needed to develop more imaginative and creative players with good touch?
Is it beneficial that we bring some of these constraints into a more formal football environment?
The intention of this article is to challenge coaches to think out side the box and consider some more unorthodox methods.

In informal children’s football there are many geographical and social variants that play a part in shaping an individual. For example, would George Best of been the same player if he was born on a farm miles from anywhere rather than on an estate with hundreds of other children?

Places to play
The informal game can throw up a variety of playing surfaces including grass, concrete, tarmac, dirt, cobbles and Red Gra.
Often there were obstacles to avoid and dribble round.
Alan Hudson, the former Chelsea and Stoke mid-fielder played on a council -owned play area locally know as 'The Cage'.About the size of a 6 a side pitch which was gravel, strewn with broken bottles - good balance and courage were critical.

As a boy Hudson supported his local team Fulham and proudly wore their shirt during these kick-abouts. He was very particular about his clothing and was very careful to dribble around or chip the ball over any muddy puddles.Also all the other boys were bigger than him so he needed to be able to 'play' to compete.

Dave Ramzan the founder of Invicta Valiants, a football club for children with disabilities, based in Kent, gives an insight into some very varied pitch locations when he played as a boy.
“Although never playing football to a very high standard, we did play football back in the late 60's in some very odd places. In the holds of empty Thames river barges, under a motorway on a huge enclosed ramp holding up the road (it was very dark) and on bomb sites that were still plentiful during the 50's and 60's.
On many occasion we went down with twisted and skinned ankles after tripping over a brick sticking up out of the playing surface.
Street football was played on a cobbled street down by the river Thames, where the goal areas were the kerbs on each side of the street, and goals were marked out in chalk on the brick walls behind. On many occasions we would play on grass in Greenwich Park until dark, having to climb over the high fence after closing, then being chased off by the ‘Parkie’ (park keeper)."

Denis Begrkamp, the Arsenal and Dutch legend claims playing in the street helped the way he played.
“We played on stones. If you fell down, you hurt yourself, so you get your balance right. The first touch has to be right otherwise the ball bounces away.''

The great Pele believes that playing on a poor surface enhances player’s skills.
I started playing on the street. Where I lived, the street wasn’t paved.
We used to play against kids from another street which was a little better than ours. Ours had rocks and holes, so we had the advantage.
A rough pitch helps a player to learn the skills.”

Number and ages of players
The number of players and the ages of those players varied enormously. You often had your close friends that you played with on a daily basis in the school playground or close to your home. Then perhaps at the weekend you would all go to the local park and play with other groups of children, perhaps ten or twenty aside.
The great Hungarian player, Puskas played hour after hour with his eight best friends on a bumpy pitch, barefoot and with a ball made from rags.
They played 5v4 with the two best players and the two worst on the team of four.
Then of course the weather was a factor for how many would turn up.
“I’d make for a piece if waste ground opposite our house where the boys from the neighbourhood gathered for a kick about. Coats would be piled for posts and the game of football would get under way. In fine weather it would be as many as 20 a side, in bad weather a hardened dozen or so made six a side.”
Stanley Matthews

Spurs coach Harry Redknapp states the case for games where many children played and how it helped dribbling skills.
“I feel there is a lack of talent coming through. Growing up, all we did, and all we knew, was football. We played on the estate every night until it was too dark. They are spending more money on grass-roots football, but I feel kids would get more out of playing with their mates four hours a night, 14 a side, so that when you got the ball you had to dribble it, otherwise you might not get it again for 10 minutes.”

The interesting thing here again is variety.
Ex-West Ham striker, Paulo De Canio explains how a large group of children playing in a small space gave him his characteristic dribbling style.
“From a technical standpoint, I couldn’t help but improve my skills. Anybody can trap and control a ball on a picture-perfect billiard table smooth pitch. But where I played, you had to learn how to control the ball no matter what, regardless of whether it bounced off the rubbish or skidded along the gutter. I learned how to dribble up steps, how to run non-stop for hours (there was no such thing as ‘out of bounds’) and how to thread my way through tight spaces (we played eleven-a-side on a pitch which would have been tight for a five-a-side). I guess much of my close control and dribbling ability originated on the Stenditoi”

What no bibs?
In the school playground every child is normally dressed in some kind of uniform such as a grey jumper or school sweatshirt. In kick-abouts in the park, the children normally wear their favourite team’s shirt, which make for a whole host of different colours on both teams.
With the lack of team identification, do children play with their head up more and is there greater verbal communication to compensate for the lack of bibs or team shirts?
Should we introduce some games in structured club practice sessions without the use of bibs?
Ernie Brennan, a grass roots coach in Kent had made some interesting observations at his team’s session.
“The under 14s boys I coach play a period in match training with no bibs. Initially I thought it would be good to raise another problem for them to solve and considering they play this format at school break time I was interested to see if they were anymore responsive in terms of movement. When played in the club coaching environment it works a treat. Subliminally, I think they naturally revert back to the school play ground format because their awareness was much sharper and movement off the ball was far more instinctive. I introduced a similar session to the under 14s girls and to create an additional problem I imposed a verbal communication ban. The outcome brings a multitude of problem solving ideas. The players start to read body language, senses are more alert and an alternative form of awareness and communication kicks in”

The ball
In formal junior football the rules are a size 3 ball for U7s and U8s, a size 4 ball from U9s to U14s and a size 5 ball for U15s and above.
Players from around the world have always been very creative when trying to find a ball to play with. Because of cost and accessibility, often balls were home made using rags, folded up socks or paper and tape.

Arguably the most skilful player of all, Maradona played with a variety of objects,
“If I was sent on an errand I would take with me anything that resembled a ball: it could be an orange, or scrumpled-up paper, or cloths. And I would go up the steps on to the bridge that crossed the railway, hopping on one foot, the right one, and taking whatever it was on the left, tac, tac, tac…That’s how I walked to school as well.”

In the UK the humble tennis ball was used by earlier generations, It could be tucked in a pocket and dribbled to and from school. In Scotland it produced a generation of ‘tanner ball players’. Many professional players thought that playing with a tennis ball improved their touch.

The great Sir Stanley Matthews reflects on his childhood.
In those days everybody wanted to be a footballer and play for his local team.
I used to practise often against a wall with a tennis ball, not a big ball because we couldn’t afford it in those days. And because it was a small ball it improved my ball control.”

Another England legend, Jimmy Greaves, takes it even further.
“It wasn’t ideal but, looking back, those games with the tennis ball really helped develop my ball skills. The size of the tennis ball meant that I had to concentrate when it was at my feet. When shooting, I had to hit it just right, otherwise I might not make contact at all. As a consequence, my foot to eye coordination improved immeasurably and my general ball technique came on in leaps and bounds. When I came to play for the school with a proper leather football, I found making contact with the ‘sweet spot’ relatively easy.”

Denis Law also made use of the little ball on his way to school.
“We would play on the way to school with an old bald tennis ball – or a tin can if we didn’t have a ball – knocking it off the walls as we progressed, and then back home again in the afternoon. It was good practice for control and balance, because we usually had our school bags over our shoulders. The game we played was called ‘Three Lives’ We’d knock the ball against the wall and pick up the return. It was quiet tricky because you had to flick it the side and beat your opponent. It demanded close control, not to mention the ability to avoid various obstacles on the street, some of them left by the local dogs.”

Jackie Charlton did his best to conjure up a proper ball, but even he had to admit defeat and go back to the ever dependable tennis ball.
“For some reason or other, I ended up with the leather case of a ball – how I got it, I don’t know – but, unfortunately, I didn’t have an inner tube to go with it. A man told me that if I could find a pig’s bladder, it would do the job fine – but the butcher’s of Ashington looked at me as if I’d two heads when I told them what I wanted. So instead we learned our trade with tennis balls, like so many others did at the time. We played with tennis balls going to school, in the schoolyard, played with them on the way home, headed them against walls, had competitions in the street, five against five, ten against ten, twenty against twenty depending on how many wanted to play. I used to play with my brother Bob across the front yard at home, between the two brick walls, using the doors where the coal got delivered as our goalposts."

The ex-Leeds winger Eddie Gray didn’t even have the luxury of a tennis ball.
“Conventional balls, even tennis balls, were banned in the concrete jungle that was our playground – it was bang in the middle of the school buildings, framed by high walls with windows on all sides – so we had to make do with balls comprising a rolled up piece of paper inside a sock. The bonus was that if you could consistently achieve mastery of the ball in such circumstances, you had good cause to feel that you could do it in any circumstances.
After a while, my control of the ball – first touch, dribbling and passing – was something that I took for granted. I felt comfortable on the ball in most areas of the pitch.”

