Playing Up an Age Group

 

Do you have a particularly talented player in your team? Often in smaller grassroots clubs (in terms of the total number of registered players), there might not be a team in a higher division for this talented player to join for a greater challenge, meaning they need to stay in a team with players a lot further behind in terms of their development, or instead play up in an older age group.

Maybe they can join a different club that plays at a higher level, for example going from a community club to an NPL club, but this isn’t an option for Miniroos age groups, and even with teenage players, by the time you have indentified the player’s talent, it may be too late to make such a move (local NPL clubs may have already finished selecting their teams at the end of the previous year). So there might not be a chance for them to move up a level until next season. Or, maybe they actually trialled but missed out on a place with an NPL team, but within your team they are still a step above everyone else.

In the past when the number of players playing football in Australia was smaller, there often wasn’t a choice, especially in regional areas and especially for girls – you would often see players as young as 12 years old sometimes in the senior women’s squad, because there wasn’t anywhere else for them to play. Or girls would have to play with boys throughout their junior years (assuming that was an option at all, and assuming they would be comfortable with that), which can be argued does have some benefits socially for the boys and for the development as a player for the girl, but there are now more and better pathways for female players.

The most important principle is that you shouldn’t hold a talented player back who wants to push themselves. At the same time, a talented player who doesn’t want to be challenged and just wants to play socially with their friends for example, should also have their choices respected. Taking on a greater challenge can be encouraged, and providing some information and advice on the potental benefits of pushing themselves might help them realise that they actually would like to give it a try, but again, it should not be a case of forcing or pressuring them.

If they do end up staying in their current team, the difference in quality might also have a negative impact on their teammates if they end up trying to do everything themelves out of frustration at the other players not being able to play the way that they can. This would also cause their teammates frustration too. To avoid such a conflict in the squad, try giving this player individual challenges: in training they can have a limited number of touches for example, or be rewarded more if they set up goals than for scoring them by themselves. It could also be a case of asking them to help other players, like as a mentor, if they are willing to try that. Be careful not to do this all the time however, as sometimes they might just want to play freely without restriction or needing to worry about someone else.

For those who are keen to take the next step, there are still questions to consider before before moving them up, whether that is to a higher division or a higher age group. Are they the best player in the team EVERY week, not just sometimes? This is a step every player should work towards before being considered for a promotion to a higher division or age group, as this shows/justifies that they are more likely to be ready for the step up.

Skill is not the only consideration however, especially when it comes to playing with older players. The difference in age might result in a physical mismatch. For example, consider this scenario:

Imagine your player is an U14, born on December 31, 2005. This means they are the youngest player in your team, as everyone else would have been born earlier in that year. Now, imagine the team they moving up to (U15) consists of players all born in January 2004. This means they would be 24 months behind all of their new teammates in terms of their physical development. The gap between their respective dates of birth is only a guide too, as their respective biological ages may be even greater than this, and smaller players often stay smaller because they are constantly using a lot more energy to keep up with their bigger peers. Of course, this is a very unlikely scenario, but it helps highlight an important point.

What is the actual difference between U14s level and U15s level in terms of football? They play the same game with the same rules, and players can be equally talented at both levels, so what does the physical advantage of an extra year of playing the game allow U15s to do differently? The answer is intensity: they can play a bit faster. It is the same principle when comparing an U20s team and senior men, or an NPL side and an A-League side. This can be illustarted by looking at football actions per minute, represented with an X:

U14s might be used to a certain intensity                    X – – – X – – – X
U15s might be used to a slightly higher intensity       X – – X – – X

So there is a risk: pushing a player up an age group may result in it becoming a situation of physical survival for that player, instead of survival of the best football talents. They will be pushed off the ball more, and struggle to keep up with the pace, instead of being able to use their higher level of skill to their advantage. This might also result in them actually playing less too, because the coach might feel they need more time to adapt.

The extra exertion the player will need to make to keep up is the same as training longer, and so therefore there is a risk of overtraining. This can lead to injuries and growth issues, especially if they also play other sports or do extra training outside of team training, which can be common for talented players.

Even more caution should be taken when considering having them play and train with both teams. Also, moving to higher age group AND a higher division is an even greater jump, as in moving up two age groups. This can become an ethical issue – you don’t want to stunt their growth for life by pushing them too far. It is actually a lot more common than people realise for young athletes to get burnt out through overtraining. Perhaps one option is to join a team in an older age group but at a lower division – the only question then will be, is it still even worth changing at all?

