It’s NOT non-competitive: it’s child-centred competition…

I think it’s time to clarify, clear up, eradicate and move on from some of the nonsense I keep reading about some of The FA’s plans for youth football. 

Let’s get this very clear from the outset: The FA is not making youth football non-competitive. The game is a competition; the battle between two teams to see who wins over the period of time the game goes on for, whether you are 7 or 57, the game is still about seeing if my team can beat your team. End of story. Hope that’s now clear. 
Non-competitive implies everything is a friendly, like the game doesn’t matter. That’s simply not the case. All games matter to the kids, for some adults it matters too much and therein lies a lot of the problems.
What the plans are looking at are about making flexible competition, where children can still experience the importance of winning and losing, still feel the highs, the lows, the exhilaration and depression that all get associated with the game we know and love. However, this is about making sure that they experience a children’s approach to competition, not an adult’s approach. 
We have taken the adult model, league tables, three points and goal difference, and imposed this on young people. What we have found from listening to young people is that it has increased pressure and is a reason they leave the game. I can’t find any academic research that says pushing children down an over-competitive route is good for enjoyment or development. None. All I can find is the opposite, such as the writings of Lynn Kidman. 
I have heard from managers about children being sick before the game because they are so nervous about losing a game in a relegation battle and children not turning up or wanting to go on because they were so scared at doing something silly and making a mistake and they didn’t want the repercussions. The repercussions from adults after a kid makes a mistake?! I heard one manager about Christmas time last year say to his U11 team that today was a “must-win game”! Nothing is must-win when you are 11. Please, give it a rest!
However, children have also told us they like seeing their progress and they like to see themselves get better, something they like from leagues. We simply have to find the balance between the two that enables development and enjoyment from a young person’s perspective. 
So, the plans are this; Give leagues the flexibility to organise football for the children in the primary school age group which involves periods of development matches, time to learn the game, interspersed with periods of competitions, where they might play for a trophy or two. 
And this flexibility is open to the league. For example, one of the issues we have found from looking at youth football around the country is in most leagues there are only two maybe three teams that might win the league and they invariably know this before the season even starts! The teams that aren’t great know they are never going to win anything either, therefore might monitor development and progress in a different way – losing by less goals, sneaking a draw here and there, social and player outcomes etc. 
What we are saying to the leagues is this – can you find a better way that encourages and promotes more opportunity for more teams to be competitive? So, in a division of 12 teams, have 6-8 weeks playing development matches, putting into practice what you have been learning and then some form of competition, but be clever and smart with this. Organise a little competition for the top six teams to play for a trophy and the same for the bottom six, where the teams in the bottom six now have a realistic chance of winning something, of feeling good for this, or feeling down because you lost in the final. Something the kids might otherwise never have felt. 
And use the scores from the blocks of development matches to get teams in the right groups. No team wants to have games that are too easy or be beaten by loads every week so there is a crucial role still in the administrators making sure teams get pitted evenly against others. 
One guy from a league said he had 32 teams at the U10 age group, could he organise a World Cup format with 8 groups of four, little round robins and then go through to a knockout and a final? Absolutely! Do things that are going to capture the attention of the kids. Just don’t stick them in one league for 8 months a year!
When this has been discussed and understood by people on my travels they have started to get it, to understand why. Not listening to hearsay, fourth-hand information or making up their own spin on something because it suits them. I met the KNVB (Dutch FA) Technical Director, a UEFA Grassroots Panel member, a month ago and discussed these with him – he was hugely impressed with this modern approach and asked if I would meet with his team to discuss further what we are planning. England leading something in football and the Dutch liking the ideas of!? There’s a first!
This isn’t saying what we have doing has been wrong for years, we are saying this might be a great way of engaging more kids in the game we love, for longer, in a more modern way. We have to move away from the win-at-all-costs culture in this country, we quite simply have to. It is ruining the game for everyone, stifling development and hindering enjoyment. Winning is important, but somewhere down the list behind a number of other more important factors. 
Striving to win? Absolutely important.The score? Not as important.
The game is evolving rapidly; new types of player and no longer just giant athletes, new types of football and no longer just 4-4-2, new formats of the game and no longer just 11v11. 
“The difficulty lies not in new ideas but in escaping the old ones” (John Maynard Keynes). And he was a smart man. 

