Children and some reasons behind ‘Play’: part 1…

One of the interesting discussions I have around the country, often with coaches and other adults involved in grassroots football, is why do children play football? When I share my views this often traverses into tangents from adults, denying the belief in research we have done or thinking that, for some reason, their children are ‘different’. 
Well, I’d like to use this first part of a two-part blog post to share some of the views from the research we have done with children, and share a couple of stories from a recent coach education course and hopefully leave you a few things to ponder. 
When we first started this research into the whole youth football debate it made perfect sense to start in one place – what do the children think. After all, it is their game, they are the ones that play and know more about being a child today than an adult does. Our childhood was very different you see; You Tube hadn’t been invented, there wasn’t access to football on loads of TV channels from loads of different countries and playing football on a computer consisted of waiting ages for the tape on the Commodore 64 to load up. Now there is instant access to FIFA12 to play virtual opposition from the other side of the world. So who should decide what a 10-year old’s game looks like?
The focus group interviews with the children were built on the following methodology – get a dozen or so children together to talk about their views on football, on the game they play. Build the presentation into being about them, a few questions to prompt them talking and then listen. Let’s just pause on those few words, read them again, “and then listen”. They are important. Because, when you give children the opportunity to talk about what they want and to listen to what they think, it’s fascinating. 
Another key aspect was the environment – let’s keep away anyone that could influence their views. So the coach of the team? Sorry, you’ll have to wait outside. Parents? You can sit and chat in another room too. This was because they can influence the views. For example, the coach picks the team (is often a mum or dad anyway) and the child wants to play so they aren’t then going to speak honestly for fear of damaging this opportunity. 
The first question for them to discuss was very simple – why do you play football? 
You won’t be surprised at some of the responses:
“Because I love the game”
“Because it’s really fun”
“Because I get to hang out with my mates”
These reasons are common and consistent with children across the country. No matter where we speak to children, whether from professional teams or grassroots teams, boys or girls, rural or urban, top of the league or bottom of the league, typically the responses all correlate. Why? Because they are children. They think like a child. What motivates a 10-year old child, motivates a 10-year old child, whether you are in Devon or Durham and I’ve done focus groups in both those places and many in between!
We then talk about the things they don’t like. Can you guess what they say? Here’s a few things that children don’t like; getting injured, not playing, bias referees, adults shouting at them. 
It gets interesting when you start talking about parents and their views on winning and losing but I’ll save these for future blogs.
After a few more questions we then get on to an interesting task. We provide the children, in small groups, 16 pieces of paper that have a host of different statements on, from intrinsic motivators to the extrinsic. They are as follows:
  1. I love scoring or stopping goals
  2. I like meeting new friends through football
  3. I like to show off my skills
  4. It’s a really good game and I love it
  5. I like skilling people
  6. It helps keep me fit and healthy
  7. It’s important to me I win the league
  8. I like learning new skills
  9. I play because it makes my parents happy
  10. Trying my hardest is more important than winning
  11. It’s important to me I try to win matches
  12. It’s important to me I win trophies and medals
  13. I like playing football with my friends
  14. I love playing football because it’s fun
  15. Winning is more important than trying my hardest
  16. I like playing matches against other teams
The task for the children is to select the ‘Top 9’ most important things for them about why they play football, discard the ones that aren’t important, and then organise those 9 into order of importance, with 1 being the most important. 
Reckon you can predict the Top 6 the children pick? Have a go now. Get a pen and write down the numbers of the top statements that are the most important for children. What did you have as the top one? I’ve completed this with over 50 groups of children and the results are very consistent and when I have done this with groups of adults, to predict the kids responses, they never get them all right!
So, the top answer by far is number 10. By a long way. Did you get it right? Trying their hardest is more important to the children than winning. Now, marry that up against the values that an adult brings to game day. Do they match or are they different? Read that again, do the adult values match what the children want from their game? They should do.
The next five you could probably have a good guess at – numbers 2, 4, 6, 13 and 14. The children, aligned with academic research too, are driven by internal motivators. That’s what gets the children there in the first place. It could be said that children come to training motivated and our job as coaches is to maintain that motivation when in fact some of us are probably good are minimising their motivation through unexciting drills and boring standing in lines. 
And the ones right at the bottom of the list? Number 12 and 15 have NEVER been picked by any group of kids amongst over fifty that have done this task. Number 7, winning the league, has been picked once and finished low down their list. They just simply aren’t important to the children. Who are they more important to?
On a recent coaching course delivered by one of my colleagues he shared this list, to which a couple of candidates strongly disagreed. He set them the challenge – send a group text to your teams’ parents and get them to ask their kids ‘why do you play football’ and see what they come back with. One coach that disagreed also did this with his own three children, ranging from 8 to 13 years old. Unsurprisingly, the results matched up, virtually identical! One of his own son’s even talked about trying his hardest being more important than the outcome. The next day the coach came back to the course, his head in his hands and apologised, not only for disbelieving the research but more importantly, for putting his own needs before those of the children. 
A question to finish… Where do some adults place their emphasis? How much money do we spend on trophies and medals? Why do we do a top goalscorer trophy every year that tends to go to one of two kids? Why do we spend thousands on them when we still put U11 kids in adult full-size goals and don’t have enough balls for one each at training? Where are the adults priorities? I’m not saying don’t buy them but maybe think differently.
One U12 lad in Hull said to me “I’d rather have a decent match ball for every game than a trophy at the end of the year”. Poignant. 
So let’s see if we can think outside the box, do something different, do something that meets their needs. Take them to a Premier League or Football League game. Buy them all a new boot bag. Or a football pencil case for school. Ask them if they want anything different. 
If you are sitting there reading this now questioning what you have read, do me a favour, send a group text out to your parents and get them to ask their kids one question – why do you play football? 
 

