• Nick Bishop

Staying aHEAD of the Game

The FA released some guidance recently instructing that children in the foundation phase of development (those players aged 4-14 - so everyone who comes to Foot-Tech!) should no longer be performing heading in their football training sessions.

This comes as the result of a recently published study and the initiative is also being endorsed by UEFA, the Irish FA and the Scottish FA.

Interestingly, all the bodies mentioned have taken this step even though the study itself found ‘no evidence that heading the ball was the cause to the link with incidence of degenerative neurocognitive disease’.

There has also been no change made to heading in matches for children – due to the limited amount of heading that takes place in youth football matches.

Initially when I saw this guidance it felt like a big change.

Then I thought about it a little more and realised that this update would not be felt in our sessions at all.

Our players won’t even be aware of a change to the rules!

Why?…because one of our (if not the) main principle of how children should learn to play the game is by keeping the ball on the floor: we develop skilful, creative dribblers who are confident on the ball and skilful enough to use it purposefully instead of booting it in the air!

There are some places where you will see children getting a ball and booting it as high as they can into the air.

Not at Foot-Tech.We even request that goalkeepers (which we don’t always use, but the last defender) dribbles and passes out instead of a traditional punt up the field!

For two reasons:

First, and always our primary reason for doing anything, is player development.It is fairly easy to pick the ball up and kick it high up the pitch, it is a lot more difficult to build up play from the back, it takes skill and bravery to instead pass or dribble out.

But skill and bravery are two traits that we look to develop in each of our players at every single session: we think it is incredibly important.

Also, what tends to happen when the ball is kicked long by a goalkeeper?

The other team win the ball.

If this happened from a pass on the floor it would be considered a bad pass, but when it’s cleared long it isn’t seen as a bad pass.

We really value our players keeping possession and an aimless punt is not an effective way to do so!

I think it comes down to fear; fear of having the ball in a defensive area because it feels like when you are in this position (i.e. near your goal with the ball) then it will be easy for the opponent to get the ball off you and score.

Well not if you’re skilful and confident on the ball it won’t!

Which is why they are two of our core principles and developed at every session!

We put players in carefully designed 1v1 activities every single session to teach them how to be successful in these situations, so they no longer have to lump the ball forward, and it really works!

We would also say that you are in a safer position in possession of the ball than without it, if a player does clear it away from their goal it may seem like ‘job done’, but if the ball has just been cleared to the opponent then they will be heading straight back towards your goal anyway!

So, it has only provided some brief respite and then your goal is under threat again.

Secondly, we design our practices based on what players need to be successful at football.This is a constantly evolving idea that we are always adding to.

But there is no doubt, from looking at the elite game, that long, high drop-kicks from a goalkeeper are a lot, lot less frequent than they were.

So, if that is something coaches are encouraging their players to do, I would argue they are preparing them for a game which is being played less and less, which doesn’t make sense.It seems more productive to us to develop the skills that are actually used at the top-level of the game!

Where you do see it happening a lot in youth football matches, I would say it is mainly as a result of the adults (parents and coaches) involved. In fact, it definitely is, because we see at Foot-Tech every session that players can be encouraged and learn to play out confidently from the back – so it certainly can be done!

Those coaches and parents on the side-line shouting for players to clear it!

What are they teaching players?

To panic when they’ve got the ball and kick it as far away from their goal as possible?

To not value possession of the ball?

To not be skilful enough to deal with an opponent trying to tackle them…We’re proud to say (although it does only seem like common-sense to us!) that this is the exact opposite of what we teach in our sessions.

And it’s not like we feel like huge revolutionaries either, (although it seems that way when we see some other football sessions taking place) this whole discussion reminds me of a brilliant Brian Clough quote:“If God had wanted us to play football in the sky, he’d have put grass up there.” Love it!

The idea of the game being played in the air is incredibly outdated. Watch a game of football tonight: Barcelona v Napoli, Chelsea v Bayern Munich and count how many times a goalkeeper kicks the ball high out of their hands.Then count how many times your child’s team’s goalkeeper kicks it out of their hands this weekend – why are we not encouraging our children to play in the same way as the best?

We always look to the best, to the top level, to see what the players at Foot-Tech should be learning to do. And they love it!

Players would always rather emulate their favourite professionals and play like them.

We must also say, we are absolutely not anti-long balls, or anti-heading in the game of football.

But our role is player development in the foundation phase and here, children should be focused on learning to be confident and skilful on the ball, with the ball on the ground.

Longer passes will come later, when they are physically and tactically ready.

This update to the guidelines does provide me with some disappointment though; last week, during half-term we had people away on holiday.

This meant that for one of the sessions I was coaching there were only two players present.

I introduced them to the classic game of 60 seconds (or heads and volleys!) and they seemed to really enjoy it, and it brought back amazing memories for me, I used to play it all the time when I was younger.

They enjoyed it so much I was thinking about how to get more children at Foot-Tech playing it, but for now I’ll have to put that idea on hold.

Maybe I’ll get them all to play Wembley (or Cuppy) instead.

Now that was a game!

Isn’t it strange to think that these games which were so commonplace on the streets and in the parks when we were growing up are unknown to children these days (even those who are obsessed with and play football all the time, which the two at this particular session certainly are).

But that’s a whole different topic for another time!

This is a major development in youth football; at Foot-Tech Academy we’ll just continue to try to stay aHEAD of the game.

Get it? 😉

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