What Went Well
My first coaching mentor, Richard Tyndall (at Whiteknights FC in Reading), used this phrase to help children understand that the joy of competitive sport could be tinged with frustration. “Stick at it, find the fun, win on effort, you’ll be fine.” Success doesn’t always come easy. I nicked the phrase, naturally. And still use it, especially if (or when?) the lads lose out in the annual end of season Lads v Dads (& Mums) clash.
What’s the rush?I avoided rushing my eldest son’s team into competitive leagues until U10s. Back then league results were published at u9s. I saw that as a race to the bottom, where learning, fun and development could be lost. We trained instead. Fun, informal, player-led, ball each, street football – but with added parents on board, enjoying watching their sons/daughters in action.
The green and the blueBefore I knew The FA’s four corners were a thing, I was hugely focused on the green and the blue (psychological and social). I see the grassroots game as being about health and wellbeing, friendships, community, social skills and using the game as a tool for developing people – and their tolerance of others. For the individual, the mindset and desire to play must come first; the technical/tactical/physical returns will come only if they want to actually play and practice.
The Cat Stevens influence, pt 1
“From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen…” A line from Cat Stevens’s famous hit, Father and Son, which betrays the lament of a son denied his right to think and choose for himself. It's often in my head while coaching: give the kids a voice; it’s their game, not mine. This manifested itself best in giving them day to day ownership of their game, encouraging the effort award winner after matches to write a 50-word match report (a goldmine for nuggets about how they’re feeling/thinking), and letting them choose end of season awards categories, and vote for all the winners, based on psycho/social goals for the season. Once teenage self-awareness kicked in, these tricks lost their impact. But day do day ownership remains a hit.
The Cat Stevens influence, pt 2
Father and Son, again. It's about a restless son wanting to go off and make his own way in the world. I'm glad I coached my sons for so long (although it's been tough to put their needs behind those of others as a default in order to preserve integrity and fairness). But my decision (due to work commitments) to step away from being the main voice, while retaining a presence, was a good one. It can be difficult for children to listen to an “annoying, embarrassing dad” who’s “such a try-hard!” Constructive feedback at its finest. Thanks, boys.
My biggest help as coaching assistant in the many sessions in the foundation phase was a captain’s armband. The children knew the value of certain psycho-social skills (perseverance, teamwork, honesty, listening skills). The reward was the armband, worn proudly until the next session – or, once we’d joined a league, until and including the next match.
It’s about people
Grassroots football is about people. It's about adding a stroke of fortune to the luckless and helping the luckier make the most of it. About the boy whose parents struggle to pay the fees being allowed to play. About the girl who reveals (in a post-match report aged 10) crippling nerves before a “crucial cup match” against “bigger, stronger boys” but continues playing – and five years later scores the winning goal in an U15s cup final.
It’s about the anxious seven-year-old (who was a selective mute) being guided through it all to develop impeccable captain's skills (with a neat line in on-field communication).
It's about the children and parents of various socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds mixing and learning that football hurts together. For example, I've learned more about Sikh values of fairness, altruism and integrity while sharing a cold and drizzly touchline with my friend and neighbour Satwant Singh Brar (as a fellow parent, coach and, recently, his mentor) than I thought possible.
Even Better If
Luck City 3 Hard Work United 2
By all means preach the value of a growth mindset (effort and perseverance can overcome some obstacles to success) but I acknowledge much more readily that pure luck plays a huge part in the way young people develop. A growth mindset cannot change genetic traits (physical/mental limitations), date of birth (relative age effect), place of birth (opportunities to play), family background (financial and emotional support), personality (desire to capitalise on your luck), your coach’s approach (equal opportunities or win at all costs?). All of these factors govern a child’s progress, enjoyment and success, much more than I had considered.
"Release it... just pass!"
I was that coach. Not at the touchline in games, but in training, yes, too often. It was more passing than dribbling. Precise, orderly drills. Total control. But as Pete Sturgess says: if we can’t encourage creativity and ability to stay on the ball at foundation phase, when can we? I could – and should – have done more of this. Thankfully, however, introducing a futsal environment in the winter months when the boys were aged eight and nine inadvertently redressed this imbalance. A stroke of luck, you might say.
Changes for next time
Sadly, there won’t be a next time with my own boys. I've been very fortunate to share their experience. If I'm extra lucky, the kids I've coached – and their parents – might just say the same too.