Do coaches kill creativity?
There are of course many fine coaches in the game, but also plenty of bad ones.
At an early age they can put a child off football and there is a case for young players to feel their own way into the game.

“Although I was attached to Juventus from the age of nine years, much of my development took place in the streets. It was there that I practiced and refined my 1 v 1 skills,”
said Roberto, who won seven championships for the “Old Lady” of Turin and represented Italy on 42 occasions. What troubles Roberto, who played alongside Michel Platini, Paolo Rossi, Zbigniew Boniek and other icons of the game, is the dominating style of many youth coaches. With the passion of a street fighter, he added:
“Young players need some time for self-expression, for spontaneity. Their coaches need to watch and listen more and instruct a little less”

Eddie Grey adds;
“These informal kick- abouts were a perfect way for boys to develop their ball skills. Things are different now. There is plenty of organised football, but whether those who supervise teams at schoolboy and youth levels give their players enough encouragement and freedom to play is another matter.
It is a question of learning to play before they learn to compete, and not the other way around.
Andy Roxburgh, the Scottish Football Association’s former Director of Coaching, sums it up best when he talks about the importance of player-development programmes that replicate the street-football culture.”

University study
Many of the examples on here are far removed from the proper game, eleven a side on a specified pitch size, but these constraints produce some very interesting results and opinions from both top players and grass roots coaches alike. Is variety key to development?
A recent study by Liverpool John Moores University found that “The Youth Academy players that went on to attain professional scholarship status at 16 years of age had accumulated significantly more hours in football specific playful activities (street football/free-play) between the ages of 6 and 12.
This was in addition to their normal Academy training

Should we be looking to condition more structured club session games to try and recreate some of these constraints that appear in street football/free-play?
Paul Cooper
07875 283093

Monday, 26 July 2010

A Simple Game Part 2

“Simplicity is genius” - Bill Shankly

Pass & move
Manchester United legend Paddy Crerand tells a story about how every time Sir Matt Busby got together with Bill Shankly to talk about football, they would discuss it in such a simple way that any six year old listening could of easily understood what they were talking about.
The Liverpool way, ‘pass and move’ was built on a simple passing game that was honed by playing hours of five a sides and adapted small sided games. Shankly first experienced this playing with his fellow miners in his home village of Glenbuck. The village, which had a population of less than a thousand inhabitants managed to produce an incredible 50 professional players over 50 years.
Brian Hall, one of two players, along with Steve Heighway who were scouted by Shankly playing at their University, compared the learning he did at University with his experience at Liverpool’s training ground ;
“I spent 21 years of my life being educated and going from 1+1=2, to x+y=6 and then onto vector spaces and quantum theory. The higher up the educational ladder I got the more complex it became, but at Melwood they turned that philosophy upside down. The football teaching became less complex the further up I got. The game is essentially a very simple one."

Shankly was certainly not the first coach to adopt the ‘pass and move’ style. After the end of the 2nd World War the great Spurs coach Arthur Rowe had great success with his ‘push and run’ team.
It was all about passing the ball and then moving to create an angle, to find some space and keep the ball.

Adapted Games
Playing lots of games in training was great fun for the Liverpool players and Shankly would adapt the games to bring out the necessary training. For fitness and speed he had players play 3v3 on a pitch 45 x 25 yards. Players who could only last about five minutes were soon playing for thirty. When Shanks wanted players to work on their first touch he would have them play 5v5 on a small pitch so that they had to control the ball in an instant.
In Stephen Kelly’s biography of the great man he writes;
“Just about every morning whether it was wind, hail, rain or snow, he would slap a player on the back and say ‘Great to be a live, boys, all you need is the green grass and a ball.”

The emphasis on the 5 a sides were creativity and skill, but if some players were struggling there was always Shanks and his team of coaches on hand with some words of wisdom. Emyln Hughes explains further;
"People missed what it was all about. They would just see us do a bit of jogging then go straight into small groups for games of 5-a-sides, or maybe a bit of ball work. They never saw the little things that we were doing, teaching the players when to pass, how to move into space. Sometimes players would be corrected for passing to someone who was marked for instance. I was blessed as a player, I found it easy but some didn't and they had to be taught."
Small details made a difference. For example he would use cricket stumps for goal posts as he knew there would be lots of arguing as to whether it was a goal or not. It made it competitive and passionate.
John Barnes
Shankly legacy was passed on down through subsequent managers, Paisley and Fagin who were both coaches under him and Kenny Dalglish. John Barnes who played under Dalglish found the philosophy had not really changed; even years after Shankly had left the club.
“Liverpool practiced small-sided games every day and it was high-intensity stuff. We used to do a very light warm-up, jog around the field a couple of times to loosen the limbs, do a few stretches, put the cones down for goals and then go into five-a-side or eight -a-side.
It was the same every single day. There was no tactical work, none whatsoever. All the strategic stuff was done within the small sided games. Liverpool believed that everything we faced in five-a-sides would be encountered again on match day. That was why the five-a-sides were so competitive. Liverpool’s training characterised Liverpool’s play – uncomplicated but devastatingly effective.”
“Practising on smaller pitches, Liverpool were always going to play a short-passing game. We only trained with small goals so there was little long-range shooting. We passed the ball until we got close enough to score. The philosophy centred on passing, making angles and one-touch football.”

Spanish Lessons
Real Madrid coach, Manuel Pellegrini while at Spanish club Villarreal, was interviewed in the Champions magazine. Here he he explains his philosophy and why they never play 11v11 in training, but how all his tactics are worked out in small sided games of 5v5.
In an eleven- a-side practice game, a full back will intervene against a winger an average of seven times. In ‘reduced- space’ football, they intervene 14 times and in a shorter time span. A striker in a practice game will have, on average, seven clear scoring chances; in ‘reduced’ football it is 30.”
The small sided game has all the ingredients of the eleven aside except the involvement is so much more concentrated. The players both attack and defend and are always involved in the game.
Back to Shankly in Liverpool, when he was not at the club he would often be outside playing football with the local kids. They would knock on his door and ask him out for a game. When Patrick Collins from the Daily Mail rang to ask for a quote, Shankly’s wife Nessie told him that he was out playing, Collins asked for how long and Nessie simply replied,
“Until he’s won of course!”

“We built Liverpool's training on exhaustion and recovery with little areas of two-a-side, three-a-side and five-a-side in which you work like a boxer, twisting and turning. Training was based on basic skills, control, passing, vision, awareness."
Bill Shankly

Paul Cooper

07875 283093

A Ball and a Wall

“I also played about 500,000 games of ‘Spot’ against the front wall of the house. You had to hit a particular spot and if you missed you got a letter and started to spell out the word ’Spot’ You were out when you finally got the ‘T’.”
Phil Thompson – ex Liverpool & England
It is important that children learn the game, not just at organised training sessions but also on their own. Training sessions cannot be a substitute for the fun we had as kids with a ball and a wall, for that is where you learn about yourself and indelibly stamp your own identity of the player you want to be

After the battle of Waterloo in 1815 when the Duke of Wellington’s allied army defeated Napoleon, the Iron Duke uttered the immortal words, “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”

Fast forward some one hundred and fifty years and another English legend, Sir Bobby Charlton said of England’s one and only football achievement, “The World Cup wasn’t won (in 1966) on the playing fields of England. It was won on the streets.”

This probably says more about the class system than anything else, but at least it got the same result for the country albeit with vastly contrasting tactics.

The 1966 side won the Jules Rimet trophy playing a 4-3-3 formation, (Sir Alf’s wingless wonders) where as the 1815 squad won it using a few more players, in fact some 55,000 infantry, cavalry and cannon.Playing fields v the streetsThere is a point to all this waffle and I know only too well that I have managed to bore many coaches who have logged onto the website’s discussion forum about the sorry demise of street football and the fact that all the greats in the game, Pele, Maradona, Zindane and Cruyff all learnt their trade on the streets and were polished and finished off on the playing fields of pro clubs. Children still practice on their own and play street/playground football, but nowhere near as much as the last generation.

There is only so much you can do at group training, even if you have a ball per player and lots of small-sided games and touches. Then when they are older and you are doing more tactical work, they will spend less time on the ball.

An hour a day keeps the defender away
It is often said that after the golden age of learning, which I think is up to about 14 or 15 years of age, the improvement in technique from then on is negligible, codswallop!

I am over half a century and my technique is better now than when I played (admittedly at the very, very bottom of the playing pyramid) because I touch the ball more now, with the odd kick about at training with the boys, staff football games, with my son and doing demos.

My son is fifteen and over the last couple of months he has gone alone to a nearby car park for a minimum of an hour a day, nothing new there, but he does what he wants to do, with his favourite music playing through his ear piece. I would say that he has improved more as a player in these last couple of months than over the last three years. And it is not just his touch that has improved, but also his speed, his power, his co-ordination, his vision, his accuracy, his balance, he has quicker feet and naturally his confidence has grown.

