Grassroots Special: Why not to let kids just kick the ball

Tom Byer wants you to discourage your kids from just kicking the ball. Why? Read more...
Grassroots football is probably the most misunderstood part of the game. Sponsors, federations, and even professional clubs often view the grassroots football as more of an obligation rather than an opportunity. But in reality there are no shortcuts in developing a strong footballing nation, and it all must start at the grassroots level.

Once considered the “Golden Age” of youth football development, nine and 10 year olds are no longer considered young enough to begin training, having been replaced by four-and-five year olds. A major barrier to this is that most people don’t believe that children this young are capable of learning to manipulate the ball. They are wrong! Ball manipulation can start from the very young age of two or three.

One big mistake in training children, which I’ve seen made by many, is when they’re encouraged to constantly kick the ball. If you go out to the park on any given weekend anywhere in the world, you will see parents endlessly kicking around an adult-sized ball with their kids with their small children. Besides tiring the would-be player from the exerted energy (not to mention having to chase the ball all over the park), this exercise conditions them to kick the ball indiscriminately as soon as they come into contact with it.

“It’s my ball, you can’t have it!” | training children to shield the ball

What these children should be taught is how to pull the ball back with the sole of either foot. Then they can learn how to change direction and stop and start with the ball; this instills the mentality of “it’s my ball, you can’t have it!” Players must learn to protect the ball from a young age.

Parents can play a huge role in ensuring that their kids start to learn the proper ball manipulation skills. Very good players seem to adapt an intrinsic approach to practicing, especially on their own. Learning to manipulate the ball from a young age of three or four years old turns the powerful ignition switch to the ON position.

In fact, if you study the history of some of the best players in the world, you will learn that that many of them practiced for hours everyday with absolutely no coach. In this way football is similar to skateboarding, another intrinsically technical activity that requires no coach. And just like in skateboarding, aspiring football players often make fools of themselves in front of their friends and still manage to look cool while they do it. Whether a young athlete wants to be like Lionel Messi or Tony Hawk, the only way to learn is by experiencing failure - both early and often!

Young football players need lots of repetition: first under no pressure so they can learn the technique and then under low or full pressure situations. After all, which kid wants to get into a game where he or she is constantly kicking the ball, while the biggest and fastest kids snatch the lion’s share of possession? That early ability to manipulate the ball from a very young age is key to developing competent football players who will enjoy playing with confidence.

Here in Japan we have hundreds of schools which focus specifically on developing young children’s technical abilities. But there is much more that parents can do to help their kids develop as well. It can all start with a small ball inside the living room of your own home. You don’t need a full size pitch, other players, or an experienced coach. You just need a small ball and the knowledge of what to encourage them to do. Just pulling the ball back with the soles of their tiny feet is more than enough for kids to get excited to experiment with the ball. Discourage them from kicking the ball. I speak from first hand experience not as a coach but as a father, with two young boys of my own! At four and seven years old, they’ve already developed the technical ability to do things that older kids cannot. It’s not rocket science, it’s just old fashioned common sense!

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