YOUTH | Equal Game Time – What It Means And Why We Believe In It

YOUTH | Equal Game Time – What It Means And Why We Believe In It

In the summer we introduced our new club philosophy to the youth and juniors section of the club.
We have been really pleased with the reaction from parents and coaches who have bought into our new values but as with any change, walking the walk is rarely done over a smooth surface and along the way we have learned some valuable lessons. We wanted to add some further clarity to what we believe “equal game time” really means and why we believe in it.

Youth football is structured the way it is, beginning with 5 a side, slowly building to 7 then 9 a side before reaching 11 a side at u13, to encourage children to develop and learn. Research suggests that their chances of developing improves because they get plenty of time and touches on the ball. The less players on the pitch, the more opportunities they have to touch the ball and the more chance they have therefore to develop their ball skills. As they get older and the touches reduce they have to learn how to make the best use of the touches they have which is where tactics are introduced and the game takes on a fascinating complexion.

We have a club philosophy that stipulates that over the course of the season each child should have equal playing time, wherever possible.

The philosophy was put in place as a reassurance to parents that we are committed to helping to develop their children as a club but also as a support mechanism for the manager and coaches who need be free to decide in which circumstances and in which games it would be best for each child to play.

Our equal game time philosophy is however often misunderstood. Every child does not have to play an equal amount of time in every game. A manager should not be “stopwatching” every minute of every game, he should be identifying learning opportunities…and they’re not time-boxed.

So why would a manager decide not to use a player in a game? If a child is not playing, accusations are often made that managers just want to pick or keep their “best team” on the pitch in order to win the game. At the elite levels of football I would largely agree with you. After all, winning games is entirely the point of football, and you do so by any means necessary within the rules. Naturally you would assume therefore that without exception a manager will always pick his strongest players.

However, when you scratch beneath the surface you will find that the best managers and coaches don’t always do that.
They will always select a team that they think is capable of winning, but that might not necessarily be their strongest. Managers will sometimes identify a game as the perfect learning opportunity for a youngster to make their debut. Would they do that against the European champions? More often than not, no, but do they do it?…You bet they do!

At grassroots level things are however quite different. Children naturally want to win, but they don’t naturally learn how to play football. The whole purpose of grassroots clubs and teams are to help kids to learn and enjoy the game of football.

In order for kids to learn a manager needs to be able to expose his players to *appropriate* opportunities.
When facing known tough opponents he/she needs to be able to freely decide whether it is in the best interests of a child to play or whether it is going to be detrimental to their learning journey. Will for example they learn what they need to learn if they get nowhere near the ball?

A higher ability child who has already mastered the basic skills might still learn something about tactics from a game in which they have little chance of winning but is a lower ability child who’s is still getting to grips with basic control and passing going to benefit in the same way? No, they’re not.

That argument needs to be balanced against the argument of “they’ve got no chance of touching the ball and learning those skills if they’re not even on the pitch” and I understand that, so let’s draw the comparison to a school or academic setting.
Let’s pick, at random, a maths lesson. If a child is still struggling to grasp the basics of counting, sitting them in a multiplication lesson on the basis that at least they know what numbers are, would be of little benefit and it is not appropriate. Taking that a step further, having been in the lesson, then making the child sit a test would likely do more harm than good.

Not all children are the same. Some children will have been able to understand the lesson and for them it was appropriate. Giving them the opportunity to prove they’ve “got it” by taking a test would also give them a confidence boost.
Had we taken the first child as our sole measure and applied the same standard to all it would have meant that the other children couldnt stretch and grow as they were ready to and needed to.
It is for this reason that schools often split children in to groups of similar ability. It is an easy way of ensuring that all children are able to develop at their own pace. Splitting a group isn’t always possible however, particularly in small schools so teachers dealing with smaller groups need to differentiate the tasks set within a lesson. Even then some children will still require additional support.

Back to football and it really is no different, children all have different ability levels and will learn at their own pace. The manager and coaches need to be free to identify the right opportunities for each child to develop and that may sometimes mean that a particular match, our equivalent of the test (proving that what has been taught in training has been learned), is not the right environment for a child. You can’t split a match down the middle, nor can you give 1 to 1 support. Those support methods are for training.

What we would always encourage is for parents to be realistic about the abilities and prospects of their own children. Just like with school, in the same way that you would support your child with homework, support them with basic football skills. Don’t become the pushy parent which is more likely to put them off altogether but encourage them to watch videos and have fun practicing in the garden. Encourage them to attend soccer camps and after school clubs and let them develop and learn to love the game at their own pace.

We would also encourage our coaches to make realistic assessments of players and more importantly keep a regular dialogue with their parents. If a player is not going to play a particular game at all or isn’t going to be heavily involved it should be justifiable. If it isn’t, then let them play.

Daniel Hayes
Vice-Chairman, Southport FC Juniors

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