Of course I would expect him to improve but not by so much.I think the key is not just the amount of touches but also that every single movement and every single touch is created because the player wants to do it that way. There are no interfering coaches, showing a better way and also no judgemental remarks from teammates. Everything is off the cuff and helps the player understand who he is and stamps his own individuality as a player away from both the team and coach. Sure football is a team game, and that is the part he learns on the playing field.

If you give a child a ball and a wall he will inevitably make up his own games, whether it be, knock it against the wall with the right foot, one bounce and then against the wall with the left foot and so on. If there is a wall behind as well, it could be volleying a ball against the wall, taking the return with the thigh before flicking it over your head and volleying the ball before it bounces, shooting style, against the other wall, perhaps while you are listening to your favourite music on the ipod, be it The Who, Britney Spears or Perry Como, whatever takes your fancy and whatever works for you.

There are countless games and little drills you can make up, the important thing is you make them up yourself and use your imagination, a word that has all but disappeared from the football language.

Creating the atmosphere
So what can you do as a coach to encourage your players to practice individually, away from the playing field?

It is too negative just to set some homework and tell the kids if they don’t do it they won’t improve.
The first thing is to create an atmosphere and culture of experimentation and creativity. Make it fun, make it beautiful, and make this game mystical. Yes we need to know about the 4-4-2 and the 4-3-3 and closing down an opponent but equally we must talk about the soul and rhythm of our beautiful game.

Because of you and the experiences they have with you as a coach, the kids should want to get hold of a ball at every opportunity and dash outside. You can also help practically by perhaps once a week taking any interested kids, never force them, to a car park or somewhere that is safe and has a wall, the outside of a prison is pretty good for that, (joke). Sit in your car, put on the stereo and play your latest CD, sit back and watch the magic show unfold and you will see your players as you have never seen them before

"When I played football," he says, "I just played. I didn't think about it. I found it easy. I taught myself how to play, knocking a ball about, up against a wall. You never see anybody doing it now.
Stan Bowles – QPR & England

Paul Cooper

07875 283093

Friday, 23 July 2010

Player turned coach

“I am grateful to my father for all the coaching he did not give me.”
Ferenc Puskas

Apart from having kids my life has been a bit of a disaster. Failure at school and jobs I disliked has taken their toll. Playing football ended in a goal mouth scramble in a Reading Combination second division game when my manhood came under swift, clinical surgery from their centre forward’s size elevens.
Watching football was a poor substitute and the childhood memories had begun to fade.
When my son was six he became interested in football and we began to kick a ball around together. When I saw an article in the paper that the local football club where looking to start a junior section, I immediately offered my help.

Within a short time I and a young mum of one of the other boys were running the juniors. We hadn’t a clue what we were doing but agreed that as long as we put the children’s fun first, we couldn’t go far wrong.

We made it up as we went along - everybody pitched in and we all had a great time.
I became a coach for the under sevens and took my FA level two coaching badge. Despite some fantastic people, the course could not be further from my experiences playing football with my friends all those years before.
If this was the way forward, the children’s game was in trouble.

The young mum was great at organising trips and we had a memorable one at the Match of the Day show in Birmingham.
She had hired a coach and one poor lad, was sick before the coach had even left the club car park.
I could sympathise as the only thing I did nearly as much as playing football was being travel sick. I was sick on a cabin cruiser going through a lock on the river Thames at Goring. I vomited into the sea from a pedalo off Weymouth beach, but saved my best for cross channel ferries.

During one such crossing over to France on a dreadful old tub without stabilisers, I was so ill that a priest on board asked my parents if they wanted him to give me the last rites.
When we finally landed my dad picked up my pale emaciated body and carried me to the car, realising that for the first night camping was out and I should be put straight to bed in a local hotel.
I was painfully thin as a child and looked ill even when in the best of health.
I was put to bed in a huge double bed, a tiny white face peeping out over the starched sheets.
When I was being sick I made a noise similar to the death rattle, but my powers of recovery were nothing short of astonishing for a ten year old.
The rest of the family were going down to the restaurant to eat and wondered if I wanted anything bringing to the room.

“Well may be a little soup followed by steak and chips and ice cream,” was my reply. I was back, had come away from the light and ready with my brother to take on the French at football in the campsites of the Loire Valley.

Arriving at the show, we had a lovely lad called Robert Lee who went on to become a very accomplished goalkeeper.
He was obsessed in making sure he got the best value for the £4.50 he had brought for gifts.
He wondered up and down the aisles picking up various objects and asking. “How much is this?” and “Do I have enough left for these?”
He was so focussed on his target that we lost him twelve times. The P.A. announcer was becoming hoarse having to bark out every five minutes, “Will a representative of the junior football club from Gloucestershire please come to missing persons.”

There was a stand at the show and in the centre on velvet plinth was the most famous orb in the country.
It was guarded by two burly security guards who looked like extras from the Sweeney.
I was looking at some old football books on one stall when I was tapped on the shoulder and a little voice chirped, “How much is this?” I gasped in horror as standing behind me was Robert holding aloft the Holy Grail of English football. Behind him was a hue and cry of security guards and red faced men in blazers shouting “treachery!”

For a couple of minutes the nation’s heritage stood in the balance. So great were the repercussions that to the south west a body of men buried deep beneath a hillside under Cornish sod began to stir. The Knights of the Round Table, who managed to sleep through the Battle of Britain, were enquiring of King Arthur, “Is it time?”
The crisis was avoided and the nations treasure was placed back on the plinth and a nice man in a blazer gave Robert a pen and I lent him 62p so he could by a pair of Ryan Giggs shin pads.

Most of my memories of coaching the team from U7s to U18s were about off the field activities. They went through a rather odd, Britney Spears, phase at U12s and 13s.
The team talk at away matches was replaced by a bizarre ritual. A large poster of Britney was fixed to the away dressing room wall and the ghetto blaster was yanked up to a Spinal Tap number eleven setting and they all went crazy, cavorting around the confined space to ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’.

This unusual warm up was far more effective than me droning on about the team’s defensive responsibilities as we went on an unbeaten run.
We held a fund raising night where the boys had to cook, serve and provide after dinner entertainment to their parents.

They did a great job with the spaghetti bolognaise and chose for the entertainment Bingo and the obligatory Britney Spears look alike competition.
Some of the boys took it all a little too seriously with makeup, wonder bras and tight grey skirts. I caught some of the parent’s troubled stares, which appeared to say, “I thought he was meant to be teaching them about 4-4-2 and the off side rule?”
When we finished our last season together at under 18s, before the boys went their separate ways to go to University, to work or gap year trips abroad, they all went on one last adventure together on holiday to Turkey.

I was a bit apprehensive as I met the coach from the airport and as they climbed down from the bus they had brought back with them five tattoos and two black eyes.
Idol worship, cross dressing, being able to make spag bol, tattoos and black eyes, proved that I had done a sterling job in preparing these young men for modern society.
When the boys came home from their foreign jaunts and from University in the holidays. Many of them would come to see my son and meet at our house. They would often go out for a kick about down at the local rec. The sound of them leaving the front door, the laughter and the ball bouncing on the pavement as they ran to their game brings the magic flooding back.

Paul Cooper

07875 283093

Voices from the Playground

The shrinking world of children’s play

The sound is unmistakable, a continuous babble of noise, laughter, screams, shouts and curses. The noise from the school playground is unlike any other and for us adults it is good for the soul. The sound of children playing however appears to become less year on year as restrictions through health and safety, modern culture and the school curriculum eat away at important play time.

“If children don't play, their minds don't grow. Play is where they learn to make their own decisions, trust their own judgement, set their own targets. It's where they learn to get along with other kids, meet triumph and disaster, and then come home for tea. Adults can help by helping them find somewhere to play, sorting out the boundaries, being handy with the plasters if something goes wrong. But otherwise we should leave them to it!”
Sue Palmer (author of Toxic Childhood)

By Paul Cooper

The lunch hour myth

The length of time that children now have for break is diminishing.
In a study by Peter Blatchford & Ed Baines between 1990 & 1995 and later updated in 2006, lunchtimes have been reduced by around 30% and afternoon breaks have been scraped altogether in many schools.
A further 5% of schools quizzed in 2006 said they were planning to make further cuts in ‘play time’.
A recent report in the Times says that the standard lunch hour is now down to forty minutes in schools.
By the time children have eaten their lunch that leaves very little time for play.
Many of the top footballers learned their trade in the school playground and took steps to maximise playing time.
Steven Gerrard, the Liverpool and England midfield player in his excellent award winning autobiography explains;

“School held limited appeal: I sat in class, longing for play-time because there was always a match on in the playground. I loved dinner-time because it lasted an hour, which meant a longer match. I abandoned hot dinners as they wasted precious minutes. Eventually I asked my mother for packed lunches. Speed was vital at dinner- time. I ate the packed lunch while playing or wolfed it down running back into class.”