 2,224 total views,  2 views today

19 thoughts on “It’s NOT non-competitive: it’s child-centred competition…

  • October 20, 2011 at 7:57 am

    Well done Nick,some sense from the FA thankfully. I have to ask; Do we need to lobby our repective leagues or are the FA going to strongly suggest this is the way forward? I personally believe it is. The current league formats only benefit the few and the sooner we implement these ideas the quicker the overall fun and ability levels will increase, along with participation.

  • October 20, 2011 at 7:59 am

    Great post Nick. There's a lot of confusion over the terminology and it needs explaining.

    I think there is a big responsibility on Youth Football Divisional Secretaries to produce competitive fixtures.

    What steps are the FA and CFAs taking to educate and support the Div Secs in their role?

  • October 20, 2011 at 8:00 am

    Spot on. I have noticed this as a parent taking their child to football.
    I feel it has become more about the adults than the children. They treat it like it's premiership football. The children have to attend every match otherwise they are out of the team.Even if there is a good reason for missing a match.
    One manager said he wanted his team to win the league and he would win.It was just all about him and not the boys I felt. He asked them to play when they are unwell too.He said if they missed a training session or 2 they would be put in a lower team. I just thought this was extreme.They are under 8's. There are coaches and managers falling out over the best players,and who is going to get them.Kids stressed out over the tension.
    I think its because men have a very competitive nature especially when it concerns football. They must remember these are just boys at primary school,they are not playing for Alex Ferguson.
    There is one coach I spoke to and he said it should be just regarded as Sunday football. There is not any money involved and it should be about the boys.Sadly I think this kind of sensible view is rather that of the minority.

    I still do think that the league and points system. It's an aim but should not be the ulitmate goal.excuse the pun!!

  • October 20, 2011 at 9:31 am

    I am working with our local league to help shape the way they set up 9v9 format.

    The first step is finding out what the coaches at grassroots clubs actually want – at the first meeting the main things that came to light were

    – Flexibility If a team is struggling every week,move them down a division
    If a team is winning by loads every week, move them up.
    This can be done mid season -say at Christmas , or at quarterly reviews. If needs be, and you want Division winners to be rewarded with a trophy by all means give the team that goes up their trophy then – why wait until the end of the season? Get them playing at their level

    -Mercy Rule. If games get to ,say,6-0 for whatever reason ( eg too early for the grading to have taken effect, players missing, new players in )stop the match. Use the result for the league for their records. Then mix up the two teams with bibs and play the remainder of the time as a 'match'.

    Remember what 'match ' means! Two teams that are matched, not a totally one sided affair. If the kids were playing in the park, would they let a game go 6-0 up — or would they sawp a few players around so it was a 'match' in a real sense.

    Kids love competition, but they want it to be fair.

    – And on that note, as Nick has made clear, lets stop talking about 'Non Competitive' football. That phrase , in my opinion, has done more damage to these progressive ideas than any other, despite it being well meaning. When there are no league tables for youngsters ,let's call it 'Non Recorded' or something like that – Nick has also suggested 'Development Football'.

    Finally – let's also remind everyone that this is not just about keeping those players who are less able at the moment in the game – which is vital.

    It is also about making the most of our more able players. It's not just some wishy washy PC way of doing things. The best players need to be playing at the right level, they need to learn how to take risks, they need to keep forging ahead without being held back by an out dated system that imposes an adult template on them. They need to learn how to play their football without worrying about what position in the League the opposition are.

    Mike N

  • October 20, 2011 at 10:19 am

    Mike, I would support your suggestions for flexibility within mini-soccer. As age groups progress there is sufficient data from previous seasons to make the initial seeding.

    Playing a team in the wrong league against sides of unequal ability can be damaging to the confidence of the losers and deny the victors the chance to progress at their fullest potential.

    Why not formally split the mini-soccer season into two, with September to December and January to April?

    I have some reservations about the Mercy Rule. However well intended, I can see it would be open to abuse. If you impose a 6 goal margin rule, then a team might get to 5 goals up and then play possession football without scoring to avoid the Mercy Rule being invoked.

    Would you stop a match with only 5 minutes remaining to try and re-balance the teams?

    If the teams are seeded correctly and placed in the right leagues then wide margin score lines (as in the professional game) should be rare.

  • October 20, 2011 at 11:44 am


    I agree with you that with suitable flexibility/grading then the one sided games would be fewer, so we'd have less need for a 'mercy rule'. And the occasional heavy loss or big win is no harm – it is these sustained results over a period that demotivate players (on both sides of the result)

    I also think you are spot-on in thinking about ways kids solve problems/adapt to situations and also right to look at things that may be an unfortunate by-product of any changes.

