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Reader’s Corner: The state of Grassroots Football (and I’m not talking about the players!)

RR reader Trevor Smith offers his thoughts on the health of the game at local level, and what can be done to improve the experience for players, coaches, officials and spectators. Fancy writing? RokerReport@Yahoo.co.uk - send us an email!

Photo by Alex Livesey - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

Something has to be done.

It’s become embarrassingly bad and the scary thing is that they don’t even know they’re doing it. I’m talking about the conduct of some spectators and coaches in grassroots football.

What’s actually tipped me over the edge is that after years of organising football teams, conducting training, arranging tournaments and dealing with spectators, parents and coaches on a day-to-day basis, I’ve now had enough and I’d like everyone to know why.

However, first of all, I’d like to acknowledge the thousands of fantastic coaches, club officials, referees, parents and other volunteers who give their time to make a valuable contribution to grassroots football. Without them, there would literally be no matches being played.

Last week, I attended a game as a parent, to watch my six-year-old who was playing a twenty-minute game at a local centre. It was an important match (for the coach, as you’ll find out later), as they had the opportunity to win a trophy.

On the drive to the venue, I asked my son if he was looking forward to the big game.

His first response was, “I want to see Jensen, Mohamed & Charlie, I like playing football with them”. I then asked him if he thought his team would win the cup. “I hope so, Dad, but can I still have an ice cream even if we don’t win?”, he replied.

It wasn’t until I started to write this that I really thought about it.

What was important when I was growing up and playing football? What do I remember about those days? It wasn’t the trophies- it was just the feeling of playing and having fun with your mates.

I think so many adults have forgotten that winning isn’t the most important thing when you’re six but unfortunately, we’re now in charge of their experience.

Focus On Non-League Football During The Coronavirus Pandemic Photo by Colin McPherson/Getty Images

On arrival at the pitch, I could see the coach of my son’s team was hyper.

This was an important day....for him. This was finally his chance to relive his past glories (if there were any). He was shouting at them to get warmed up as he put them into a line drill in front of a plastic goal, where they had to pass to him and he would pass the ball back with the instruction of ‘one-touch shooting’.

Each child took their turn to generally miss the goal with their shots, due to a mixture of the poorly-placed pass back from the coach (who didn’t have the knowledge of which foot each child favoured), the fact that he shouted ‘finish’ at the top of his voice after he’d made each bad pass and the fact that they’re six years old and probably shouldn’t be being asked to do one-touch shooting in the first place.

Once they’d taken their shot, they made their way to the back of the line, and the coach didn’t give them any reassurance or guidance as to why they may have missed or asked any questions that may extend their technical development or understanding.

The more they missed, the higher the coach raised his voice, getting more agitated to the point where he shouted, ‘What are you doing?’ to the whole group just before they lined up for the start of the match (*FM – don’t worry, this abbreviation is explained below, so keep an eye out for it).

Grassroots Football Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

As the match kicked off, I noticed the opposition coach was also charged up.

He was obviously looking to win his first ‘major’ trophy as a Level 1 coach in under sevens football, which would undoubtedly put him on the path to replacing Mr. Guardiola when his current contract expires at Manchester City in 2025.

The seventeen year-old referee who usually takes my son’s team was in charge for the trophy decider. I’ve watched him a few times and he’s always good with the kids and polite to the generally much older coaches.

From the first whistle, the opposition coach was giving him grief. Every decision that went against his team he would shout some sarcastic comment such as ‘There’s two teams playing, ref’, followed by, ‘Can’t you point in the other direction?’.

However, as the first half progressed, it quickly became clear that the opposition were indeed the better team.

Lesotho school children practice on Apri Photo credit should read GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP via Getty Images

They were overly coached. You know the type: it’s a five versus five under sevens football match, and the coach is shouting, ‘Get your shape’.

The players are lined up with two defenders, one midfielder and one striker and they’re too scared to move too far away from the exact piece of grass the coach has told them to stand on. The defenders still stand just in front of the edge of the box, even when their team is attacking at the other end.

However, when they inevitably scored, the coach celebrated like Jose Mourinho running down the touchline, and when they scored a deserved second, he gave out an overzealous ‘Yeeeeesssssssss!’ while repeatedly punching the air for about thirty seconds too long (FM).