This incident would have happened in the late 80s, so if he had been born twenty years later the playground match would have been twenty minutes less or an hour and forty minutes less footie time a week.
The Irish international Paul McGrath who played for Manchester United and Aston Villa was brought up in an orphanage and their meanness with food meant there was more football time, “At school, the other kids had lunch; we just brought jam sandwiches from the orphanage. We kicked a ball while they ate.”

Playground games

Children have been playing street games for centuries, and many of these have found their way into the school playground. Games from the medieval times are still being played, handed down from one generation to the next. Some are modified, some forgotten and new ones invented.
Peter and Iona Opie in the 1960s travelled throughout the UK making a note of all these many games that children played and put them into the classic 1969 publication ‘Children’s Games in Street and Playground’.
Many of the games are still played today, although some have been banned on health and safety grounds. Favourites include Grandma’s Footsteps, What’s the Time Mr.Wolf, Stuck in the Mud, Tag and British Bulldog.
There are even pre-game games for picking sides such as Rock, Paper Scissors, One Potato - Two Potato and Dips.
There are also numerous ball games played in the playground with football the most common.
Some games have seasons while others are short lived by some sections of the playground. “When a tremendous craze for Jacks swept the playground in 1973 I asked the boys if they had tried playing. All of them nodded. ‘Did you like it?’ ‘Not enough fun in it,’ said one, ‘not enough action.’ Iona Opie observed in her delightful book, The People in the Playground.
It isn’t just the games, as there is also a rich culture of language, rhymes, jokes, riddles and sayings.
With less children being let out to play in the streets, the play time in the playground becomes very significant.

Banning ball games

Sarah Thomson from Keele University compiled a study in 2000 on playground games. Of the schools she surveyed, half had banned football from the playground.
Other ball games have been banned across the countries as well as tag and even just running in the playground.
In Bracebridge Heath Primary School near Lincoln, kiss-chase, along with other games that involve physical contact has been banned. Children are no longer allowed to even link arms.
Meanwhile a new ‘state –of- the- art’ city academy, school in Peterborough, costing £46.4 million, has no play ground.
Headmaster Mr McMurdo said the main aim of not having a playground at the school was to help children’s learning. He told BBC news: “This is a massive investment of public money and I think what the public want, is maximum learning.”

Mile Delap, the project manager for the new school said, “For a school of this size, a playground would have had to be huge. That would have been almost uncontrollable. We have taken away an uncontrollable space to prevent bullying and truancy.”
Meanwhile a mum whose fourteen year old son is about to attend the school, said that he was devastated he would not be able to kick a ball around at lunchtime.
Another city academy, built without a playground, the Unity on Teesside, and was reportedly modelled on a Tuscan village (?) was found by Ofsted to be failing.
The lack of a playground was contributing to ‘the negative attitude of the pupils’ so one was hastily built.

'However much children may need looking after, they are also people going about their own business within their own society.'
Peter & Iona Opie

Give Us Back Our Game conducted their own survey and found that out of one hundred primary schools across the UK, a third had banned football and other ball games from the school playground.
Of those schools that let children play football, many restrict children to a rota system so most classes play just once a week on a designated part of the play ground.
One has to understand that the playground is used not just by children wanting to play football, but more provision should be made for those that want to run around.
With obesity at alarming rates and one million children in the UK diagnosed with some kind of mental illness, the importance of play can’t be emphasised enough.

Playground voices

There is such a wide range of experiences from the GUBOG survey, some children are very frustrated with their school’s lack of understanding while other schools bend over backwards to give the children what they want.
Nine year old Jack from Scotland brought a small ball into his school playground last year and started an impromptu game (football has been banned from his school’s playground)
“I lost 15 minutes of Christmas Party time for playing football in the playground”
A double whammy for the unfortunate Jack.

One incident that highlights the passion children have for playing games on their own terms happened at a primary school in Gloucestershire after the headmistress banned football in the playground.
The children staged a demonstration one lunch time when over seventy children marched around the play ground chanting “We want our football, we want our football.” while swinging their school sweat shirts above their heads, the same way South American football fans swing their scarves.
The headmistress was furious and gave the ring leaders detention.

‘On the big wall the girls were playing two-balls and donkey in a lackadaisical fashion, and round the corner the boys were playing football in the traditional football area with whatever vaguely spherical objects they could muster: chiefly rolled-up gloves.”
Iona Opie – The People in the Playground

For others the playground experience was a positive one. Charlie Cooper now studying a degree in sports science at Exeter University says of his days at primary school, “We played football every break time in the school playground with a small ball, but Friday’s was the special day. As long as we wore our football kit, the school would let us play on the field, all year round. We would pass each other notes in class about what we thought would be the best teams. Those times were very special.”

Tony Whelan, Manchester United’s assistant academy manager U9s-U16s tells how important football in the playground was for him.
“You could not bring a ball into school but you could hire one, so all the kids would pool their threepenny bits, knock on the teacher’s door, pay for the ball and a game would begin. A typical day at school would be a session before the bell rang more football at lunch and break-time, followed by an hour after school before the school gates were shut.”

Children’s play
The school playground is probably the last bastion of childhood and childhood culture and should be maintained. We all have our own stories and memories of games that we played and mostly those are happy ones.
Now play and sport is led by adults for children. There are many very good coaches but they are not children anymore and can very quickly forget what it was like to be a six or ten year old.
You know it’s not working when a child tugs your sleeve and asks, “When can we play a game?”
Children can be brutally honest and we may need to give them more responsibility and empower them to think for themselves, give them space so they can be creative.
We don’t always have all the answers.

07875 283093


Guest Author: Paul Cooper
Give Us Back Our Game

This chapter on play and children is an important one as this is usually where the journey begins for many in sport. It may simply be the thrill of throwing, kicking or hitting a ball for the first time, or running, jumping swimming. For many it starts through play and an informal version of a sport played in the garden, park or school playground. The circumstances, environment and experiences in these formative years can lead to a lifelong passion that has the potential to shape lives.

‘Children’s Song’
We live in our own world,
A world that is too small
For you to stoop and enter
Even on hands and knees,
The adult subterfuge.
And although you probe and pry
With analytic eye,
And eavesdrop all our talk
With an amused look,
You cannot find the centre
Where we dance, where we play...

Paul Cooper is a grassroots football (soccer) coach from Gloucestershire, England who with American Rick Fenoglio, a senior lecturer in Exercise and Sport Science at Manchester Metropolitan University, founded the children’s sporting initiative Give Us Back Our Game in September 2006. It was a reaction to what Cooper had experienced in his time as a youth coach and how the children’s game he played for fun with his friends in the street, parks and playgrounds had been usurped by coaches who had a different agenda based on league tables, results and adult values. Although Give Us Back Our Game has mainly been tackling issues within children’s football it also has been involved with Rugby League, Rugby Union and Golf.

‘Give Us Back Our Game connects the dots between childhood, sport and play ‘
(Tim Gill)

The quote of the month for May on the Alliance for Childhood website was from Stephen Moss’s book, ‘Why Children Need Nature,’ on the subject of children playing in the great outdoors.

“Forty thousand generations of human beings have grown up doing this. And two generation’s haven’t.” (allianceforchildhood.org.uk)

It has recently become fashionable in the smarter villages of England to have an additional sign underneath the main one as you enter the village, which reads, Slow! Children Playing. Where? I would need to drive up the side of a house and plough through a bedroom wall to have any likelihood of endangering a child. And then explain to the local magistrate that I didn’t stand a chance as he stepped from behind his Playstation and out onto the carpet.

There are a number of reasons for the steep decline in outside play for children including;
The constant media attention on the subject and saturation of high profile incidents
The huge increase in traffic on our roads
The fear of stranger danger and the knowledge that if your child needs help, often adults will no longer come to their aid.

In 2007 research by the Children’s Society showed that 43% of parents in the UK thought that children should not play out until they were at least 14. In 2009 the charity Living Streets found that only half of 5-10 year olds in the UK had never played in their street, where as nine tenths of their grandparents had. It is also clear that parents are well aware of the need for outdoor play but feel boxed in by changes in society and an irrational fear that their children could be in danger as 87% of British parents surveyed by the National Trust wished that their children played out more.

