Working with 14-16 year olds: dealing with a different animal…

Changing times…the emergence of a young adult

Across the country we have a challenge in youth football – when we get to U14 and upwards we start to see a decline in young people playing the game. This continues as a challenge in the transition from youth to adult teams and it all falls in line with a time young people experience some of their biggest changes. As well as growth and maturation developments being at their fastest for many young people, it coincides with exam pressures and a shift in their priorities too. As a young person eleven years old and below, their interest is in pleasing adults and as they get older, this shifts into impressing their peers before they start to connect to others and the world around them.
When you listen to young people going through these teenage years it is fascinating to hear their insight into what they would like their experiences to be. This article will look at the demographic of young people in the 21st century; share some research from young people on why they are dropping out of the game and their views. You may not agree with these from your experiences, but these aren’t your experiences, these are the views of the people we spoke to and therefore cannot be written off or ignored.
When asked about the things they love about football, this was their feedback… (the bigger the size of the word, the more important to them it was)
It is clear from this that the ‘team’ and social outcomes from young people in this research, 14 – 16 year olds, is one of the biggest things they love about the game. Fun is hugely important for their continued participation, as is the ability to practice their skills. Notice also some of the words that aren’t as important from the perspective of young people too. Interesting that competition is bigger than winning and this fits from my experiences of speaking to young people – they want a competitive match every week, not a 15-0, but don’t get hung up on the outcome of the game as long as some adults do.
Some questions to consider:
How do you foster and develop teamwork?
Do you recognise the importance of teamwork and therefore plan to develop this as much as you plan for technique and skill development?
Having fun is a massive outcome for young people; do you create an environment that enables this to happen (on their terms, not yours)? 
Do you inadvertently focus on the smaller words rather than the bigger words because they might be your outcomes?
When asked about the reasons they joined a club, this was their feedback…
A mixture of outcomes here which suggests young people enter the game with a variety of different intentions. It is evident they want to be with their mates, aligned with what they love about the game, but that they also want high standards. They want an organised competitive match, with a qualified referee on some decent facilities. Winning is important as they get older and this starts to become evident here and there is also still a hope of being scouted by a professional team. 
Some questions to consider:
Does your approach align with their motivations and drivers?
Have you asked the players what they want from football?
Do you deliver the outcomes they are hoping for from their football experience?
How do you ensure there is opportunity for all to play in a professional environment?
When asked about the reasons they stopped playing football, this was their feedback…
Many of the reasons they stopped playing were extrinsic to their own thoughts; not getting any game time (decision made by adults), not getting picked (another made by adults), too competitive (influenced by adults), bullying (not managed by adults) and quality of training (led by adults). If we are going to ensure we keep young people in the game to transfer to become adult players these are things that we can manage better. There are factors on there we cannot influence as easily; girls, exams and school work, but there are many we can.
Have a read of many of the small words on there, does it scare you that adults are acting that way and causing young people to stop playing? It certainly does for me! Things like; arguing, angry parents, drills etc. Equally, things can be combined, such as if the negative situation causes one player to leave, and that’s their friend, one player leaving often becomes two or three because the reason they are there is friends in the first place.
Some questions to consider:
What can you easily influence and change to make the situation better?
How do you need to change personally?
What are the controllable factors you can make better and invest energy into rather than the uncontrollable elements?
Quotes from young people
These are all genuine quotes from players that have lapsed playing or felt like they were going to stop playing football. There are some really crucial messages we cannot afford to miss here.
“The A team is a lot more serious than the B team. Everyone wants to play on the B team.”
“You feel a bit sad if not picked, just sat watching the game.”
“As a kid you want to be a professional. As you get older you start to ask ‘where do I go from here?  Will it happen for me?”
“Training is too tedious. It’s the same every week and they do too much stamina training.”
“The parents take it more seriously than we do.”
“If it’s not fun, you don’t look forward to it.”
“There is more pressure than when I started out. You get punishments like 3 laps round the pitch if you do something wrong.”
“Your mates are like ‘come out’, but you have to train. I’d prefer to be out with my mates.”
“It takes up too much time. I have other things to do like school work. I need to study for exams.”
“The club expects you to give them priority. They expect you to turn up to training instead of doing homework.”
Many of those ring any bells if you have coached older players? Many on there we can influence? I definitely feel there are a number we can certainly affect which means we can keep more players in the game for longer. We might need to consider a number of things moving forwards if we are going to address some of these issues, things like;
       alternative/later times
       making it more affordable
       more appropriate training for young people, with variety and ownership
       summer leagues
       youth leagues to make allowances for exams being a priority
In summary, coaching young players in their teenage years can be a challenging time. We all know about the hormonal changes going on and sometimes they can be difficult but they are just finding their way in the world. They are ready for more responsibility and get frustrated when they don’t get this. Your challenge as a coach is to manage when you start doing this together, developing them as decision makers in different ways, and giving them a voice on things that truly matter to them.
The best coaches I have seen working with older youth players make this look easy – they enjoy the company of teenage boys and don’t treat them like they are still 8 years old. They allow them to lead on the warm up, recognising that they have done GCSE PE and Sports Leaders qualifications and know plenty about the human body, they use current coaching methods that don’t involve just telling players what to do the whole time and they make the environment feel like it’s all about them, not the coach. Easy, when you look at it that way…

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5 thoughts on “Working with 14-16 year olds: dealing with a different animal…

  • October 31, 2013 at 10:25 pm

    Fantastic insight into the minds of young men and something I'll certainly be thinking about as my group of boys grow up!

  • October 31, 2013 at 11:25 pm

    Nick that was spot on mate. I'm currently coaching 1 x u14 & 2 x u15's along with other younger age groups and there needs are very different to the younger ones. I've found whole/part/whole really works with the older age groups and as they get older their approach to football is more of a mature level. Leagues need to start catering for players in the later years of high school and exams. Good post mate.

  • November 2, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    Cracking article all of which rings true. I manage an U14 team who are having to play up a year as U15s due to not enough players.

  • December 10, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    My first coaching role was for an U15's team. We won league and cup without being defeated in top league in Mid Essex. We then went on to emulate that at U16's. The secret….a good manager, fun training sessions, organised social events and team bonding!


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