By Adam Burrows
(The author is the Academy Manger at It’s Just Football – a KOOH Sports Company. He is an English football coach who holds a UEFA B License. Adam led a team of coaches and also worked alongside national team coaches to help shape the England DNA Philosophy. He has worked for a number of professional English clubs Reading FC, Wycombe Wanderers, Barnet FC, Middlesex Girls C of E).
“A human being will eventually be what his or her childhood has been”.
There is a lot of scientific research to support the exact age of when children should play and engage in sporting activities. This is normally based on aspects such as their physical maturation and cognitive development. However this article will help you to understand other variables when considering what age your son/daughter should start playing football.
The development during the first years of your life is vital as they help to shape and form who you become. A child’s physical and social development is not a smooth upwards curve but instead a journey that is filled with peaks and troughs as you negotiate your way through the formative years.
Too Much, Too Soon.
I’ve always believed in the power of sport, but I never believed I’d witness sport so powerful than the way it can engage and captivate a child, to help shape the person that they are tomorrow. We all have a first memory of either observing or participating in sport, and those early encounters help shape our attitude towards physical participation. For me it was a cold, wet and windy morning in England (there have been a few of these), in my first football kit, boots too big and thinking of a million and one other things I would rather be doing than attending my first football session as a 6 year old boy. The coach had us line up, shoulder to shoulder and threw the ball to each of us in turn expecting us to control and volley back to the coach. This was a skill that I had no instruction on how to achieve, and was expected to execute with 20 other players watching. A very daunting task for my first session and the end result was the ball connecting with my face, an outburst of laughter (including the coach) and ultimately the end of my ‘promising’ football career.
The worst thing about the experience was that even though they had good intentions – I had been ultimately forced to attend the session by my parents. Although they meant well, a negative first experience of playing was more detrimental to my development than not playing at all. This is very important to consider when exposing your child to their first football experience.
As with most things, the sooner you start something the better, as you begin to build on hours of purposeful practice and muscle memory on how to execute certain movements. However, field research into the subject matter has concluded that the time employed in mastering a particular skill or technique can be lost if it’s carried out at an inappropriate age. The ‘appropriate age’ can differ from child to child and will be dependent on the individual and their willingness to participate.
The Environment is Key
Another important aspect to consider is the definition of ‘winning’ and ‘success’ to you as a parent but most importantly to the child. This is because if these views conflict, then it will cause conflict that will lead to a negative early experience of sport.
In most circumstances, football sessions are based around technical based skills (passing, dribbling, shooting, etc.). However, a child may be at the session for social reasons (making friends or learning to work as a team).
Therefore the environment needs to be right for the player to ensure a positive experience.
Age appropriate equipment also plays a part in ensuring that the child has a positive first experience. I’ve witnessed children asked to play in goals where adults use a stepladder to take the nets down. Therefore it is important that the equipment used is relative to the player’s age and adapted to the physical constitution of the child. If these aspects are not taken into account and a younger player is asked to kick a ball, they will begin to develop a number of bad habits & technical defects due to the child’s lack of physiological adaptation to the ball.
Variety is the Spice of Life
Exposure to a variety of sports that allows children to develop their fundamental movement skills (FMS) is highly recommended. Fundamental movement skills are the movement patterns that involve different body parts. They act as the building blocks to the more complex skill patterns used in evasion games and sport. Walking, running, jumping, throwing, balancing are all skills that need to be developed prior to football sessions to enable the player to have a more beneficial session. The majority of football skills are executed at speed, on the move and therefore off balance. If a child is able to master and develop their fundamental movement skills they will be able to adapt and pick up the technical requirements of football a lot quicker, thus making it a more enjoyable and rewarding experience.
I am a firm believer that playing football isn’t the only way to become a better footballer. Exposure to other sports and games can help assist a player develop their FMS.
- Tennis can teach a player to move laterally and perform skills when off balance.
- Cricket will help players deal with balls played at different speed, heights and levels of spin.
- Netball will assist players in understanding how to send and receive as well as movement into space.
- Basketball will help players in mastering the art of jumping and improve their hangtime in the air.
All of these skills are transferable to the game of football and will help speed up the development of their cognitive skills.
In my opinion, the greatest tool for children is their participation in purposeful play. These situations allow children the freedom to experiment with different movements & tactics. It also gives them the opportunity to learn, to innovate, improvise and respond strategically.
In England it is widely believed that children don’t ‘play’ anymore. This is due to a number of variables such as advances in technology, safety fears and weather conditions. However, since relocating to Dubai I have been relieved to see that this does not apply to all corners of the world. Often when returning home from work, a small rectangle of artificial turf outside the front of my building is transformed each day into the Bernabeu, Al-Rashid Stadium or Wembley.
It’s great to see how the players self organise a variety of games that their imagination helps create. Free from persecution from adults and coach dominated\structured sessions, they are able to problem solve, be creative, deal with conflict resolution and even develop advanced physical skills as they avoid the maverick child cutting through the World Cup final on a Seg Board.
Ensure that the player wants to be there and understand their reasons for participation (technical or social or fitness).
Expose players to a variety of sports as skills are transferable and will help support the development of their fundamental movement skills.
The use of ‘play’ is important as it allows children (and adults) to develop a number of skills that they can apply to sporting & life situations.
There is no exact age for a player to start playing, as there are a number of variables, but just try to ensure their first experience is a positive one to ensure sustained and continued involvement in sport.