A changing landscape
So the landscape for children’s play has changed dramatically and as a grassroots football coach I could always rely on getting my point across about the importance of play in children’s sport to parents. I would simply cast their minds back, twenty or thirty years to when they played out and the richness and variety of the games they played. The new generation of young parents however often fix you with a blank stare when the subject is brought up. Like an empty toothpaste tube the creativity and invention of children’s play has gradually been squeezed out of their lives, with children not allowed out for a number of reasons including the huge increase in traffic and the paranoia of stranger danger.

The opportunities for pre-school and primary school play have also diminished. In countries such as the US and UK there is a focus on measurement and results in early year’s education at the expense of play which is in total contrast to the Scandinavian countries that start the educational process at seven rather than 5, but catch up very quickly. The emphasis is placed firmly on play and the learning that goes with it. (Toxic Childhood – Sue Palmer 2006)

Give Us Back Our Game (GUBOG) carried out a survey of 100 primary schools in 2008 and found that a third of schools had banned ball games in the school playground on health and safety grounds. As well as ball games, many traditional games, played for generations, had been banned for being too rough, namely games such as British Bulldog. One young lad was so perplexed that he wrote to the GUBOG football campaign to share his story.
Although his primary school in Dundee had banned football in the playground, he could not resist the temptation to bring a tennis ball out of his pocket one December lunchtime and start an impromptu game with his friends. The kick about did not last long and his punishment for breaking school rules was to miss half of the school’s Christmas party.

Children can no longer even be trusted to manage their own space with many schools now opting to paint garish coloured zones in the playground to inform kids where to go and what to play in which zone.

Peter and Iona Opie
The idea that children need to be shown how to play and where is laughable. Play is what children do, it is their language, and it is their lore. No one has studied play more than Peter and Iona Opie. They documented games, play, language, rhymes and jokes up and down the UK in a series of fascinating books. Iona Opie spent 15 minutes a week in the same primary school playground from 1960 to 1983 observing children and their play in her delightful book, The People in the Playground (1983). She describes succinctly why there is no need for adult lines and boundaries as the playground is the domain of children and there is in fact structure among the chaos.

“At first the playground seemed uncontrolled confusion. Balls whizzed by my head, bodies hurtled across my path, some boys were on the ground pummelling each other, and a dense black mob rushed across, apparently taking no notice of anyone else. Gradually, often with the aid of an interpreter, it became possible to sort out the intermingled games, the chasing games; the chasing games for instance, which was superimposed upon a diffuse game of Germans and English, both games being intersected by boys competing in running races. I soon realised that any child with a look of concentration on his face was likely to be part of a game.” (P2)

Iona also noted that when the children emerged from class at the top of the steps leading down to the playground they would stop and cheer before catapulting down into the throng below. Agreements were very important and children took responsibility to select teams, make up the rules and organise the games. They even played pre-game, games to select a chaser or team. At morning break, which is just 15 minutes long Iona noted the following.

“Speed is essential. If they argue about the rules they argue rapidly and agree without much delay, knowing that prolonged argument means that the game may not be played at all. More often ‘the boss of the game’ organizes it with force and authority. It is not necessarily the strongest or the oldest who become leaders, but those who have self-confidence and the ability to make decisions.” (P4)

Tommy Smith, the great Liverpool football legend, in his excellent autobiography – ‘Anfield Iron’, talks a great deal about his childhood and how important it was in his development as both man and footballer and the need for rules.

“I am sure those games instilled in me and my pals a sense of responsibility and a notion that one had to adhere to rules in life if you were not to spoil things for other people. We had no referee to apply the rules of the game. When a goal was scored we restarted the game with a kick off from what passed as a centre spot. When a foul was committed, a free kick was taken and no one took umbrage. We seemed to accept that if anyone did not play by the rules of football, the game would be spoiled for everyone. Those games played without supervision taught us that you can’t go about doing just what you wanted because there are others to think of. Of course it was not a conscious thought at the time, but these kick-abouts on the bomb site taught us the rules of society and prepared us for life.”

What do we do with talent?
We have never had such a plethora of places to learn stuff. Nowhere is that more evident than in football with academies sprouting up around the globe. Intensive places of learning, bursting with knowledge and able to analyse everything from a player’s running gate, to how many successful passes he makes in a game. How do we accommodate our top talents into these centres of learning?

In the last ten years academies have changed enormously with superb facilities and equipment. There are also many specialists, not just on the coaching front, but on fitness, nutrition, psychology and medical care. Academies are important institutions in producing players, but dealing with the very top talents is the real challenge as they may need a different approach from a squad player.

This culture is one that is borrowed from education and in John Holt’s thought provoking book, How Children Learn; he makes the following observation in an updated edition;

“This book did not change, as I hoped it might, the way schools deal with children. I said, trust them to learn. The schools would not trust them, and even if they had wanted to, the great majority of the public would not have let them. Their reasons boil down to these:
Children are no good; they won’t learn unless we make them.
The world is no good; children must be broken to it.
I had to put up with it; why shouldn’t they?

To people who think this way, I don’t know what to say. Telling them about the real learning of real children only makes them cling to their about the badness and stupidity of children more stubbornly and angrily than ever. Why do they do this? Because it gives them a license to act like tyrants and feel like saints. ‘Do what I tell you!’ roars the tyrant. ‘It’s for your own good, and one day you’ll be grateful,’ says the saint. Few people, feeling themselves powerless in a world turned upside down, can or even wish to resist the temptation to play this benevolent despot.” (P297)

A few Football Academies have grasped the importance of play and the essence of street football that is much more child and game orientated. I watched a Manchester United Academy under 10’s team play a game where the opposition were generally bigger than the United boys. The opposition played well but they played more of an adult game and passed it quickly, one and two touch. They did not experiment or dribble nearly as much as the United youngsters as they were under strict instructions and were given very little freedom in the way they played.

So when do children get the chance to be creative and run with the ball and take player’s on? United Academy coach, Tom Statham agreed.

“How are you going to create the next Christiano Ronaldo or the next Lionel Messi if you don’t give them the freedom to run at people, take risks and be creative. If you can’t do it at nine and ten when can you? ” Tom added, “They are going through the player and the ball stage, the other stuff comes later. At the end of the day we are trying to develop players for the Champions League.”

The problem with natural talent is that some coaches can see them as mavericks and a threat to ‘the team’ and his control over them. Often these types of players are not understood and need to be guided gently and not shoe horned into a ‘one size fits all’ philosophy.

Arsene Wenger once said of French star, Thierry Henry that he was convinced there were at least twenty English players playing in non league football as good as the French forward, but it is easier to break a player than make one. That is the challenge that faces clubs and coaches. How can the special talents flourish in a game that is based on being part of a team? It is often these talents that can provide a moment’s inspiration to win a match. They need to be left alone more so their creativity can prosper. These players however are the ones than can change a game and win you the league title and to some extent don’t fit the mould that clubs use to develop their players.

In Sir Matt Busby’s thoughtful 1973 autobiography, Soccer at the Top, he explains these thoughts further and also has some insightful thoughts on coaches.

“Great players are individuals. That’s what makes them great players. They do not conform readily. They do the unexpected. That is also why they are great players. If they did what was expected they would be ordinary players. It also happens that great players are also great passers of the ball. So the individual genius aids teamwork because HE gives ordinary players a ball that makes life easier for them. But coaching changed things. Coaching is for ordinary players. It makes them better players. That maybe is why most great coaches were themselves ordinary players. They know how to improve an ordinary player’s game because they had scope for improving themselves. Great players don’t understand why lesser men can’t do great things. They have difficulty in explaining to others what they themselves do by instinct.” (168)

We already know that there is a serious flaw in the recruitment of players for academies as the figures in England show that the vast majority of players entering academies are born in the first four months of the football year and only a handful come from the last third of the football year. Talent is of course spread through the calendar and there is an argument that the late developers eventually could be the talents as they have to constantly punch above their weight.

A recent study by David Palmer from the University of Gloucestershire (The relative age effect: are we wasting potential? –Dave Palmer July 2009) has found that the bias towards the September to December birthdates in children’s grassroots football leagues follow a very similar pattern to the Academies.

Give Us Back Our Game organise community sessions across the country where all children are welcome, whatever their ability. Looking at the birthdates for these children, they are spread evenly throughout the year and are totally different to the birth date bias that happens in structured football controlled by adults.

In an interview I did with John Allpress, who looks after player development at the FA and he comes up with some suggestions as to why this may happen.

“It’s the attitude of the people. It is certain because the facts bear it out. The statistics show that the minute adults get involved; some children get excluded from the programme. They are seen not to be effective in matches and therefore they are left out or become sub. The kids don’t get a game and there is a danger in that because what is the basis for excluding kids from the programme? When the kids decide, everyone is involved. There is no bias; people don’t get excluded from the programme.