    I'm no sure how the rule would be abused as such.

    Would kids rather play possession football than have a chance of a match where they can score ie forego making that last score, to avoid the chance to score more?

    If they did would this be more or less detrimental to any of the players?

    Maybe one team playing possession football against a weaker team might be more beneficial to both sides than banging a goal in every five minutes?

    What would the motivation be for avoiding the mercy rule – perhaps not wanting to play with the other lot?
    – wanting to stick together?

    Could you ask your players and find out , or even try it after a league match with a like minded opposition and see how they get on.

    I know in my experience the kids involved have loved it when we have mixed teams, even those with initial reservations.

    For the '5 minutes to go' scenario, I'd agree it would not seem worth it to stop and change. A bit of common sense between managers will need to come in .

    If the game is still a good one, and many are not reflected by the scoreline, then why not carry on for 5 minutes if the kids are getting something out of it?

    Or finish five minutes early and have a penalty shoot out!

    It may be that 6-0 is the wrong way to do it – a margin rather than a score, a bigger margin – any ideas?

    Back to your original point, with greater flexibility we'll have fewer cases of such mis matches.

    Th current system is not working, look at the tables in any league – teams are not at the right level in every division, for a variety of reasons.

  • October 20, 2011 at 11:45 am

    Much of the confusion (and irritation) over the terminology comes from adults (coaches) who the moment that they hear the term have to tritely respond with ''there is no such thing as…''. It is not a good term (nor is Child-centered competition imo, But a better one has yet to be coined). Let's face it boys n girls, we all know exactly what is meant by that particular phrase.

    Mercy rules. I can see the idea and it's point, but something like 6 is not mercy at all. Football is a game of 2 halves and a 6-0 deficit in the first half can become 8-2 by the end of the game. Sure, still a 6 goal loss, but doesn't a 2-2 half after a 6-0 one give the 'losers' something good. Don't they grow as people? I would suggest any mercy rule needs to be around double that-mercy itself implies putting an end to a hopeless cause, not just one where a team will lose.

    If you really want to avoid cricket scores. How about doing away with the notion that 9 v 11 is a 'fair' game. How about letting a team losing a player by injury bring back on a player who may have already been subbed (if all subs have been used)?. Open to abuse, maybe, but isn't the job that should be done is to educate the idiots tha would abuse this? They are the same goons that think 3 offside players and a hoof is football, no matter what the age of the players.

  • October 20, 2011 at 12:57 pm


    I coach a team of U8s and recently asked the players about their football likes and dislikes. Most common dislikes; bad language, fouling and playing against easy opposition.

    And the most common reason for liking football was playing with their friends.

    After a match against even the most well-tempered of opponents, I feel they're unlikely to want to play alongside strangers against their friends. Furthermore, in such a situation I think it would become far too easy for the boys to play in cliques or as individuals. (Some might say that's been a perennial problem with England's national team?!)

    Fostering a team spirit and developing friendships off the field help the players build trust and confidence in themselves, and that is ultimately reflected in their play.

    Allow me to relate an example to illustrate.

    At the end of last season we entered two teams into several summer tournaments. Unfortunately, it seems that tournament football is a lottery in terms of how the teams are drawn together in groups. Whilst our first team won most of their games, the second team had less success, mainly due to playing much stronger sides.

    As an experiment, for our final tournament we entered two sides of mixed abilities. As you might have expected, the results were somewhere between what the first and second team had experienced previously. On paper therefore, it looks like we achieved our aim of producing competitive games.

    However, in my opinion the overall quality of football was lower; there was less team play (passing) and more individual play (dribbling). Strong players didn't pass to weak players, and the weak players ended up with less touches of the ball. And yet overall, the weak players enjoyed more favourable match results.

    At every stage of learning, kids need to be challenged. If you have a team that is beating their opponents by a wide margin every week, then the answer has to be to find them equally strong opponents, not to split the team up.

  • October 20, 2011 at 1:13 pm


    I think the score or margin for the Mercy Rule is worth debate – the 6-0 being one that coaches spoken to so far have thought suitable, but only a starting point as yet for discussion.

    Losing isn't the problem, it's part of the game, it's the regular heavy losses or big wins that are the problem.