If this line of thinking suggests being careful when having a smaller player join a team of much more physically developed players, then logically then opposite should be true, right? If a player is much bigger than their peers, should they automatically be moved up?

The first question to consider in this scenario is whether football is a primarily physical or technical sport? The answer is actually quite simple – look at Lionel Messi. End of argument!

Consider this scenario:
A bigger player in U14s often has more time and space on the ball: their usual behaviour is to dribble, even when a forwards pass might actually be the best option, because they can get away with it. Coaches may not even notice the missed passing opportunities that much, because this bigger player will rarely lose the ball, and often score great goals with powerful shots, due to their size. It might become a case of ‘accepting the good with the bad’. For an age group like U14s however, simply ‘accepting’ flaws, no matter how good they may be at other things, might not be the best approach.

Now this player moves up to U15s. Here they find their physical size less of an advantage, and there is also less time and space because the older players can play with greater intensity. So their new behaviour now becomes to look for forward passes because they cannot get away with dribbling and shooting from distance all the time anymore.

Stimulus: more time and space = response: dribble
Stimulus: less time and space = response: pass forwards

But what if after a while, the player adapts to the higher age group, and starts to find themselves in more time and space on occasion, like before? Time and space = dribble, so even in the older age group, their behaviour actually hasn’t changed at all (only the stimulus has). The issue is decision making, which means even if they were to one day graduate to the senior team, they will still have this same stimulus-response pattern, which is obviously not going to be a good thing for them at that level where a physical advantage is much less useful (i.e. Lionel Messi).

The solution is, they need to be coached to make better decisions. It is easy to see good execution, especially when they can use their physical size to dominate, but as a coach, can you assess their decision making and help them improve it? A bigger player needs to be good enough to play up an age group, not just big enough (sympton vs. cause), and this includes decision making.

What if you have several players who would benefit from a greater challenge in your team? Surely you can’t have half of your squad leave for another team? Of course not – the answer is that the whole team needs to improve! Their training needs to increase in intensity step by step, so that in one year’s time, they are all at least at U15 level, if not even ready for a higher division too.

In the end, all of this is just a reference to consider. Sometimes at grassroots level, especially when clubs are small, there might not be many options. Players may need to move up an age group because there is no other team for them, or the age group above needs extra players to make a squad viable whilst the squad below has too many. There are various other possible reasons that could become a factor – training night availability, travel arrangements etc. In the end, common sense must prevail, but when considering pushing a player up, it is important to be aware of and understand the risks involved, both physcially, socially and for their development as a player. Don’t gamble with these things, or in ignorance just hope it all works out, but make an informed decision.

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Posted in Coaching, Player development

Working With Parents

Working with Parents

Have you ever had issues with parents coaching the players during matches? They could sending conflicting messages to your instructions, or it might just be a case of too many voices potentially distracting the players from making their own decisions. Or do you have problems with training commitment or punctuality? Are some parents just not on the same page as you when it comes to your objectives for the team (maybe they take it much too seriously for example), or maybe they aren’t actually involved at all, but you’d like them to be.

These are all common concerns for grassroots coaches when it comes to working with parents, sometimes even for those coaches working in older age groups. The starting point needs to be seeing it as ‘working’ with them, because ‘dealing’ with them or ‘managing’ them already sets the wrong tone. They are part of the team, and a coach’s job includes working with players as well as parents. Rather than being a burden, it can actually be an opportunity.

The reality for a lot of grassroots coaches is that you might also be one of the parents yourself, except that you volunteered to coach the team and the others didn’t. So although you certainly deserve recognition and respect for your time and efforts, don’t forgot that you are all on the same side and all want the best for the players. Parents also play an important role because they pay the registration fees, drive the kids to training sessions and matches, they usually cheer on the team on match days, while they are also often the main reason why kids take up the sport in the first place.

Many issues can simply come from different expectations. When it comes to parents, a question to reflect on is: did you communicate with them about what your expectations are, and what theirs are too?

This question can also relate to the players, because sometimes coaches can get frustrated, and the players can too, when they have different expectations about their objectives, and what they want from their participation in football. Sometimes coaches can make the mistake of putting their own personal objectives first, or just assuming that their players have the same motivations and ambitions that they do. Have you asked your players what they want from the season? It might be quite an eye opening moment for you to try this if you haven’t previously.