It is a fact that 50%+ of players at an academy are born in September through to December and less than 10% are born in May to August. Why is that? They are exactly the same as the other children only they are a bit younger, so why does that discrepancy exist? It is not just the academies; it is all the way through football and grass roots football. The minute adults are involved the bias kicks in. The reason why the bias kicks in is because the adults have a team and they want their team to win so they pick the stronger kids. Your team got beat 4-0 so you are crap, our team won so I feel good and I can go to the tyre factory on a Monday morning and I can say my team wins every week. That is where people get their self-esteem and it is understandable and maybe even human nature but it is only there because people want to win games. When the kids decide, it’s not there and the players that could make it through are among the younger group.”

A more humanistic, child and player centred approach by coaches would change this as the emphasis would be on long term development and not just today’s match,
Creativity & inspiration

In Ed Smith’s wonderful book, ‘What sport tells us about life’, he makes a case for not interfering in the creative process.

“What do we mean when we talk of creativity and inspiration? Perhaps we can never fully understand the answer. Many of the most inspired sporting achievements, like great works of art or innovation, spring from parts of our personalities which resist rational analysis, let alone professional planning. There will be an element of self-awareness in all these processes – a management of talent, a regulation of originality – but also a good amount of instinct. Forces beyond rationality lead creative people to follow certain paths and not others. Like strikers with an instinct for where to be in the penalty area, something takes them into different (and better) creative territory.”(14)

With all that money spent on facilities, the coaching badges, the staff and wages; with all that technology at their finger tips, it is presumed they know all the answers and that is where the problems begin. Can you teach creativity by getting kids to copy ten tricks used by the top Brazilian players of all time? But who taught the Brazilians?

Teenagers have had a bad press of late in the UK and in football we are perceived worldwide to lack creative, intelligent players. But the country is stacked with talent, but maybe it is not always being found and nurtured properly. For nearly fifty years the youth of this country have been the most creative force across the globe in popular music. Starting in the 1960s with the Beatles and Rolling Stones then moving on through the age of rock with Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin; then came the punk era with groups like the Clash and Sex Pistols and laterally groups such as the Libertines, Coldplay and Arctic Monkeys. This is a playground where you can do what you want. You learn from listening and watching your heroes; learn from your friends and trial and error. They are largely self taught and wholly responsible for the creative process in writing and performing their songs.

Would this process be enhanced by an Academy of Pop or would the spontaneity, intuition and creative process be diluted or lost? The environment for the young musicians is still there in the bedrooms, garages and small halls up and down the land, but the original university for football, the streets, parks and playgrounds has all but disappeared as we have never properly addressed the decline in street football which still exists in the countries that produce the best technical players.

An interesting theory in the Journal of Sport Sciences looks at how more responsibility should be given to the player.

“While prescriptive instructional approaches are likely to produce faster performance gains initially, they may result in less efficient and reliable performance in the long term. The emphasis when learning through guided discovery is on players taking responsibility for their own development, finding unique solutions to movement problems, exploration and discovery. This ‘hands off’ approach may be more effective in developing ‘smart’ learners who are able to apply their skills in a variety of performance situations (i.e. what has been termed ‘adaptive’ rather than ’routine’ expertise: ee Dr.J.Holyoak, 1991)

ournal of Sport Sciences, June 2005; 23 (6): 637-650. Practice, Instruction and skill acquisition

The games we played
Children are creative and informal sport is a perfect example of this. The less structure, equipment, and players there are the more creative they have to be. Worldwide this could be beach football in Rio de Janeiro, a pickup game of basketball in a Chicago schoolyard or street hockey in Toronto.

My brother and I lived in the family house in an idyllic location; with a wonderful view of the river Torridge. The setting came at a price as the lane was full of elderly people who are not prime candidates to play in goal or keep wicket. With just the two of us we had to be inventive when playing cricket , so devised a game where we were joined by ten fieldsmen who were a mixture of trees, bushes, telegraph poles, as well as jumpers and coats laid out for a cordon of slips. (Cricket is a sport invented in England and played throughout the British Commonwealth – India, Pakistan, Australia etc – There are similarities with Baseball in that you have one team batting and one team fielding)

We now had a full team each and could play a whole test. When batting if you hit the ball in the air and it hit or landed on one of these static fielders, you were out caught. If you were batting, 9, 10 or 11; you could be out caught even if the ball went along the floor and hit a fielder. We would play a whole Ashes series, England v Australia, and had to bat or bowl left handed if the player we were at the time played that way. We also had to use their bowling, batting technique so they might be a stone wall right hander or a swashbuckling left hander or when bowling; a quickie or a leg break bowler. There was a lot of learning going on but to us we were just having fun.

A friend of mine had a similar experience with his brother in their small garden where they devised more than twenty different football games for two players. They would write all the names of the games on pieces of paper and draw them out at random and play the games one after the other. There was a great deal of creativity and inventiveness which was duplicated in most families and gardens across the country.

Simple conditioned cricket games that everyone played such as ‘Tip and Run’ where you had to run if you hit the ball with your bat, which made for greater fun with more run out situations and a higher turnover of batsman; ideal for the playground when time was limited. Also six and out which restrained the best shot of all, not something children would normally chose, but too many sixes could mean too many lost balls and no game.

In How Children Learn, Holt describes how the loss of most of the playground for building and a reduction in sports playing time did not deter the school softball team from competing.

“With such limited time and space for practice we did not expect to get much of a softball team, all the more so as the boys in the school were not outstandingly athletic to begin with. Yet, year after year, we were able to field a competent softball team that could hold its own against boys of the same age. How did these kids manage to learn this very complicated game? David and I certainly didn’t teach them. There was no time, or room, for anything that could be called instruction. No they learned by watching each other, and imitating. Year after year we would see the same thing happen. Here would be a boy in the third or fourth grade who seemed so hopelessly clumsy, unathletic, and ignorant of all the rules and skills of baseball that it looked as if he could never learn to play. Two years later that same boy would be a competent and often an expert player-and many of them did almost all of their playing at school. They learned, as I say, by watching the older boys who did it best, and trying to do what they did.”(188)

Holt went on to explain that he had previously taught at a much bigger school with large playing fields and more time for sports lessons, but they never achieved what the pupils in the small school with little time and space for sport did. Holt also makes a confession about what kind of coach he was previously which he feels made a negative impact.

“The boys in this school spent a good deal of their sports time standing around watching while someone ‘explained’ something to them. I was then still under the spell of the idea that if you are determined enough you can teach anybody anything. I remember a couple of boys that I was trying to teach to bat and throw. I can still see their sullen but resigned faces, feel their limp, uncooperating muscles, and practically hear their thoughts. Here was school brought right out into the play yard, where they were supposed to be having fun, or at least a moment’s respite from school. Small wonder we did not get far. If, instead, they had had a chance to play with, and see, and imitate bigger boys, how much better things might have gone.” (189)

In football we had practical conditioned games such as ‘Three and in’, a football game played with one goal where every third goal brought a change in keeper. This meant everyone had a turn and was fair for all. Most kids would prefer to not be in goal, so ‘Three and in’ was a simple and sensible solution.

The key is no one ever told us the importance of these types of games and play. It is just what we did as kids. A good example of this is comparing the proper game which has all the proper equipment and field markings, including goals with nets to the informal ‘jumpers for goalposts’ game. (‘Jumpers for goalposts’ is an English saying for an informal game of football. All you need is a ball and players. The players take off their jumpers (pullovers) or coats and use those as the goals)

If the England and Manchester United forward Wayne Rooney was on the edge of the penalty area and the ball bounced up nicely he would volley it high into the roof of the net without a second thought as he does not have to retrieve the ball and his only focus is to score a goal. It is a lot more complicated down the park with a pile of coats or jumpers for goalposts. If you kicked into the imaginary net where Rooney had scored, some players would have said it would have gone over the bar or around the post or both! So you first had to both bring it in and down a bit. Those in the know would also give the keeper hope and the perfect goal was not hit too hard so that the keeper still had a 30% chance to get a finger tip to it and decide that goalkeeping was fun and would stay in goal for the game and not take your precious position out on the pitch. It also meant the ball would not go too far a distance to be retrieved.

If you blasted the ball and you had no nets, the beaten keeper - hands on hips, would extract some revenge by looking at where the ball had landed, some 100 yards away and then look at you and spit out; “You can get that!” You always had to give him hope so that he would not trudge off disconsolate with his ball. This was an incredible skill to master – technique, psychology, and diplomacy, all in one volley.

Children’s sport today
Sport is very different today and firmly in the hands of adults. That can be a pleasurable experience, but nevertheless it is a lottery, dependent on the philosophy of the coach. The expectations are those of an adult and have very little to do with how children organised and played their own games.