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14 thoughts on “Children and some reasons behind ‘Play’: part 1…

  • March 22, 2012 at 7:07 pm
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    This is Brilliant, and should be drilled into everyone from the FA down.

    Why do we have leagues that tell kids they are not as good as the top team (only one can ever win the league).

    Why do we have to put kids in specific places every week so that we can have a formation to play to.

    By all means let the kids express themselves in a game every week, but until they are developed enough just let them play football, give them the opportunity to play in every position. Let them learn to play with every part of their bodies, both feet, instep outstep, thigh, head chest, so that when they do start to play to an organised structure they have all the tools to fulfill their roles, to the best of their differing abilities.

    I would love to turn up every week and pull their names out of a hat so that they have as much chance of playing up front (Even I would still like to be Messi), as they do in defence.

    Unfortunately we can't because whilst the kids would like to win, and our parents are willing the kids to win (usually because they want to see their children happy), the majority of coaches see a loss as a slight on their ability.

    Unfortunately until the FA see sense and change the structure of junior football, not just 7 v 7 or 9 v 9, we will continue to produce footballers who have had their development stunted by the very people who are trying to help them flourish.

    Mick Grant
    Manager
    Sheffield 6's
    Under 10's

    Reply
  • March 22, 2012 at 7:07 pm
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    Nick – great comments and kids never cease to surprise. I am the Secretary of a Junior Football Club with 14 teams and we never have any trouble with the kids (can get a bit stroppy as they get older, but that's life) and we have constant issues with parents and their winning mentality. I also have a son at an Academy and sadly the issues with parents can be worse there, but at times it is made worse by the Academies coaches not being prepared to talk. We have a lot to learn, but the parent issue moving forward is one that will not go away and their desire to have the next Wayne Rooney.

    Reply
  • March 22, 2012 at 7:08 pm
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    Reason to play number 3, surely their mates at 6,7 and 8 year olds will mainly be there school mates. So why are we looking to change one of the main reasons that youngsters come to play. Good reading and mainly makes sense.

    P.S. Thought the Youth Modules are the best courses the FA have delivered

    Reply
  • March 23, 2012 at 8:01 pm
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    Very interesting. I'm in another part of Europe, but I guess that If I ask these questions to the players I had in the last years, the answers should be very close to the ones you got.

    But, there's something I don't agree at all. It is not "their game". It's "our (coaches+players) game"; we are with them during the week training and teaching things. So, when the weekend and the match arrives, aren't we (coaches) part of it?

    And it's "our game" always. A match, specially at young ages, is another session. So, we, the coaches, don't have to be involved in the most important session of the week?