Manchester United v Fulham - Premier League - Old Trafford Photo by Barrington Coombs/PA Images via Getty Images

At half time, the coach of my son’s team, (who were 2-0 down) gave them an inspiring talk about how well they were doing even though they were losing. Oh no, wait- you didn’t really think he did that, did you?

No, of course he didn’t.

He told them they were playing ‘crap’ and if they wanted to win the cup, they had to ‘switch on’. Of course, after this rousing Churchill-esque speech, he seemed absolutely baffled that things didn’t improve as he expected in the second half (FM).

However, my attention was quickly directed away from him, when five minutes into the second half, the referee gave my son’s team a free kick near the opposition goal.

This caused the coach to almost have a breakdown. He shouted something at the ref that I didn’t catch, and in return, he replied quite calmly that ‘It was definitely a free-kick’, to which the coach shouted across the pitch- in front of all the young players and other spectators - ‘You f****** stupid c***’ (FM).

Reveal Media’s New Referee Safety Camera Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images for Reveal Media

There was a moment of shock which seemed to last forever, but was probably no more than ten seconds. This led one of the mothers to shout, ‘Why did you say that, ya prick?’.

I took an intake of breath to correct what she’d said, but then bottled out at the last second and thought better of it when I saw she had misspelled tattoos and three empty bottles of Magners at her feet at 10:20 am. The tension was eventually broken by one of the kids saying ‘Ooh, he said a really naughty swear’ to one of his teammates.

Now, I fully understand that my six year-old will not be a professional footballer.

He’s just getting to grips with his fundamental movement skills and general coordination, so this isn’t a big worry for me, and anyway, the chances of him turning pro are small. I mean very small.

In fact, the number of boys who make it to a professional level is about 0.9%, but what surprises me is the number of parents who behave like their child is already a professional footballer in the under sevens age group.

They ‘cheer’ their offspring on from the sidelines to get the ball, then they shout at them if they make a mistake whilst ripping into the referee for every decision they don’t agree with. They think they’re showing support, but they’re really not (FM).

If you’re interested in football, then you’ve probably heard and perhaps seen various reports about overly involved coaches and parents behaving badly at children’s matches. You’ve probably seen them, and I bet you thought ‘Moron’ (or words to that effect as I’m trying my best to keep this clean).

This type of behaviour is leading to many children across the country quitting not just football but sport in general.

It’s more important than ever that we get our children active. Physical activity levels in primary school children are well below the government recommendations, with one in five children starting primary school at reception age either overweight or obese.

The problem gets worse throughout those formative primary school years, with one in three children leaving Year Six either overweight or obese. Unhealthy children grow into unhealthy adults, leading to the next generation of inactive children.

Youth Development Review Manchester FA Photo by Paul Thomas - The FA/The FA via Getty Images

In 2010 The FA conducted the ‘FA Youth Review’, where they asked thousands of young players from around the country about their experiences in grassroots football.

They found kids love playing, and they like their parents to take an interest.

What they don’t like is when mums and dads get too involved from the touchline or put too much pressure on them to do well.

With that in mind, I’ve put together a handy little guide that’s written in a more direct way, and not the ‘softly softly’ approach of other campaigns you may have seen.

The guide below is for clubs to share with coaches and parents, in the vain hope that it may help in some way if they spot a ‘football moron’, so let’s get started.

There are several easy ways to spot a ‘Football Moron’ (from now on this will be abbreviated to ‘FM’)

WHAT YOU DO

Here’s some information that FM’s usually ignore, from the ‘FA Guide to Youth Football’ document

Specifically, the FA #PlayYourPart campaign ‘code of conduct for spectators and parents/carers’.

1. Match day tips: stay behind the touchline and within the ‘Designated Spectators’ area (where provided).

This is related to safeguarding guidelines:

  • If it says ‘stay off the pitch’, guess what, Einstein? Don’t go on the pitch.
  • No, you can’t walk across the pitch with your pushchair.
  • Yes, you have to walk around perimeter, even though it’s fifty seven more steps.
  • Saying ‘Does it matter?’ when a member of staff asks you not to walk on the pitch.

Any of the above makes you the brand new entry, straight in at number one at the top of the ‘FM’ chart.

