Football Academy Progress Report
We’re just finished the 6th week of our girls football academy training on Sunday mornings in Fairview. The aim in the short term has been to provide an appropriate outlet for further development for a number of the older girls from the various weekly Fun Direction activities. These are a dozen girls (aged 7-10) that above all want to progress “to play on a team” (mainly football but not exclusively) and this has shown in their enthusiasm for attending our weekly activities going back a year, and the way they have applied themselves to those activities. They are also at the stage where a generic once-weekly, multi-sport activity may not be challenging enough for them to progress in sport.
My own daughter Emma has been involved in this type of “academy” or “nursery” environment for the past 2 years in Belvedere, except almost completely surrounded by boys. She still happily attends the Belvedere academy on Saturday mornings and this week I sounded her out (as I regularly do on Fun Direction topics) as to which she preferred… “Fun Direction – I prefer playing with girls”. She is challenged more when playing with the boys and responds well to that additional challenge but still values the opportunity to play with girls above the standard of competition or skill level. The astroturf facilities she plays on with the boys are also better than Fairview Park where she plays with the girls. She has never remarked on this.
While subtle differences, these indications in my view are very important. We all want to belong to something and for her, she “belongs” more with her female pals than male pals that she knows at least equally well. As a parent and coach, I notice the standard of her play is currently better with boys than with girls but that doesn’t register with her and I take the view it shouldn’t concern me either for the moment. As I progress the girls academy, particularly playing other girls teams, I will find ways to challenge Emma in that environment and give her opportunities to develop further.
For young boys in sport, my experience is they pay little or no attention to their friends being on the same team – they simply want the “best” player on their team in training or matches. Against that, the “social” aspect of girls participating in sport and doing something their friends are doing is much more important than it is for boys. During breaks in coaching sessions, young boys invariably fill that time by kicking a ball repeatedly against the nearest fence or wrestling a ball from another player. Young girls are more likely to use that time gathering in 2’s and 3’s with their closest pals chatting. If this is important to them (and in my experience it is) they should get the opportunity to do that in a session. This doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t be challenging them still. All sport is about challenges, some little and some bigger. While having fun is always the primary motivation for young children participating, they also like to overcome appropriate challenges and coaches need to provide these in their sessions. The emphasis with girls is just slightly different.
For our initial girls academy sessions, we’ve spent a lot of time on ball mastery and getting the girls comfortable with the ball at their feet. Most of the girls have reached a point where they can control the ball properly and are kicking the ball properly. I’ve used 1v1 and 2v2 games to try to progress that control of the ball into a more challenging environment where another girl or girls are trying to take their ball off them. Learning at this age is a messy process so don’t expect to see well executed drills where players behave in a neat and correct fashion as prescribed !
In 2v2 exercises with the girls, my main coaching points are:
- For all players to understand the benefit of getting to the ball first.
- For the ball carrier to recognise and evaluate the choice between dribbling and passing to their team-mate
- For their team-mate to understand how to move into position to best receive a pass
- For the pair who don’t have the ball, to defend, tackle to win the ball back
We always finish with 4v4 small-sided game and while there is still a tendency for the girls to swarm around the ball, they are starting to appreciate the idea of using space on a pitch. I’m a firm believer in less-developed players learning from watching and playing with more-developed players to everyone’s benefit. I also believe good coaching is largely about creating a positive learning environment where mistakes are embraced and skills are acquired in game settings rather than in isolation, in a sterile environment.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll try to introduce the concept of passing and moving. When you try something new with young kids, the first time is invariably particularly messy. The 2nd time is less so and I find by the 4th time it looks a bit more like what it “should”. Concentrating on one theme for a block of 6 sessions usually ensures improvement and understanding without becoming monotonous for the kids. You can see positive results in the way kids take the ideas on board. It’s easy to be disheartened if the results aren’t obvious immediately, but if it’s worth learning, it’s generally a process for which there are no shortcuts.
I am organising some 5-a-side matches for the girls in coming weeks. Kids love an occasion and playing another “team” with real “jerseys” is an occasion for them. Even for young kids, it sharpens their focus so that their intensity levels are much higher than a training environment. That is an important “learned” experience and is ingrained in most kids without any adult prompting. The beauty of non-competitive small-sided games is that adults can (and should) play down the importance of “results” as opposed to enjoyment and learning for all players. As a coach, I am vocal during training sessions, mainly to maintain a high level of intensity in sessions. That’s not necessary in a match situation and that’s also the opportunity for real decision-making to be learned if kids aren’t been instructed from the sideline. Game intelligence starts at a young age !