    We have rolling subs at Youth Football til U16 – does your league not use these? FA have put it to FIFA (it is their Law) to allow rolling subs at open age social football as well.

    If a game is 9v11, I would play to match the other team. Sometimes the opposition have played to match us when we have been light, but those managers that put the league points ahead of development will not.

    And we've all seen games where the 10 beat the 11, I'm sure.

    Some of our younger mini soccer teams have lent players to the opposition if they are short, and this is done at CofEx as well – where they are supposedly 'more serious' about their football.

    I agree education is important – but unfortunately it's not enough on its' own. . If it was, the Respect Campaign would have worked by now!!

  • October 20, 2011 at 1:13 pm


    Agree totally about finding them opponents at the right level (And if leagues were doing that now, we wouldn't be talking about a mercy rule at all!)

    But on match day, this is not possible if a game is too one sided.

    I would say that socially, it's good for the players to mix with others for 10- 20 minutes or so. That's not going to affect team spirit.

    Unfortunately,a lot of people say that today,kids don't play football (and other things) in the park enough.

    They are missing out on playing with different groups,with different kids joining in and just getting on with it. Valuable skills for life. Very useful for when you change schools or join another sports club.

    Perhaps if players don't like mixing with other players in an ad hoc game, then this suggests that they are even more in need of the chance to do so?

    In your tournament – which is not quite the same thing as mixing teams with the opposition to provide a fairer match- it shows that our perception of what is enjoyable/good may not be the same as that of the kids.

    ( As a side benefit, perhaps you've given some young individuals the confidence to take on players – we need a few more of those too!)

  • October 20, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    Wise words from a man who knows & is doing his utmost to convince the masses that there is a different way to organising & playing the beautiful game!!

  • October 21, 2011 at 9:00 am

    Hi nick

    I can not find one fault in your reveiw and think the quicker this gets pushed thought the better for all kids football.
    Is their anything we as childrens football coaches do regarding getting this pushed though quicker as i feel sooner is better for everyone involed in football.

    Cheers Pete Vick Higham Colts U8's Coach

  • October 21, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    Hi Nick,
    Great article. Change is very much needed in the way kids'football is played (7v7, 9v9 non competitive upto and including 12 years old etc) but also, the way in which the sport is run by the FA.
    I am very fortunate to be heavily involved in grassroots and have been since 2004 when my boys started playing. At present, I am Chairman of the Ashford and District Youth Football League (65 teams), Chairman of Smarden Junior FC (just 2 teams this season from 8 a few seasons ago), Level 2 coach to Ashford Utd u16s and also, a level 7 referee. I have coached u7s to adult level over the years aswell as school teams. I list these not to brag but to show you I have a reasonable amount of experience in most areas of the grassroots game and want you to know my thoughts about the management of the game by the FA.
    In Kent, there are vast numbers of Youth leagues playing Saturdays and Sundays both mornings and afternoons, which is fine, and exactly what the FA want-vast quantities of clubs/teams/players playing the game. The problem with this, and I can only speak of my experience with Kent, is that many kids play both Saturday and Sunday (and for their school aswell during the week or Saturday mornings) and it is one of the reasons why I believe there are not the numbers of Elite players coming from the county as there should be. (Part 1)

    Alan Willis

  • October 21, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    Part 2
    Namely, too many leagues run independently of each other without any 'pyramid' progression. It is widely thought that the Kent Youth League is the highest standard of football with other leagues in it's wake. Noone really knows, as, to my knowledge, apart from the Kent Youth Cup, the leagues do not mix. Please don't misunderstand me – I am only talking about the standard of the football played within the leagues, not how they are run. Most of them are run by unpaid volunteers who do an absolutely superb job, usually without much thanks from anyone.
    The Kent FA staff are absolutely brilliant and have been so helpful to me and everyone else, I'm sure, over the years on what I imagine to be a very tight budget. However, in order for the grassroots game to develop elite players, the football played in the county should be centrally organised by the governing body and existing officers of the various leagues. By this, I mean that for u13 and above, the leagues should be based on postcodes thereby reducing the carbon footprint of the sport and allowing it's participants more time to play the game (subject to FA time rules) and less time travelling. Getting up at some ridiculous hour on a Sunday to travel to a game 90 minutes away is madness. If all leagues were done a postcode basis, you would have happier parents and less tired kids and I think the football would improve accordingly.
    Within each postcode league, there would be a pyramid structure with a 'Pemiership' if you like at the highest level and League 1, 2 etc for each age group. At the end of the season, all the postcode Champions for each division could play off against one another to find the truely best team in the county. This way, the player pathway would be clearer for all concerned and the kids' ultimate goal is to play for a Kent'Premiership' team. This would help the coaches involved with district and county football whereby they can more easily find the elite players. At the moment, 1 or 2 trials for the season is a hit and miss affair with an average player being chosen after having 1 outstanding game at the trial, only for a more geuinely talented one to have an off day and not be chosen.
    I appreciate the various leagues within the county would initially be against the restructure but I firmly believe if there is not any 'pyramid progression' and a reduction in the amount of low quality football being played by kids, there will be no improvement in the quality of the elite players we hope to find and help.
    The mechanics of the restructure would be difficult but if the existing officers of each league were offered similar roles but distributed throughout the county, I'm sure it could be made to work, especially if the county FA could allocate some resources towards the change.
    I spend a minimum of 20 hours a week in football, aswell as a full time job and it was 35 in the week leading up to the beginning of the season. I am not the only one by far but I just feel that the time could be more efficiently used if the playing structure was upgraded.
    All the best with the proposals.
    Alan Willis

