I get a lot of questions from parents regarding when they should get their child involved in football. There are numerous issues with this question.
In my opinion, there is not a specific age where a child should get involved in football. What parents should be considering is whether their child wants to play football. Watching them during their generic play can sometimes help answer the question.
Are they constantly kicking anything that looks like a ball? Though the answer to this might be, yes. This still doesn’t give a full answer that your child wants to play football. The best way to find out is by trying, take your child to a session see how they get on.
For the company I work for, I run a session of Tots Football for children aged between 18 months and 5 years. At a normal session, I can get between 10 and 20 children attending the session with a member of their family.
When people are made aware that I coach Tots Football, I get some rather bizarre comments. There is a common misconception that young children would not be able to perform the skills required for football. I’ve always had the belief that if you put your mind to it, make it fun and ensure that the children learn then you’ve done your job as a coach.
When I’m coaching Tots Football, I am very different to when I coach my U15s team. My Tots Football sessions are not as structured. They are based on fun and the subconscious learning of the basic skills required to play football through different aspects of “play”.
Some might question, what skills are you looking for when coaching children aged between 18months and 5years? I have five key skills that I like to work on in each session.
- Basic Control
- Basic Kicking
- Social Development
Now, how do I approach working on these five skills? When it comes to any form of coaching the main aspect for me is to keep the activities fun. With Tots, I had the aspect of each activity and the surrounding environment of the sessions being pressure-free. Remember that the children are only aged between 18months and 5 years, they are not professional footballers.
Introduce Football as Playtime – not competitive games: Competitive games are the opposite of what children this age will be taught at their respective Nursery or Reception. At Nursery or Reception, they will be taught to share; to be nice; not to push, shove, or run into others; and to respect the space of their classmates. They are expected to play well with others and are usually admonished if they do not do so. In total basic terms, “play” at this age group does not look like a competitive football game. Play for these children usually does not have a specific goal, is not on a timed schedule, and can generally start and stop at the child’s discretion. Play at this age is generally not “with” other children, but “beside” other children. It is certainly not “against” other children. “Play” is supposed to be fun. It is not supposed to be a huge contradiction. Competitive football games are overwhelming and make no sense to 3- and 4-year-olds. Children this age are usually intimidated by the extra people and the noise, not to mention the collisions.
Learning as Fun – not lectures: A proper introduction to football for this age group focus on having “fun.” Activities need to be fast-paced, with minimal instruction time, should encourage silliness and laughter, and should not last too long before the next one is introduced. In my sessions, my clear but not so rigid structure is to have the child relax into the session environment by letting them run around, kick a ball with their parent or guidance who brings them to the session. After all the children have arrived and are settled, we all do a short warm-up without a ball to introduce to the children that not everything in football involves a ball. To some children, particularly at this age, this can be problematic. However, remember it’s all about having fun. I usually let them play tails where the children use a bib tucked into their clothing and have their parents or guardian run after them and vice-versa. It’s like one massive game of chase but with subconscious learning taking place about looking moving around into space, which players do when they’re looking to receive the ball during a competitive game. The entire concept of utilising football fun games to encourage children to enjoy the sport starts here. In addition to instruction in proper ball techniques, a fun environment provides responsible listening, cognitive learning, and socialization skills. After the movement warm-up, I carry out a routine of ball manipulation techniques using the different parts of the feet. I use the very same techniques over a period of weeks, introducing new ones as and when necessary.
You’ll notice that I keep mentioning the children’s parents or guardians. That’s because they are vital to the sessions.
Parent-Child Practices – a time of transition, not a dramatic break: There are extremely significant benefits to be derived from the participation of a helpful, responsible, concerned parent interacting with his or her child during practices at this age. In the majority of cases, this is the child’s first exposure to soccer – or to an organized sport of any kind. At first, the children are likely to be nervous, anxious, or have no idea what to expect. The presence of the parent or guardian is always calming and reassuring for the children. Beyond that, parents can become a small army of assistant coaches. They can provide constant one-on-one instruction and produce a significant increase in the number of ball touches. In addition, children are more likely to understand and respond to a parent who, being most familiar with their child, is more likely to talk to them in a way that they can understand best and understand what their child is trying to express in return. During my Tots sessions, I have various family members attending with their child. Throughout the sessions, the activities are a great chance for family member and child to bond. Other social aspects which come into the sessions are sharing, teamwork and something that is high on the agenda of the FA, respect. At the end of every session, I ensure that each child shakes everyone’s hand and says ‘well done’.
The most important thing to remember for Tots Football is that the attendees are young and are just starting on their journey as developing footballers. Keep the sessions fun, pressure-free and make the learning subconscious. As the coach, try not to be too serious but keep control. The simple things go a long way in the memory of a child, learn their names, give them high fives and praise them throughout the session.