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

1 comment:

  1. As always Paul, the articles are great insight into the football that I knew as boy and try to create for my own children as a coach.