    Reply
  • March 23, 2012 at 8:05 pm
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    I don't disagree Jordi, it was more about the fact that the game is played by the children, not played by the adults. Therefore, we should be part of providing the game that they want to play in the appropriate environment to meet their needs.

    Of course, they need our help in a whole manner of different aspects but we shouldn't forget the fact we are there to help them, not dominate the environment.

    Reply
  • March 30, 2012 at 7:15 am
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    Brilliant articles . I have been pushing for our Junior league to start to look a bit deeper at how they put teams at Under 8s and mini soccer in general in divisions. In the current set up they just stick them where they want, regionalistion was the last reason. But this has led to known very selective teams playing against teams of less abilty and ending up with scores 25-0 and even as high as nearly 50-0. As you say the kids would rather play in a close game than take part in these heavy defeats. Ok some parents and managers revel in dishing out these beatings but talking to parents on the touchline a lot agree that the games are more enjoyble when its a level playing field. Personally I would ban clubs trialling for mini soccer but somehow I think it will never happen.

    Thanks

    Reply
  • April 4, 2012 at 9:33 pm
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    Agree with the sentiments above Nick, in fact it's very hard to disagree. Sterling stuff!

    However, as a kid's coach for 7 seasons (u7s through to u13s), there are one or two issues that I feel will always be stumbling blocks in the future development of the game.

    First and foremost are the shockingly poor standard of pitches that 'most' kids have to play on each week. It is very rare to play on a flat pitch, most are severely cambered. Lines are poorly marked, goal posts are 'wonky' and the surface is, well…farm like!
    How can we expect kids to get the ball down and play in those conditions?
    Granted there are some terrific junior clubs with fantastic facilities, but they are few and far between. The cost of renting those top facilities for kids football is astronomical! Most council operated junior pitches are used daily by dog walkers, ramblers, etc etc. Are junior facilities throughout Spain and Holland (the countries we are desperately trying to replicate) subjected to the same wear and tear away from football? You also see some pitches being played on up to 5 times in one weekend, by christmas they are worn out.

    The second bug bear of mine…are the coaches that have 'clearly'…never kicked a ball in their life. They are the armchair fans…the spectators that know it all. How can you possibly expect to be coach a child when you can't draw from personal experience?
    I'm assuming we would all expect their english teachers to be able to understand Shakespeare? and their maths teachers to know how difficult compound fractions can be…because they have experienced trying to solve it themselves…you can't teach these subjects just from a textbook.
    Surely Youth football coaches need to have played football themselves to some level?

    Reply
  • April 18, 2012 at 12:56 pm
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    "Surely Youth football coaches need to have played football themselves to some level?"

    Why? Applying the same logic, Referees can't officiate unless they have played??

    Reply
  • April 18, 2012 at 12:56 pm
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    Hi Nick, I love your views. I publish an online grass roots magazine aimed amongst other things youth football.
    Could I use this blog in the magazine and of course credit you.
    Many thanks
    Dave Moorhead
    http://www.staffordshiresport.com

    Reply
  • April 18, 2012 at 12:56 pm
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    I had my 18 year old do the number survey, ( I left him alone so I wasn't influencing him.)
    The top 3 on his list of "why do I play football" were:
    15. Winning is more important than trying my hardest
    1. I love scoring (or stopping) goals
    3. I like to show off my skills.

    When quizzed about his top answer he said, it had never changed, it was always about winning, even from when he first played mini soccer at U10.

    I'm planning on doing the survey with our U18 team, to see if the results are different to the younger age groups.

    Reply
  • April 18, 2012 at 12:59 pm
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    Yep, not surprised with the results of players that age. There tends to be a shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation from about 12 years old, the time when peer influencers and groupings at secondary school really kick in then. This is supported by academic research as well – see Daniel Pink's book 'Drive' for a great read on this field of work.

    Reply
  • April 1, 2020 at 9:36 am
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    All young children love to ‘show off their skills ‘ – I am amazed that this is not in the top 6 ?

    Reply
    • April 18, 2020 at 10:53 am
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      Hi Bob,
      Yeah it was fascinating, it was middle of the list really, just not as important as we thought compared to other things.

      Reply

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