2. Match day tips: only players and officials should be on the pitch

  • Are you the overly keen parent who goes onto the pitch and stands next to the coach on the sideline? Guess what, he doesn’t want you there, and they’re being polite, so go and stand back behind the perimeter fence (FM)
  • The coaches don’t go to your work and shout instructions just because they’ve watched an episode of ‘DIY SOS’

3. FA guideline: coaches shouldn’t be smoking or vaping when coaching or working with children.

Club officials are expected to be friendly, professional and positive role models.

Basically, follow the rules of the venue, because this is non negotiable.

  • If a member of the venue staff asks you to do something, comply with their request.
  • The rules are in place for a reason and are usually set by The FA & County FA standards.
  • Read the rules & abide by them. If you don’t want to, don’t go to the venue, which makes everybody’s life easier.
  • In 2020, the Football Association of Wales banned all smoking at children’s football matches. I wonder how long it’ll take for The FA to implement the same rule across England?

WHAT YOU SAY

Taken from The FA ‘12 Rules’ document updated in 2012 following the FA Youth Review:

The FA wants junior football to be calmer & safer, creating the right environment for faster development.

These rules will also encourage players to be more skilful and make matches more competitive.

4. FA Guideline: Only the coach to issue instructions to the players.

Law 1: ‘No Instructions Rule’: coaches may ask questions that prompt players to think for themselves but must not shout instructions during matches.

It’s now gotten so bad that the FA have introduced the ‘Silent Support Weekend’s’.

It’s basically the governing body telling everyone to keep quiet because they don’t know what they’re talking about. I love these, mainly because I don’t have to listen to the FM’s shouting nonsensical gibberish onto the pitch.

However, perhaps unsurprisingly, you still do get the real hardcore FM’s shouting things from the sidelines.

Let me give you some highlights:

  • Shout ‘Get rid’ if you’d like to instantly qualify as a FM.
  • Shouting ‘Get into it, man!’, usually while smoking, also gives you a tick in the FM box.
  • A particular favourite is ‘Pass it’ (also usually followed by ‘man’), which as you can imagine, isn’t the most intelligent footballing wisdom to offer to the participating youngsters and therefore, you’ll receive a big, shiny gold star with the letters ‘FM’ written on it.

5. FA guideline: No shouting at the referee

To all the FM’s out there: if you haven’t worked it out already, if the referee gives a decision against your team and it’s a fifty-fifty call, you’re not going to agree with it, because you’re supporting your team.

However, the reason you qualify as a ‘FM’ is because you don’t have to scream and shout about it from your biased viewpoint.

The referee in this case is a seventeen year-old lad who’s just learning, who isn’t biased towards any team and just wants his match fees to spend on the recreational high of his choice at the weekend.

HOW YOU COACH

Here’s some information from the #LetThemPlay campaign

  • FA match day tips: A good coach can be a role model that youngsters will remember for the rest of their lives
  • Walking around like an overly confident bouncer from ‘Annabel’s’ in the nineties.
  • Standing two or three metres on the pitch during the game and trying to get your instructions across by shouting

(This is the easiest way to claim your FM certificate)

6. There are lots of different ways to create a positive environment.

Some coaches think they are not involved unless they continually offer instruction. But instead of doing a running commentary, let the players make decisions, allow them to make mistakes and learn from them.

(*Taken from ‘FA Guidelines for Grassroots Youth Football’).

In training sessions:

  • Doing excessive line drills, then complaining the kids aren’t behaving (they’re bored, you complete FM)
  • By the time they’ve reached the front, particularly in cold weather, they’ve probably been standing around for four or five minutes doing nothing and if you do that drill two or three times...I’ll let you work it out.
  • No guidance as to how they can improve (i.e. the shooting line drill). Ask questions that get them thinking.
  • Telling the children that they have to do ‘one-touch’. This type of instruction has to be age-appropriate, and a better way is to ask them to use one touch whenever they can but use more if they think they need it (which gives them more decisions to make).

There are usually one or two FM’s at every grassroots football venue, and if you can’t spot them, maybe it’s you.

Grassroots football is a mess, and it’s been a ticking time-bomb for a while now.

The venue organisers are fed up with the FM parents and coaches, the coaches are fed up with the FM parents, the parents are fed up with the FM coaches, the refs are fed up with the FM coaches and parents, and the players are fed up with the FM coaches and parents.

What do you think will happen?

Resources:

12 Rules document: http://www.respectleague.com/resources/12RULES.pdf

https://www.thefa.com/-/media/thefacom-new/files/get-involved/youth-football/youth-football-guide-2020-mobile-

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