One of the most valuable pieces of advice that a coach working at any level of the game can take advantage of is to have a team meeting, ideally after your first training session or at least early on in pre-season. Don’t waste precious training time by doing it during training, and also make sure the first training sessions you run are top quality so you can automatically gain some credibility with the players on the pitch before doing any meetings, which will help them buy into you and your process better. Use this meeting to guide the players on establishing some team rules which they choose based on options you outline, so they take some responsibility for them – if they question a rule later on, you can remind that it’s their rule that they choose together, not yours, meaning all you need to do is enforce it.

A meeting like this, with parents involved too, can cover all sorts of different topics, including examples such as:

  • outline your background and philosophy as a coach
  • explain your attitude towards winning vs. development, and the benefits of the style of play you will be working towards
  • detail your policy on game time and position rotation, or maybe make it a group discussion
  • make clear what you expect i.e. punctuality, level of commitment, communication type and timing etc (for missing and being late to training and matches)
  • suggest ways that parents can help the team e.g. how best to show their support during matches (and to avoid conflicting messages), any roles they can fill such as team manager, assistant coach, stats or video recording (great for those who get frustrated on the sideline), running goalkeeper warm ups, pre-game goal setting tasks with players in the car etc
  • guide the players towards selecting the best method of captaincy and leadership group selection (weekly, or for the season)
  • guide the players towards the right kind of attitude to have on aspects such as fair play and respect etc
  • guide the players towards selecting the most appropriate consequences for breaking any established team rules (don’t let it become too extreme though)

It might also be worth checking if your club has any policies or guidelines on any of these topics to avoid contradicting them. Has the club also engaged with parents too, either though handouts, emails, or even an information session? Consider also asking the club to support your team meeting by hosting it in their club rooms, and perhaps even organising some food for everyone and bringing along someone like the President and/or Technical Director to be involved so they can share their perspective, and support you as well so that it doesn’t feel like ‘you vs. the parents’. If this is not possible though, it certainly isn’t a barrier to making the meeting happen – standing together in a group for 15 minutes or so next to the training pitch is sufficient.
If some parents don’t make the meeting, there are various ways you can update them, as well as to summarise the conversation for those who did attend, using email or handouts for example. And when it comes to the regular season, keeping parents updated can also be beneficial, as well as being appreciated by them.

Another way to do this is having parents listen in to brief team discussions. You probably don’t want them there for pre-game or half time talks however, to avoid distraction and potential conflicting messages again. Brief wrap-ups after training sessions and matches might have some value though, as you can get certain messages across to both them and the players, which might also influence the tone of any discussions parents might have with their children in the car during the drive home (e.g. instead of the first question after a match being “did you win”, it might become something more like “how did you play?”). Some examples of messages you might like to get across during a post-game wrap up could include:

  • “it’s a shame we lost today, but we played well and should continue trying our best”
  • “it’s great that we won today, but we still have a lot to improve and work on at training if we want win again next week”

This all can start as early as any pre-season friendly matches your team might participate in. Even practice matches can be used to establish the team’s approach to fair play and respect, managing game time and trying out positions, and establishing your style of play. Even if the match is very low key because you couldn’t source an official referee, or a proper pitch, and even if one of the teams doesn’t have enough players and you need to share, all of these things can still be a focus for you and your team. And of course, because the result doesn’t matter, you can focus more on the performance, and take it as a opportunity to just observe and take notes of how the players do in a match situation.

If you already have or manage to recruit an assistant coach, especially one you haven’t worked with before, this is also a great opportunity to do a practice run with them before you play any official matches. At grassroots level having an assistant can often be a luxury – so don’t waste them! It is important to establish their role in regards to all aspects of coaching the team, so that they feel useful and are useful, and then don’t actually overstep their responsibilities and possibly confuse the players (which might happen in a genuine attempt to help if they aren’t given any meaningful tasks). That may include helping with training sessions (e.g. pre-planned one-on-one coaching while the head coach runs the session, or these roles reversed, or both running two activities side by side etc), as well as planned involvement in helping the team prepare on match days, analysis, half time team talks etc. The more both coaches work together the better (two heads are better than one), plus it will be seamless if the assistant ever needs to cover for you. It only takes a little planning to work well, much like working parents.

Have you got some players or parents asking questions about playing up an age group, and you’re not sure how to respond, or how to decide what the best option is? Stay tuned for the next blog!

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“Just play games”

So, it’s pre-season and you’ve been handed a bunch of players (many of whom
you might not know), some balls and equipment (but not that much), and asked
to run a training session for them. Although you might have a season or two
of coaching under your belt, given the circumstances, what should you do?
Just play games maybe? Surely you can’t go wrong with that, right?

