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Avoiding a false dawn

Coaches should let children play freely and have fun. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Actions speak louder than words. The standard of how we do things becomes a mirror for our attitude and commitment to build a new inclusive and open-minded football culture.

The national football team’s recent surge in performances has given the belief that a new dawn beckons.

A new strategy for Maltese football was launched as the Malta FA outlined a clear vision “to boost its investment and build a stronger foundation, prioritising long-term development and the sustainability of Maltese football across all levels”. 

All well and nicely put, but the crucial point is how we set about to achieve this vision especially at grassroots level.

Throughout the past 25 years, there have been several development initiatives within the MFA’s youth football provision.

Although often of substance, these initiatives have been piecemeal led by individuals acting within their own remit but seldom garnering the full ownership of club academies and without seeking a long-term sustainable change in structure and coaching methodology to meet the needs of our young players.

A fit for purpose football strategy as advocated by the MFA is essential to reinvigorate the everyday game, drive participation up in club academies but also in schools and the wider community, developing pathways for young people to become involved and stay in the game.

Lest we lull people into a false sense of confidence, I implore those at the helm to look beyond just introducing new technical projects.

We need transformational leadership with a 360° perspective where we first understand our DNA, our identity and then start building a new inter-collaborative, open-minded culture to create a clear philosophy.

Strategy success is ultimately all about cultivating meaningful relationships and giving ownership to key stakeholders. That’s when everyone is on board and consensus can be achieved to implement the changes needed.

We must start where people are, not where we want them to be. Why are we in football? What does success mean to us? What is the quality of relationships between the stakeholders? How and why do we run our football academies? How do we coach? How do we play, what is our playing philosophy? How do we identify and develop talent? How do we react to winning or losing? How do we speak to children? How do we support our players in and around training; before, during and after a game? What kind of social and psychological support do we give our players?

Our culture is reflected in the daily behaviour of the administrators, coaches, parents and players.

The consistency in our behaviour says a lot about our beliefs, our values and our attitudes. They make up the culture we presently endorse. Together we need to re-examine these critical indicators. This is pivotal to understand the need to build a new culture.

We must agree on the beliefs, the principles we hold to be true in the best interests of our children. Then, we can identify and establish the values, what is truly important to us in developing talent and subsequently improving the level of our game.

We need to have a look at the attitudes, how we approach situations at grassroots level.

Only then can we decode our behaviour going forward, how we should act and embed our new football philosophy, because our behaviours are the direct consequence of our beliefs, values and attitudes.

The following is an overview of some key principles I would like to see in the very eco-system of our grassroots.

■ Player-centred approach – The best coaches are player-centred and person-centred. They acknowledge that if they connect with the individual and if they coach the person and not the sport, they will reach more of their players than by taking a one-size-fits-all approach.

The child must be at the centre of everything a coach does because it is the child’s development journey and the coach should support it, not hijack it. All young players should play at least 50% of games, ideally up to U-14.

■ Small-sided games – Games should be age-appropriate, flexible and with less rivalry competition. More play, more touches, more goals and more fun.

Watch the reality through the eyes of the children. The coach must endeavour to create the best environment for the children to learn and become better as an individual player.

Young players are not mini-adults. The aim should be to eliminate pressure in the early age groups. Let them play freely and have fun.

■ Development over winning – Stop focusing on winning at the expense of development.

This approach creates a lack of balance and leads to high workload and high pressure for young players too soon. Consider a change in match format up to U-13 level.

Coaches and parents should not be concerned about results, tables and trophies. Children compete but adults compare.

Coaches and administrators must change their mind-set. Forget about ‘their team’ and the results and start thinking about the growth of the individual player.

■ Fundamentals of Movement – The need at an early age to focus on the introduction and development of the ABCs of fundamental movement and subsequently the fundamental movement skills for players aged between 6 and 9.

Learning the game step by step starting from the exploration phase up to the developmental phase.

■ Resisting early specialisation – Young players should be encouraged to also sample multiple sports until at least the age of 11. Early specialisation is taking its toll on young players.

In truth, burnout, overuse injuries and declining motivation are more likely to be the outcomes of early specialisation.

Proactively manage young players at risk of over-training and overloading and find ways to keep them in competitive football longer.

■ Game-based training – Coaches should simulate the game in training, creating an environment where players are given the opportunity to learn.

Encourage a guided-discovery, cognitive development by stimulating creativity, decision-making and problem-solving over simply barking instructions. Coaches should observe more and talk less. They should intervene only when there is a learning reason to do so.

■ Talent Identity and Development System – The assumption that early performance is an indicator of late performance needs to be challenged. We need to provide equal opportunities to as many, for as long and as best as possible.

It is crucial to assess potential and not be deceived by current performance. Delay selection for as long as possible. Young players are all different and development is non-linear.

We need to develop more coaches who believe in the concept of learning in development. Competitive opportunities need to reflect this, rather than over-investing in just those players who show early promise.

■ Tackling Relative Age Effect – Implementing an intervention programme using bio-banding by maturity rather than age.

Extend development opportunities and look after the late developers by giving them time to grow physically and fulfil their potential.

Malta has a relatively small player pool. Focusing on winning during the early stages of development just encourages the Relative Age Effect, in turn making the player pool even smaller. It becomes more about the survival of the fittest as opposed to survival of talent.

■ Integrating technology and sports science into youth football development – Bold efforts should be made to explore untapped potential in merging technology and sports science with youth football development practice.

The digital transformation enables coaches to develop individual development plans and connect better with young people as digital self-measurement and data-driven analytics become an integral part of their life.

Athletic player profiling, data analysis, filming training sessions and matches to provide individual feedback has become so much easier through phone apps and other software.

It’s high time to diagnose and cure our fragmentation syndrome.

Let’s bring the best minds, the best practitioners and the key stakeholders together, harness the egos of our football dinosaurs, stop working in silos and adopt an inter-collaborative approach to design a master plan that works effectively in the best interests of our young players.

Only then we can perform better.

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