Pressure one of the most important words in youth development. Pressure in football comes in what I believe to be two forms, internal & external. Internal represents the pressure kids face in the heat of battle, that constant one on one situation that occurs practically every second of gameplay. Pressure is also experienced in gameplay depending on where you are on the field. In the back third, you face both physical and emotional pressure, fear! If you lose possession here you are in real danger of conceding a goal. In the front third there is still pressure but it is a different type of pressure because if you lose the ball here there is no real consequence to the score, however, there is a much greater increase in physical pressure, space is reduced and actions and judgements must be made quicker. Here the player must possess insight creativity and above all a supreme level of skill if they are to break down the defence.
We now move onto the other form of pressure, this is the pressure kids experience directly and indirectly by Parents, Coaches, teammates and more importantly the environment of competition. Generally, these factors are the ones that create all the problems. What we as parents don’t realise when we start screaming at our kids when coaches impose restrictions or attempt to play safe or eradicate mistakes by controlling or imposing specific rules. This is a negative form of pressure that kids should not have to experience. When the score is more important than development this creates the following; the focus of the game changes, fear replaces risk-taking and risk management. Coaches look for characteristics in players which focus more on the physical (athletic) ability rather than other important factors such as technique, insight and most important character! Studies have shown that children must make mistakes in order to learn. You learn from mistakes but if the aim of the coach is to eradicate mistakes then the playing philosophy is driven by this concept. Furthermore fun and learning go hand in hand so it is difficult for children to learn if the game they are playing is by and large a matter of life and death!
Professional footballers must be able to handle external pressures, however handling pressure as an adult cannot be compared to children, it is the environment we create that instils confidence and characteristics that children need to deal with adult pressures later on down the track.
In modern football, the most successful teams are those that have the ability to maintain possession of the ball, so if children are exposed to an environment from day one where they are encouraged and instilled with a philosophy that says the ball must be valued at all times no matter which part of the field we are on, then the player will adapt and learn to manufacture opportunities and soon learn how to assess risks and act on instincts developed from years of trial and error. The coaches role is to insist that the ball is kept and it is up to him to instruct players on the shape, movement, positioning and to recognise where they are on the field and how that will affect the player’s decision-making process.
You may ask how I came to this conclusion. Well for a long time my instincts and observations told me that children do not play competitive football with the same freedom they express when they train and play games that have no consequence. I began to question why? The size of the pitch and the number of kids on it is a factor, it has improved but based on my research we can do better in order to maximise the learning outcome and focusing on what is most important at each stage of the development ladder. In many cases, they lack the cognitive and more important technical and physical attributes to play on an adult pitch. I presumed for the longest of time that the size was to blame. However, by chance, I witnessed a game on a weeknight between two under twelve teams. In this game, there was very little attempt from both teams to try to build up and they struggled to place three or four consecutive passes before losing control or possession. This was an 11 v 11 game and it surprised me as I was very much involved with the development of one of these teams. For about 5-6 weeks I was running skills development sessions and these boys had impressed me with the level of technique and confidence in gameplay. At the time their coach also happens to assist me, coaching at my school so he followed the same principles and philosophy on football development. These lads had only been playing together for approximately 6 months but they had improved immensely in that time. It just so happened that three days later we had an opportunity to organise at short notice a friendly game vs. boys from my school.
These were boys made up of 13/14 years of age, older and physically stronger. Unbelievably the contrast in play was incredible, against older stronger boys with no pressure (coaches on the pitch encouraging possession, coaching on the run) Parents sitting quietly enjoying the play, these same boys who struggled to put 3-4 passes 3 days earlier were now averaging 8-10 passes. At one stage the play began from the keeper, ending near the opposition goal with a combined total of 18 passes! Don’t get me wrong mistake were also aplenty but as the game wore on the player’s confidence increased and after conceding early goals the errors reduced and the play improved.
Unnecessary pressure affects how we perceive football. When we compare the philosophy of the Brazilian game we find that in Brazil you are expected to take risks and the concept of self-expression is ingrained into their culture. Panna or as we like to call it taking the piss! Is an art form. Here we barely see any players attempting to trick another with a sublime piece of skill. Oddly enough in Brazil they also play to win, the coaches are also under pressure however it does not affect their playing philosophy.
How can we as a nation change the culture scape? How do we create positive environments for our kids to learn to grow and allow them to take back their autonomy in playing sports? It starts with you the parent demanding that your children are in a good environment. When you see abuse report it. When you see your child coach or a parent screaming for no good reason, report it. When a child is left on the bench and not offered an equal opportunity, report it. Remaining silent is not an option.