There is a common misconception out there that the FFA National Curriculum
promotes the idea of simply “playing games” at
training, in other words small-sided football. This comes from the fact that
the use of isolated drills for the development of core skills is now
discouraged, such as dribbling through cones or passing back and forth in
pairs, because they don’t involve decision making. Young football players
need to learn how to dribble or pass in thousands of different ways
depending on the situation, unlike gymnastics for example where execution is
supposed to done the same way every time. Isolated drills also used to be
popular because they are easy for grassroots coaches to run, but the good
news is that so are small-sided football games!

‘Cops and Robbers’ for example, like many of the activities included in the
‘FFA Discovery Phase’, is a great ‘game’, especially for very young players
to work on their ball control because it involves a lot of movement,
interaction, and decision making all at the same time. It’s even a game that
older players will enjoy as a warm up. But this is a training exercise, not
a match, and so the confusion also comes from different terminology about
what a ‘game’ is.

The FFA Football Conditioning model might also reinforce this idea, where the motto is “Football is Conditioning, Conditioning is Football”. The emphasis here is on playing a
series of either 4v4, 7v7 and 11v11 games in training with senior teams to
improve fitness at the same time as developing communication between the
players as they play football, rather than isolated running for example. The
problem with this can be that these games must be very intense – they must
push the players physically to their limits – otherwise it defeats the
purpose of taking this approach and the players will not actually improve
their fitness levels.

Although this concept might seemingly not be applicable to junior coaches
who don’t need to work on developing fitness at younger ages, the principle
actually has some relevance, especially in pre-season. Often at grassroots
clubs, teams will not be formed straight away as trials/grading take place,
or age groups train together as coaches are sourced and friendship groups
established. And so a similar problem occurs: if the players just go through
the motions during small-sided football, they aren’t getting the maximum
benefit out of it that they could be. As much as players will often ask
during training session: “when are we going to play a game?”, playing
small-sided football games with no specific objective and no intensity will
result in the players taking it easy and just ‘mucking around’. Although
unstructured play is actually a very good thing, for proper training
sessions where you want to improve the players, we all know how much the
kids mucking around can make that very hard for a coach! And if we give them
what they want – a match – then surely they will behave, right?? The reality
that we all know is, even senior grassroots players will muck around at
training when they can get away with it.

So, how can you get that intensity?

You might be coaching an age group anywhere from U7s up to seniors, you
might have boys or girls or even a mixed team, you might have a team full of
very good players or a team of beginners, or you might have a mix of skill
levels. You might also have a settled squad or a random group of players. Is
there a common way to achieve the required intensity regardless of which
players you are working with?

There is one method, and it doesn’t require complicated planning or any
extra time to organise. It’s all about how you set up the games, and then
how you manage them.

FORMAT
Why do kids love to play matches? Because they love to compete. So the clue
is competition. If you put competition into an activity, whatever activity
it is, you will suddenly see a higher level of motivation and effort.

So one idea could be to organise a ’round robin’ tournament, for example
like a ‘World Cup’ or ‘Champions League’, or even based on the A-League,
W-League or Asian Cup.

Split the players up randomly (or evenly according to skill – but don’t tell
them you are doing this) into four teams, and then let them choose their
country or club team, so that they already start communicating with each
other before they start playing and get into that habit.

The draw for a four team tournament is easy to organise with two pitches
side by side:

Round 1
A v B
C v D

Round 2
A v C
B v D

Round 3
A v D
B v C

If you have the time and desire, then you could also finish with a finals
series.

* Semi Finals: 1st v 3rd and 2nd v 4th (this is likely to be more
competitive than doing 1st v 4th and 2nd v 3rd)

* Finals: the winners and losers in the semi-finals play each other in the
grand final and 3rd place playoff respectively

PITCH SIZE
The temptation, often due to lack of available space, is to play the matches
in quite a small area. The sizes recommended are usually around 30m x 20m or
40m x 30m, depending on the age group and number of players, but often you
will see pitches set up as 30 steps x 20 steps, which is actually a lot
smaller (it would probably be more like 45 steps by 30 steps).

The other thought process behind this is that small pitches put a lot of
pressure on players which will help them develop. This is true, and
small-sided football is fantastic for a number of reasons , but there is a risk that making the games too small will actually create too much pressure and too much chaos. With grassroots players, it is also important to be aware of players who are avoiding being
involved in the play (hiding in the crowd due to a lack of confidence), as
well as being lazy (not moving into good positions or making an effort to
defend). If the pitch is a little bit larger (but still within the
recommended range), this can solve both of these problems, as well as
hopefully encouraging better play (rather than 2m passes and lots of 1v1
dribbling for example).