In grassroots football in England most football is played in junior clubs. Leagues start at U7s and becomes competitive at U9s (i.e. results and league tables are published) There is a great deal of structure and organisation with leagues insisting on certain formats and maximum squad sizes. Too often the same children are omitted from the team or are always on the bench as the coach selects what they consider to be the strongest team each week. In the children’s game there are no substitutes and everyone plays.
How does a six year old fall in love with the beautiful game stood on the sideline on a freezing cold January morning? It comes as no great surprise when the stats for a junior football league in Essex showed that only 54% of players signed on at clubs start a league game each week. The coaching is often very prescriptive with adult structures and an over emphasis on fitness and training without the ball. A short match at the end is seen as a treat.
Another negative about adult organised children’s football are some of the score lines. I watched an U10s game which finished 25-1 with the coach of the winning team berating his players for letting in a goal. As with substitutes, children controlling their own game would never let this happen. Usually the two best players picked the sides and went down the ability levels until everyone was chosen. You may be the last to be picked but you played every minute of the game. The games had to be fun and by picking even teams made it both fair and competitive. If the score line say went to 5-0, the kids stop the game, swap over a couple of players and start back at 0-0. Simple, children’s logic at play.

A games and play approach where children are able to breathe and explore is important. John Holt in How Children Learn states;

“A very common pattern in children’s learning. First, a great bold leap forward into exciting new territory. Then, for a short while, a retreat back into what is comfortable, familiar, and secure. But we can’t predict much less control. This rhythm of advance and retreat, exploration and consolidation, and this is one of the main reasons why the learning of children can’t, or at least shouldn’t, be scheduled. (187)”

Rick Fenoglio, senior lecturer in exercise and sport science at Manchester Metropolitan University and co-founder of Give Us back Our Game stated in his article, A Neuro-physiological basis for developing future skilful players (2007) published in Total Youth Football (April 2008 Page 48), he gives some pointers to youth football coaches

Use the Give Us Back Our Game 80/20 rule for training and match play (if possible 80% or more of the training time should be spent with the children playing adapted small-sided games.

The remaining 20% can be used for warming-up, instruction and other fun non-football games that develop multilateral co-ordination.)

Small-sided games are a more effective and more match play-specific method for learning skills than drills. Drills are too far removed from actual play to be highly effective;

Mistakes are good! Mistakes allow the player to recognise and, in time, discard unsuccessful strategies. Praise the bravery that goes into trying! Studies show that children either take no notice of criticism or play worse as a result;

Evidence shows that the first coach a young player has is vital for instilling a love of the game by creating a safe, non-threatening and enjoyable environment in which children can learn. By giving some ownership of training to the boys and girls themselves and by letting them make some decisions, you foster empowerment, independent learning and their own personal love of the game;

Training should be variable so that learners can explore and discover their own solutions to football problems. Remember that history shows that the best players developed their own way of playing skilfully and achieving success on the pitch.

‘Instruction’ from coaches can be used – but this should be in the form of ‘nuggets of information’ that the player can quickly and repeatedly attempt in a small-sided game.

Demonstrate only briefly then let players experiment and try to find their own way of performing a movement or skill.

Use guided discovery and question-and-answer techniques rather than prescriptive coaching.
In the Give Us Back Our Game approach, coaches shape and guide rather than direct; and know that game intelligence and skill can be more quickly and more effectively developed by the use of adapted, game-related activities.

“Play is the universal language of children’

As society changes there is an increasing lack of unstructured outdoor play. This play also covered many different sports that were in the main organised, played and controlled by children. There are a number of reasons for the lack of play including the huge increase in traffic on our roads and a perceived danger from strangers. This has been fuelled by the media and has become a hot topic.
The alternatives are normally adult led and structured. Children often have very little input into what happens and who plays. Even at early ages sport can mirror an education system that is target driven by results, points and league tables. This culture discriminates against children born later in the sporting and academic year who have a much reduced chance of participating in this structured environment. It is also harder for children to learn at their own space and have plenty of trial and error experiences with children of different abilities and ages.

Creativity and inspiration can be a victim of the very structured approach, no matter what level a child is at. A games approach is recommended to substitute for the lack of free outdoor play. This allows for more exploration, decision making and allows for mistakes, which is a key part of learning as well as a more child and player centred environment. Games, both free play and conditioned can make up to 80% of a session to allow for a more holistic rounded approach to children’s sport. We really need to give children the opportunity to just play and have fun and not impose our will on them.

Children’s Song R.S. Thomas - Collected Poems 1945-1990 (1993)
Orion Books ISBN: 0753811057.

The People in the Playground – Iona Opie (1993)
Oxford University Press ISBN: 0198112653

Toxic Childhood – Sue Palmer (2006)
Orion Books ISBN: 9780752873596

Anfield Iron – Tommy Smith (2009)
Bantam Press ISBN: 0553819259

Paul Cooper – Creating the right environment - Soccer Coaching International Magazine (2007)

Soccer at the top – Sir Matt Busby (1974)
Sphere Books ISBN: 0772120965

David Palmer – The relative age effect: are we wasting potential
Give Us Back Our Game Magazine - issue 2 (2009)

John Allpress – interview with Paul Cooper (2007)

What Sport Tells Us About Life – Ed Smith (2009)
Penguin ISBN: 0141031859

How Children Learn – John Holt (1967)
Penguin ISBN: 0140136002

Dr.J.Holyoak -Journal of Sport Sciences, June 2005; 23 (6): 637-650. Practice, Instruction and skill acquisition

Fenoglio, R. (2007), Developing Skilful Players (A Neuro-physiological Basis for Developing
Future Skilful Players) Why the Give Us Back Our Game approach is THE best way to produce
Young Gifted Players
Total Youth Football Magazine (April 2008)

A Simple Game

Premier League for Tots
Football is meant to be a simple game and that is why it has such global appeal. You simply need a ball, players and something for goals. You can play a version of it just about anywhere.
In the Premier League for Tot’s however we have made things rather more complicated with formations, tactics boards, plans for defending corners and lots and lots of jargon picked up from the experts on Sky. ‘Second ball’ shouts the coach and looks around for appreciation at the parents, failing to notice one of his track-suited players throw one of the spare match balls onto the pitch. One team is playing with the original ball while the other team scores a goal with the second ball that has been thrown on the pitch by the obedient sub. The more the under eight’s set up resembles the professional game we see on TV, the better the coach, in some parent’s eyes.

Some more examples of jargon shouted at children’s football matches and possible interpretations by the children.
· “Find space” – Build a one man space rocket and travel in a vertical direction until you leave the earth’s atmosphere. (may take a while)
· “Man on” – Sounds as if a strange man has wondered onto the pitch. Do not accept any sweets from him and find the nearest policeman. (may take a while)
· “Hit the channel” – Nip down to Dover with a large stick and start thrashing the sea.
· “Hold” – Grab the nearest opposition player and don’t let go.
· “Relax” – Sun lounger + strawberry milkshake + Gameboy.
· “Gamble” – Poker, 3 card brag, snap, old maid?
· “Get rid of it” – Stick your fingers down your throat and bring up your breakfast.
· “Work” – Help mum with the dishes, dad wash the car and knuckle down in Maths.
· “Travel” – Pack your suitcase were off to Spain!
· “Close down” – Bring in the washing for your mum (may of misheard instruction)
· “Do we want it?” – Oh yes, a new bike for Christmas please.
· “Spread yourselves” – Cover yourself from head to toe in chocolate spread (something dad occasionally does with mum on a Saturday night – unknown to the kids)

The simpler the better
Brain Clough has had the greatest impact on the club game in England by taking an unfashionable provincial team from the bottom of the old second division to two European Cup triumphs. As well as his incredible achievements at Nottingham Forest, Clough was equally as impressive in his time as manager of Derby County. The greatest manager England never had!
But what did Clough attribute his amazing success too? Well it would probably have many mini soccer coaches spinning in their monogrammed bench coats. How on earth could he send out a team so ill prepared?

Nigel Clough on the ITV DVD simply called ‘Clough’ explained his father’s philosophy.
“Very simple, you have 10 friends, 10 team mates out there on the pitch, look after them. Look after the ball and give them the best possible ball (pass) you can. I can’t remember one time, in 9 years or even watching training before that, what you would call a tactical session. Stopping it, working on the back four or pattern of play - you just played 6, 8 a side or however many it was. A bit of possession, a few games and everything came from that - very simple. We never talked about the opposition; you just went out and played.”

That philosophy won them two European Cups, - Brain himself explains further;
“I tried to make sure of one basic thing in management. Educated people would call it a fundamental but I’m not sure what that means. I know what basic means and my basic was that there should never ever be the slightest sense of complication in my dressing room. I would rather have my players rolling about the dressing room floor laughing than have them trying to fathom a list of instructions and tactics before they went out to play a match.”

