Development and Learning: Part II – Youth Football

In the previous post, I proposed that development and learning co-exist alongside winning and that contriving debate to place them at odds actually misconstrues their concerted relationship. I add, here, that development and learning are characteristic of people, and winning and losing is inherent to the Game of Football and to sport in general. In other words, development & learning and winning & losing are not at odds; they arise in concert as people compete with one another by participating as opponents when they play a game.

I also suggest in that post that all sorts of people have fun playing the Game of Football for all sorts of reasons and that competition and fun, like development and winning, are not and should not be mutually exclusive.

Another facet to this topic, based on the inherent nature of winning & losing to sport, is that any and all attempts to win are justifiable. This discussion becomes especially heated in the context of youth sport because such a purist approach can be detrimental to the players as they learn how to play and be members of a team. In that light, what I discuss below is development & learning in youth sport – specifically, in youth football (soccer).

To those who say that the Game is purely about winning & losing: saying so is a red herring. We must account for the fact that youth football has been distinguished from the adult game, and this distinction is for good reason.

Although at first it might seem contradictory, I already grant that the objective of the Game of Football is to win. I have clearly claimed that every team plays to win. Nobody plays to lose – in sport, or cards, or board games, or any game. Youth modifications don’t change that. Yes, as in any game, the objective in the Game of Football is to win.

Old Trafford
Theatre of Dreams

But the objective lies apart from learning how to play and training to play to win. The modifications to Youth Football have come about on account of younger peoples’ traits and abilities. By analogy, it’s like when cars are modified for those learning to drive: two steering wheels, wider mirrors, or driving on quieter out-of-the-way roads, or using VR simulators. There’s a gradual learning process by which new drivers grow accustomed to the road.

Reversing that analogy, U9s play 7 a-side on a smaller field with a smaller ball and various rule alterations – the very existence of such modifications is evidence that the Youth Game differs from the Adult Game on account of youth differing from adults.

If someone is coaching a Youth team in accordance with the modifications, they tacitly acknowledge the difference. Therefore, to see nothing wrong with a purist viewpoint – that winning is utterly and always justifiable, even in the context of youth football – strikes me as insincere, perhaps in denial that young people differ from adults, or that priorities are skewed to place the self-security of winning above all else, or that someone is ignorant or uninterested in child growth & development , or some combination of these.

To simply say the Game is about winning… yes, it’s correct as far as the pure Game is understood, as a concept, but it reduces your margin for error. On that basis, we’d better be flawless now, and play with mastery, or else we amount to nothing more than a loser and a failure. I suspect none of our teams are flawless, as much as a purist belief might require them to be.

One youth team I coached (Ass’t Coach) years ago was successful enough that, during our U11 year, we were able to play versus three professional F.A. Academy sides. The results were 0-15, 0-5, 0-9. We had no illusions, and our players were shattered by the reality that same-age teams could have such quality and be so dominant, just as we were back home – that’s how we were accepted to play these Academies in the first place. In any event, there it was: a level of mastery relative to us that we were obliged to respect.

Match #4 vs Aston Villa Academy

So, given a belief in the purist objective of winning… unless you take on similar opponents, who can challenge your team, then purist winning reflects poorly upon you, making you look ignorant, if not cowardly. If the Game is simply to be played to its purest, then nothing short of mastery will do. And if that playing field is to be a level one, then the best example of mastery we have, in reality, is the pro game. To purists, I say this: if you test your youth team at that level, as I’ve done, you may well discover that…

(a) your challenge may not even be accepted but, if it is, then

(b) you may have a rude awakening.

In fact, that may be exactly what a purist needs. On the other hand, if it comes at your players’ expense, it’s not worth the cost. As I say, our team was shattered, and we had a great deal of respect for youth training and development, being professional educators and researchers as we (still) are.

Birmingham City FC Training Ground
A Visit to Birmingham City FC

Things are always much easier when all’s well and we’re winning. Real humility is found when we aren’t winning. To those who take a purist approach to sport, enjoy the ride at the top while it lasts because, someday, you may discover that you’ve not learned how to cope, yourselves.

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