A FEW YEARS AGO I CAME ACROSS the work of Sir Kenneth Robinson for the first time. Sir Ken Robinson, PhD was an internationally recognized leader in the development of creativity, innovation and human resources in education and in business. Unfortunately, he is no longer with us. He was one of the world’s leading speakers on these topics, with a profound impact on audiences everywhere. The videos of his famous 2006 and 2010 talks to the prestigious TED Conference have been viewed more than 25 million times and seen by an estimated 250 million people in over 150 countries.
He has devoted a large part of his life to the study of creativity. He believed, like the famous artist Picasso, that we are born with creativity and as time goes on it is educated out of us. Picasso made the famous quote that, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”
Sir Kenneth has studied education systems and argues that they are not servicing the requirements of today’s youth. Many children are dropping out early and many others are requiring medication, just so they can pass through today’s education system. He proposed a new way forward for education, which would be designed to inspire the creativity of our youth and keep them actively engaged.
What relevance do these ideas have for developing young football players? Well, we face a similar problem. Here is a frightening statistics for youth sport in North America: over 70 per cent of young athletes are leaving sports in North America by age 14 (Source: US Youth Soccer). They are quitting for the following reasons:
Lack of playing time
Overemphasis on winning
Other activities are more interesting
Lack of fun
Coaching techniques/adult behaviour
Dissatisfaction with performance
Lack of social support
Typically, we don’t notice this as they are replaced by a greater number of under-3 players the following year.
Are we duplicating the same mistakes in our current education systems? Are we only offering rigid, linear development systems which young players pass through, based on their age? Are we coaching creativity out of our young players so they don’t wish to play anymore? England's Wayne Rooney once spoke of how he wanted to stop playing at age 14 because Everton Football Club asked him to play a different way. He was a young boy who loved the game and was very good at it. The good news is that he was talked out of quitting by Colin Harvey, a senior coach at Everton. However, how many other creative players, like him, have been lost to the game?
At the moment, I’m looking at the rapid growth of street soccer and Futsal in Europe. I am seeing very dedicated and creative young players practice the latest freestyle skills and demonstrate outrageous plays when they play Futsal. It makes we wonder if both are better avenues to remove the pressure on young players in todays structured academy environments. Street soccer and Futsal develop creativity by placing less adult restrictions on young players. They can, and will, practice for hours with a ball to learn a new move. The young players also seem more able to transfer these new skills into street soccer and Futsal games, than regular youth games.
A study carried out by Sheffield Hallam University’s Sport Industry Research Centre confirmed that nearly 2,000 teams made up of more than 12,000 people played the sport during a two-month period in 2013. The study authors, Richard Moore and student James Radford, also reported that more than a third (39 out of 90) of Football League clubs operated a futsal education programme in 2012 with major centres established in Leeds, Stoke, Swindon, Sunderland and Birmingham.
Is it because both street soccer and futsal provide young players with an unstructured environment, on their own terms, with less direction from adults where they are left more to experiment and improvise? It is said of today’s generation that they are overwhelmed and inundated with information and with choice. The result is that it can be more challenging to successfully engage today’s generation and over long periods.
So, what are some potential solutions?
First of all players must be taught the joy and passion of the game. A coach in British Columbia named Rick Gruneau sent me an email a few years ago speaking about some of the differences he had experienced when he spent a week at the Spanish club Espanyol in 2010. He asked the coaching staff what the two most important things were that they taught in training, the answer was immediate, though, for a North American, surprising: “Joy and technique.”
Joy because, as the coaches put it, “We are a small club [compared to Barcelona and Real Madrid] and these players are precious investments for us. Every time a player burns out or leaves the game we not only feel that we have failed the player, we lose our investment in him.” And technique, because football is “primarily a game where the challenge is to exercise the best technique possible under pressure”.
Rick went on to recount his amazement at the “joy” in training sessions when even in the most competitive training there was a lot of laughing and mutual back patting, where players would spontaneously break into applause when another player did something out of the ordinary technically. It was not something he had ever experienced back in Canada.
What I propose is creating more environments where creativity can be encouraged and nurtured; environments where young players are inspired and want to learn to get better. When I was growing up, I was inspired by watching George Best – he was the Picasso of the football world then. Today’s young players are inspired by Messi and Ronaldo – they are inspired by both and want to be like them. Not every young player will go on to play as well as the world’s best two players but surely we have a duty as coaches and parents to stimulate their senses so they, not us, can find out how good they can be.
I don’t have all the answers but surely we must be looking outside the traditional learning methods in order to achieve this.