The more complicated we make it the bigger the smoke screen we can hide behind and the more important we become. The more coaching we do the more the players will rely on us and the greater power he will wield.
It is time for a reality check and to make the game fun, accessible and simple for children to understand and see it for what it is - kid’s football.

Grassroots and academies
Clough had his theories too on how children were being treated in both the grassroots game and academies.
“Our Simon used to run a team called FC Wanderers and I’ve never seen so many up- and- coming Alf Ramseys in my life – parents on the touchline thinking they were coaching their kids. There were about twenty of them, the same twenty every week, shouting their heads off. The mothers were the worst offenders and they hadn’t a clue what they were shouting about. They’d heard some self-styled expert trotting out the same phrase on telly.”

“The introduction of youngsters to the professional clubs today has gone from the sublime to the bloody ridiculous. There’s nothing wrong with competiveness. All kids want to win and have to learn how to lose, but these days too many parents put too much pressure on little lads who should be enjoying every second on the football pitch. They’re grabbing kids almost before they’ve lost their milk teeth and although these places no doubt produce some good players at the end of the conveyor belt, I’m not sure they will produce enough to justify the investment and expense. Call me old- fashioned but I think some of these good players would emerge anyway without the need for such intense teaching processes. I’m scarred the kids are being brainwashed and by the time they’ll all be walking round in the same way like robots. There will be nothing natural about them because their individuality will have been coached out of them.”

What we don’t have at present is enough alternatives to the current children’s league structures -alternatives that focus on inclusion, fun, encouragement, plenty of touches of the ball, games and simple instruction that the children can understand.
Games are very important to children as that is exactly what they would do if left alone. Coaching is fine, but we do far too much of it, sometimes for the sake of the parents, to let them know just how knowledgeable we are. Better then we give nuggets of information, as and when it is needed and of course Keep It Simple!

“A good coach coaches joy. Ask Wayne Rooney, the last of the backstreet footballers. That's what saved England's bacon in Kazakhstan on Saturday - not Rooney's lust for victory but his soul-deep joy in the physical action of sport.”

By Paul Cooper

07875 283093

Simon Barnes – The Times
Brian Clough – Clough the Autobiography (1994) Corgi Books ISBN: 5791086
Cloughie (Walking on water 2002) – Headline Book Publishing ISBN: 9780755314300
Clough (DVD) 2009 ITV Sport

Kicking the Habit

My Perfect Cousin
There is a path through life with cousins. All of mine lived some distance away so the early years were when the whole family of uncle, aunt and siblings came to stay for Christmas, Easter or for part of the summer holidays.
If you got on, you then went through a stage from about ten year’s old going to stay alone with your favourite cousin. The relationship eventually peters out when girlfriends come on the scene and then you only see each other at family bun fights.

One of my cousin’s was my best friend and we shared an obsession for football. When he came to my house we played for hours in the garden, just the two of us, taking turns in goal.
We played until it was dark and then turned on all the lights in the front of the house and put torches in the two trees we used for a goal.
When I stayed at his house we had a lot more players to hand and I lived out some of the best days of my life.

A bunch of us from my cousin’s road whooped and yelped as we rode our bikes. I shared one with my cousin or borrowed his friend’s little sister’s bicycle, which was pink with a basket on the front. Our destination in this sleepy seaside town was the legendry Dial Hill, the meeting place for footy mad kids in the town. There was always a game at Dial Hill and it could have been Holland or China with the amount of bikes.
There were normally two groups, an older one made up of teenagers and a younger group. Depending on numbers the two groups either stayed separate or mixed together. The older group always chose the flatter area with short grass.
The football was intense and full on. After a marathon session the Armada of bikes set off home for tea. It was up hill all the way, which was tiring on the legs, covered in bumps, lumps and bruises as no quarter was ever given on Dial Hill.

After tea we would race down to our football nirvana, always trying to beat our record time of six minutes and twenty six seconds.
The evening sessions in summer were the best, but the time flew by and in no time we were peering through the dusk trying to make out the ball.
These were the very best of times and something you presumed would last forever.

We spent every holiday we could together and had a very similar sense of humour. When we were not playing football, we played Subutteo, Copit and modelled Airfix kits.
My perfect cousin was just that, except for a tiny flaw, the strange way he spent a penny.

I am not sure when I progressed from taking a pee with my trousers and pants around my ankles to unzipping my fly and peeing the conventional way, but the simple fact that I can only remember the later points to a healthy, natural evolution.
My cousin was normal in every aspect except for always leaving the toilet door wide open and standing, with his shorts and y-fronts, not just half way down his legs, but always hugging his sneakers.
He was still doing this at ten, which I thought odd, and was shocked some twenty years later at a family wedding when I caught him doing the same.
What did he do at work? Standing next to the boss at the urinals while discussing last month’s sales figures, did he yank down on his suit trousers and boxers until there were lapping around his brogues and carry on chatting as if it was the most normal thing in the world?

I never had any toilet trouble and had very few accidents apart from a disastrous school trip to the Tower of London when I was sick over a nun and followed through simultaneously.
I have never been a good traveller and got a little cocky on the train journey from Exeter to London and had a fateful sandwich swap with Patrick Babb, one of my no nonsense cheese sandwiches for his pilchard and banana combo.
The English back then were so conservative when it came to food, all except sandwiches, when it was open season. Kids who would have run screaming from an avocado pear would happily wolf down some kind of fish filled monstrosity with shiny silver scales, bones and staring eyes.

Other people’s toilet troubles plagued me through school and a lot of it had to do with nuns.
For some unknown reason I went to a convent. We were not even Catholic, but it had a reputation for being a good school.
In the first and second year of infants, at the end of each day, a nun would read us a story.
Within minutes a high pressure hose sound would interrupt the tale and a red faced pupil would sit upright as a puddle formed on the floor by their feet.
It was more often girls, who were well catered for with a big cupboard stacked with navy blue knickers and brown paper bags. The offender was whisked off by one of the nuns to get cleaned up and changed while a second nun busied herself with a bucket of pine disinfectant and a mop.
No one missed any of the stories and the whole saga would last no longer than five minutes.

If it was a boy who had a misdemeanour, then it was a very different story. Girl’s water flow had more of an uninterrupted path, while boys had the added problem of grey flannel shorts which acted as a sponge like barrier.
The nuns could never entertain being involved in a boy wetting himself, other than mopping up the offending spillage from the floor. Willies did not exist at Stella Maris.

For some unknown reason, probably because my dad was a doctor, I became solely responsible for sorting out the aftermath of such a debacle.
“Paul, be a good boy and accompany Crispin to the lavatory so that he can finish.” He finished emptying his bladder two minutes before and what she was really saying was, “I know you are only five years old, but I will say fifty Hail Mary’s tonight for your dear kind soul if you can just please take this problem away!”
I had no training for this – There was no ‘Janet and John clean up Pete the piddler’ stories to circum guess what to do in such a crisis.
I was on my own and I made sure I never got my hands wet, so to speak, but gave a commentary which basically was for the poor chap to wrap a couple of toilet rolls around each arm and keep padding away until at least some of the wetness was soaked up. The next stage was to wring the sopping shorts and regulation white y-fronts out into the sink.
If that wasn’t bad enough, when we got back to the classroom, it was a scene of tranquil serenity -all wide eyes and sucking thumbs. We had missed most of the story as no nun was involved in male toilet action.
You had to grow up fast on pee patrol.

My relationship with nuns never recovered and it reached a new low when we entered year five. The grumpy old nun who was to be our form teacher sat us down and said she had a question to ask us all.
We were expecting something along the lines of, ‘did you have a lovely summer holidays,’ or what we would be doing in the school year? But no – with eyes glaring she hissed, “Who still believes in Father Christmas?”
I had received a double whammy, when on a trip to the beach, mum’s old van broke down, and as she went to find a phone to call the garage, my older brother and his mate Nick Blight told me that Santa was a myth and the facts of life in three horror filled minutes.
I don’t know which was worse, no St Nick to deliver on the Christmas Eve or the thought of my father doing those terrible things to my mother.
When half the class put their hand, she blurted out, “Well he doesn’t exist,” and began the register

A few months later and we went on another school trip to Barnstaple to see the Sound of Music
This time I made sure I didn’t swap my cheddar on white for any of Babb’s tempting pickled Halibut and lemon curd sarnies.
By the end of the film when Julie Andrews had chucked her habit and was ready to get down and dirty with My Von Trappe, all the nuns were blubbing. Presumably for what might have been? I sat stony faced and unmoved. “Who believes in fairy tales now?”

Paul Cooper
07875 283093