In 11v11 football on a full size pitch, most of the players are often in a
more condensed area of the pitch as everyone follows the ball, so if players
in small-sided football are lazy in a slightly larger pitch and cause it to
become too spread out, or start booting the ball over greater distances
rather than looking to pass, then this is still a problem. But it is a
problem that can be solved with coaching, which after all, is why you are
there.

If your players tend to not create space or get back when defending enough
in proper matches on the weekend, or boot the ball long too often despite
you encouraging the opposite of both of these, perhaps it is because they
are used to playing small-sided football in training that is so small that
they don’t experience situations where either of these behaviours are
possible until weekend matches. With the larger space and pressure of a real
opposition team, and little experience with this situation, it’s actually
not that surprising that they might suddenly play differently, and also not
be used to the effort required to cover the greater space.

RULES
Ideally, allow the players to choose which rules they’d prefer to have in
the tournament (you outline their options though), so they take some
responsibility for following them. They could be rules that apply to the
whole tournament, and/or rules that apply only to certain matches, to mix
things up. You could also try different rules during different training
sessions, allowing you to utilise this format more than once without it
getting too repetitive.

Some examples of tournament rules could be:
– first pass from all restarts is not free, but opponents must be 3m away
(force them to create good options)
– bonus points for goals scored with only 1-touch to encourage passing (and
positioning to score)
– bonus points for goals scored with their weaker foot
– add some technical points (good use of skill and teamwork) and respect
points (fair play and respect) to the competition ladder, awarded as you see
fit
– make the goals wider and every team must play with a goalkeeper, even if
they don’t have one (they can rotate, or one or two players can volunteer)
use 2 goals each end (one on each wing) to encourage spreading out, as well as switching play when one side gets too crowded
– change the scoring method to ‘line football‘ where players must dribble
the ball over the end line, or receive a pass as they run over (or do both
at the same time but maybe reward one with a higher number of points)

Although more common rules such as 2-touch minimum/maximum and needing to
pass a minimum number of times can be useful when players are not in the
habit of taking a first touch, or they dribble too much, or don’t look to
pass often enough, consider avoiding using rules such as this when they
aren’t needed to avoid taking away decision making. For example, what if
passing the ball 1-touch, or dribbling, or scoring within only one or two
passes, is actually the best decision in that moment? Or, what if they take
two touches and then shield the ball because they realise they cannot take
any extra touches, or what if an attacker is right in front of goal but
cannot shoot because they still need to pass two more times – is this
realistic? Sometimes it can better to just modify the structure of the game
and the method of scoring or winning to encourage a certain way of playing,
and then letting the players come up with their own solutions on how to
achieve that.

Either way, if you set a rule, make sure you enforce it! Otherwise the
players might cheat or just ignore the rule. BUT, encourage them to referee
their own games as much as possible and resolve issues quickly, to develop
negotiation skills, avoid wasting time debating minor incidents, and needing
you to police everything.

EXTRAS
Some other ideas you could use include:

– if you score, you get to keep the ball (force the other team to work even
harder to win possession back)
– instead of corners, just do goalkicks, but 3 corner ‘points’ = a goal, or
a penalty kick
– a certain number of players must all be over the halfway line for any goal
scored to count (increase concentration and movement off the ball, but also
effort from the defending team)
– unexpected scenarios e.g. change the score, or award throw-ins to the
wrong team deliberately, to teach them to focus on their task even if things
go against them
– to encourage them to always be aware of their team shape and positioning,
after a restart you could say: “first team to set up in their diamond
formation gets a bonus goal!”
– to prevent them from switching off during drink breaks, after 1 minute you
could say: “first team to come in and sit down as a group gets a bonus
point!”

Of course, at some point you will want to go back to running regular
training sessions. And in this case, the same principle applies
– intensity! Whether it’s passing practices or running with the ball
activities, 4v2 or 5v3 games or anything else, make sure it pushes the
players to their limits so they can be challenged and improve. A quick tip
is to pay a lot of attention to the quality of defensive pressure being
applied, so it creates realistic pressure for the attacking players to deal
with. The players will tire more quickly if you do this too, and so they’ll
also appreciate drink breaks more (instead of mucking around). A good way to
start is with a session focused on quick counter attacking and transition
into defence (with time limits for scoring), and then following this up in
subsequent sessions with a strong emphasis on the defensive effort required,
regardless of the overall focus, to ensure you get the highest possible
quality.

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