Free play. Unstructured play. No coaching.
Are those words foreign to your young soccer charges and their parents? For the vast majority of grassroots soccer players in this country, I would wager the answer is yes. In our typically over-structured and busy lifestyle in modern society, the typical soccer experience in Canada consists of whatever date and time that’s scheduled on our weekly calendar. For a litany of reasons I will state why this needs to change. Let’s start from the top of the mountain and work our way down. This slide shows the major difference between professional and amateur players being the additional hours accumulated in free play environments.
Atletico Madrid’s recent rise to the top of European soccer has been led by the fiery Diego Costa, who spent the majority of his childhood and youth in unstructured environments. I mention these points to emphasize one of our major hurdles we face in the effort to change and improve our soccer standing in the world: lack of unstructured soccer experiences for our young players.
The problem we collectively face is our cultural connection to the sport. We don’t lack for unstructured play with skateboarding, BMX, basketball or even hockey (although that seems to be diminishing greatly as well). The reasons are varied for why this happens (urban design, kids who want for little, busy parents), but the fact is we all can play a big role in changing that reality and creating a new one. It won’t be easy, but it will be rewarding! Let’s start by reintroducing soccer as a play activity. Just for fun. Give them the time, space and permission to play.
As little adult feedback as possible. We need to try to recreate the culture of the sport at the youngest ages, starting in small pockets, hopefully building out to become something more and more areas can look to get creative with. This isn’t necessarily meant as a replacement for structure, simply as a way to get more exposure to the game in a fun, engaging and social environment. Make it as a social for parents too. Bring potluck dinners/lunches to the park, beach or tennis court on weekends. Get together in a gym during rainy season. The more we make this fun and social for all, parents included, the more chance this stands to take off. As long as the parents allow enough space for the kids to play without judgement or feedback.
A few years ago I started an idea like this at my complex. I used 2 PUGG nets, a couple futsal balls and 4 cones. After setting it up a few times for the kids, I told them they had to sort it out themselves. Set up, organize and regulate. One rule: they couldn’t exclude any child who wanted to play. They had to find ways to make it fair and fun for all. Self-regulation, self-organizing, fun and exercise. The benefits were multiple. They played endlessly for hours, simply because it was FUN! It became less fun the more parents became involved, to the point where they just stopped mostly because they felt judged by adults who couldn’t get out of the way and just let them play.
One of the things I often hear is “how do we fix this?” It’s not dissimilar to the question “how do you eat an elephant?” One bite at a time. The same logic applies here. Parents can get their children as young as 2 or 3 dribbling or manipulating tennis balls or size 1 skill balls. Just discourage kicking away the ball [;-)]. Keep it at their feet and get them comfortable using different surfaces of their feet. Use both feet. Clubs could post vids of what this might look like. Around 7 or 8 you can get them together in small groups for fun SSG’s, focusing on the social aspect of it. Go to a tennis court and play soccer tennis when they’re able. Get creative. Coaches in younger ages can make the last 15 minutes of some sessions just free play conditioned games. Or the odd entire session. It’s not going to hurt, and has the potential to help give the game back to kids. Coaches can encourage and even organize these events too, just making sure to take a back seat during play. Clubs can create drop-in events, futsal during winter or street soccer type activities, again being careful to keep coaches & adults in the background when possible. This is all in an attempt to redefine the culture around soccer in this country. The social and psychological benefits to children are potentially massive, not to mention the necessity in trying to get to the top of the mountain as mentioned earlier.
Hopefully through the reintroduction of soccer as play in the younger years we can create deeper connections to the sport, socially and otherwise. One that parents want to be a part of, and one that may just increase intrinsic motivation in it’s participants by allowing for freedom and fun first, and reinforcing the idea that work away from structure isn’t just necessary but something they WANT to do. Something that becomes second nature. This investment in play may be just the tonic many have needed. And possibly through play, we can all eventually Play Better.
Go. Play Better.
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