  • October 21, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    great article, i attended one of the roadshows for your kids your say and it changed my views on what the FA are trying to do. Like most of the masses i'd only heard the half truths, rumours, speculation and biased views from the old diehards who run football for their egos rather than for the kids. nick and his team gave a honest, refreshing view on what they were trying to do and the back up info to give creedance to their ideas. I went back to my team and asked both the parents and players their thoughts on the proposals, the players (under 13's) wanted to play as much football as they can and wanted to win every game, but if they lost they'd come back next week and try to win the next one, the result of the last game was soon forgotten and they just wanted to play and win the next one. The parents on the other hand were all looking at the league positions, who the next team were had they won or lost the week before, had their child or any of the others in the team had a good game, or not played as well as they could. it's funny as adults we forget it's the kids game and not ours. The parents, well most of them, have now taken on board why their kids are playing football and the fun and enjoyment they get out of it. The kids are competitive and want to win, but the world doesn't end if they lose, there's always next week!

  • December 20, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    get rid of the league formats let the teams play in groups a, b,c e.t.c,if a team loses 1 wk n wins the nxt and have similar outcomes throughout the season then if there are no leagues as such then the kids or should i say the adults wont have nothing to compare teams against,the problem with KIDS football these days is egotistical `managers` pushing there teams to win each wk,and the parents of some of the lines i have witnessed r disgraceful,referees dont help either when overseeing a game if they r given a hard time by 1 set of parents/team they favour the quieter team this can lead to numerous amounts of trouble,also why r these KIDS fined the same penalties and monetary value as amature footballers????? when they r given yellow or red cards from overzealous referees who cant handle a situation properly. the sooner parents r banned from touchlines the better. i agree with everything that nick has said,but a lot of f.a.s need to look at some of the tournaments they sanction especially 1 run in the armitage ctre manchester every yr although it does not state wen advertising for teams to enter, the majority of teams involved r academy/school of excellence level with scouts from numerous north west teams checking out there `protegees`,non academy/school of excellence teams dont stand a chance at this venue is this not unfair?????

  • December 20, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    Nick, very much enjoying your blogs postings and Twitter. I'd really like to get your thoughts on kids playing in different positions… ie, should an U7 be playing everywhere? Should they play defence, midfield & attack (and sub) in one game?
    Or one game in defence, one games in midfield, the next game in attack? When should they specialise in your opiniion? Next blog topic maybe?

  • August 31, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    As an under 8's coach its sad that this is what goes on ..the totally over competitive nature of fooball played by primary school children who take teddy bears to bed & watch scooby do is the biggest challenge to overcome .. there is no easy answer but even something radical like keeping parents away may be the answer, some coaches like myself are shocked at some of the antics that go on , parents and some coaches acting like is the premier league and bawling a kids for making mistakes. Mistakes are part of learning but people dont realise you shout at a child and next week he doesnt want to go because he gets frightened. Its a sad reflection on football and i wonder with all the positive coming out of the olympics legacy whether football is in danger of going backwards unless it cleans up its act from top to bottom. All many coaches want to do is help children fall in love with a great game and take part in a great social game.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I accept that my given data and my IP address is sent to a server in the USA only for the purpose of spam prevention through the Akismet program.More information on Akismet and GDPR.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.