Saturday, 5 February 2011

The FA's direction: Part 2

Trevor Brooking speaks of the motivations young people have for playing the sport. The assumption is that the developing player has the same motivations as an adult. So adults - parents, coaches, spectators - deal with children in a way that assumes an adult perspective. In so doing they commit a fallacy, one which should be wiped from the game.

There is one key difference between children and adults: children are still developing whereas adults are developed. This is not to say that adults cannot and do not change and improve. They can and do. The difference is that the rate of physical, psychological, social and technical change in a child is far greater. Having developed less of an ego and being less sure of themselves than an adult they are far more impressionable. They will go through growth spurts. They will develop their own sense of where they belong in the world in relation to their peers.

When adults expect things of children they create norms. This can be a force for good or harm. Too often the expectations are detrimental to the growth of our players. This primarily comes from the weight we place on competitiveness. Adults males usually use sport as an outlet for competitiveness. Parents on the side of touch lines use their kids as their outlet. They expect wins. The first question asked by parents who don't make the game is "Did you win?". Success and failure games down to winning or losing.

Jose Portoles, academy director at Valencia, makes the case (in the latest issue of Insight) that children should be viewed as players in development rather than complete products. Their potential should be assessed as much as their current ability. From this the error of placing an emphasis on victory should be obvious. A victory is a concrete result. It is final. It is absolute. The young player is in a state of flux. The emphasis, even in games, should be on what they learnt and the enjoyment gained from playing.

A game for a young player is an opportunity to practice certain technical, social, psychological and physical aspects in a competitive situation. It is not just a competitive situation. The emphasis should be on improving. It should be on trying new things. If it doesn't come off, so what? They tried. Skills are not learnt after one attempt. Expecting perfection of a child only induces fear. It paralyses. This is the opposite of what we should be creating.

This is not to say that we shouldn't expect high standards. We should. A player should constantly be pushed to try new things and improve his game. The very best young players will want to do this naturally. But they shouldn't be criticised for not succeeding any more than they should be shouted at for getting a sum wrong or misspelling a word. Football, like martial arts, relies on muscle memory and until you've performed an action hundreds of times, you will not be able to replicate it unconsciously with ease. Often people assume football is played by robocops who consciously judge the distance of the target, any obstacles, perform a series of complex calculations based on strength and momentum and then ENGAGE FEET WEEEEEE AHHHHHH SCREEECH.. the perfect pass/shot is made. Of course it's not like that. That's ridiculous!!

In reality, hundreds of reference experiences combine with an unconscious realisation of what needs to be done aided by muscle memory. Imagine yourself trying to play a 5 yard pass. Or a young child who hasn't played much before. The 5 yard pass they will make accurately to their friend whilst unopposed with a 95% success rate. Ask them to speed it up, so they take it with one touch and they might have a 75% success rate. Then add in an opponent and the level decreases further. Then make them play an intense match for 80 minutes first and the success rate is even lower. The difference between the practiced individual and the novice is that the practiced individual has performed the action so many times that even under stress they can perform a task.

It's a similar story for all skills (e.g. a 30 yard pass, striking the ball on the volley, crossing the ball, tackling).

The FA thus understands that a strong learning environment is key. Children are not adults and need time to develop their skills.

As if this wasn't enough, a national survey of U11s by the FA has found that this is what children what. They don't care about winning. They are motivated by enjoyment and enjoyment is reduced when they are put under pressure. Asked to rank 16 statements, here's what come bottom:

14) I like to show off my skills.

15) Winning is more important to me than trying my hardest.

16) It's important to me I win trophies and medals.

And here are the top 3:

3) It's a really good game and I love it!

2) I love playing football because it's fun.

1) Trying my hardest is more important than winning.

So it is pretty obvious that what matters isn't winning to a kid. What matters is giving your all. As discussed here it is the confidence side to the game which motivates rather than the tension. Or, put another way, motivation is intrinsic rather than extrinsic. Players at a young age are not motivated by external factors.

And yet adults frequently project extrinsic values (and so tension) onto children. The FA has understood this crucial problem. This should pave the way to a national team less paralysed by fear. Virtues other than victory are necessary for victory. Ask any side that's won a World Cup lately.

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