There are many aspects of youth football which players have to be taught and master if they are to fulfil their potential. One of the most important is decision making, and yet it is an area often overlooked by parents and even coaches.
The best football players in the world are those who can find a way out of any situation. Those whose improvised skills leave the watching audience agog. Those who see things others do not and take risks to make something happen when another player may seek the safe option… or decide there is no option.
All of those traits stem from decision making skills honed and encouraged when learning the game from a young age. It is time to talk about the importance of letting children make their own decisions in football.
IMPROVISATION AND CREATIVITY COME FROM DECISION MAKING
Often, the best players in the world played football on the streets when growing up. You hear the term ‘street footballer’ applied to the likes of Diego Maradona, Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Luis Suarez, Neymar.
Wayne Rooney was even labelled a street footballer. He may have grown up far away from South America where the term is most prevalent, but kicking a ball around the streets of Liverpool from an early age helped with skill development that would later turn him into one of the best ever English players.
So much so, he was capable of breaking Bobby Charlton’s long-standing international scoring record.
But, why do street footballers become so good?
The answer is because they were allowed to focus and hone their skills and ability in an environment where there are no rules.
On the streets, they would simply have fun playing football without too much pressure and improvise - making their own choices, making mistakes and developing social skills as part of a team above and beyond those that can be taught on a pitch.
CHILD-LED DECISIONS CREATE A BETTER ENVIRONMENT
One of the keys to a child's development in youth sports is for learning to take place in a fun, supportive and safe environment.
Allowing young athletes to make their own decisions contributes to creating an environment where stress and pressure are lessened.
Have you ever thought about the impact a parent shouting “shoot”, “pass it” or “take him on” can have on a child? There are three key things to consider with this:
The child may feel under pressure to follow the instructions given by a parent instead of making their own decision.
Should they follow the instruction and it not come off, then resentment at the parent for getting involved can follow.
If they don’t follow the instruction, then they might worry that they have let the parent down by taking their own course of action.
Such feelings are not conducive to a fun and stress-free environment and negative effects could lead to a child taking a less active role, or wishing not to play football at all.
Advice or guidance and support from parents is fully encouraged, but ultimately the final decision in a football game should always come from the child – especially on the pitch.
TOO MANY VOICES SPREAD CONFUSION
Football is an emotive game and that is what often causes parents to shout from the side. Not only can this create a challenging environment, but it can also be highly confusing for the children on the pitch.
You may have a vocal coach trying to give instructions. If you then add the voices of two, five, eight or 11 different parents all imploring their own child to make a conflicting decision, it suddenly becomes a very confusing game for the child to play as well as the other players.
A good example of this is when Rene Muelensteen was in charge of the academy at Manchester United. Parents had to sign contracts agreeing that they would not shout instructions or advice to avoid confusing players and influencing children's decisions. And it worked.
In some instances, multiple parents trying to lead instead of allowing a child to play and forge their own path by making difficult decisions in the moment, can lead to the child making no decision at all.
It if becomes too overwhelming or they become reliant on receiving instructions, then their decision making skills, and more broadly a child's development, can be severely inhibited.
Which, as England found out at Euro 2016, is bad news.
INDIVIDUAL DECISIONS ARE NEEDED TO FIND SOLUTIONS
England v Iceland. Euro 2016 second round. The Three Lions rocked up in Nice expecting to see off their plucky northern counterparts who were appearing at their first ever major tournament.
What followed was one of the lowest points in English football history. As the game entered its final 20 minutes and Roy Hodgson’s side were on their way to a humiliating 2-1 defeat, the players began to frantically turn to the bench for instructions.
It was a sign that those on the pitch had little idea of how to break through the defence of the other team. No player had the confidence or even intelligence to make a decision and find a solution. England needed to be spoon fed answers from their management team.
The players in Hodgson’s squad had been overcoached to the point where they were like robots. Having been allowed very little freedom to make decisions through their development, they were found wanting on one of the biggest stages.
Thankfully, much more importance is now placed on individualism and decision making when it comes to football coaching.
You can see that in the current England side, made of exciting young players, have a much stronger sense of individualism and have no problems when it comes to on-pitch decision making. This enables them to find solutions to overcome stubborn opponents when a game is not going their way.
FOOTBALL WILL CHANGE OVER THE NEXT 20 YEARS
Football as a sport is constantly evolving. The game in 2043 will look very different to the game in 2023, just as the game has changed a huge amount since 2003.
Go back in time to the turn of the century and ask a football fan what tiki-taka is and they would have said a Spanish biscuit. Gegenpressing in 2000 was a fancy new German sports car. Both are now styles of play - which have dominated world football over the past two decades.
For the children of today to be the successful football players of tomorrow, they need the skills and mindset which will allow them to adapt to however the game changes.
It is not enough to be taught only what present-time parents and coaches know about football and consider best practice. Children need the freedom to make their own mistakes and discover their own answers from a young age. It's hoped this will serve them well when asked to play for or against a totally new concept recently invented to revolutionise football again.
ACCEPTANCE OF DECISIONS IS A SIGN OF SUPPORT
Ultimately, ask yourself what is the most important role that parents can play when it comes to their child playing football? The answer of course is as a supporter.
Having already cited Iceland in this article, we are now headed to slightly warmer shores – Australia. For a country with a relatively small population of just over 25 million, Australia punches well above its weight in every sport it takes a serious interest in.
It is worth listening to the Australia Sports Commission, who say: “The greatest gift that you can give to your children throughout their sporting involvement is support. When asked what it is that they would most like from their parents in terms of support, most children suggest encouragement and acceptance of their choices."
Accepting the decisions your child makes in football is to show them support. And to show them support boosts their confidence, their self-esteem and their belief. The best players in the world always talk of supportive parents or coaches in their journey to the top, and it is something we very much believe in at We Make Footballers.
HELPING CHILDREN TO MAKE THEIR OWN DECISIONS
Every child who joins a local football coaching session with We Make Footballers, is allowed to make their own decisions. We fully encourage players to learn from a bad decision and find solutions to problems with guidance and advice rather than letter-of-the-law instructions.
We've found that children learn a far more valuable approach to playing football and have much more fun this way.
This approach has helped We Make Footballers become one of the biggest football coaching providers for children aged 4 to 12 of all abilities in the United Kingdom.
Find your nearest academy running weekly football training sessions and sign your child up to their free-of-charge first session. Have a question about children's football coaching? Just get in touch.