The winds of change are blowing through youth football in England and, as the good ship Football Development heads in a new direction, the FA are putting the kids at the helm.Â Â Following repeated failures by the senior team at major championships and the inevitable calls for action that follow, the FA last month announced a Young Player Development Review, including 25 recommendations for English football that they hope will stop such calls happening ad infinitum.Â Â The recommendations - currently undergoing a period of consultation before a potential sign-off in May 2012 - have implications for the game from top to bottom, but central to the proposals are changes to youth football at grassroots level. The proposed changes aim to
give children more touches of the ball in small-sided games with age-appropriate pitch and goal sizes. The aim is for children to fall in love with the game whilst helping develop their technique before they make the step up to the 'adult' 11-a-side game.
The man behind the proposals is Nick Levett, the FA's National Development Manager for Youth and Mini-soccer. He is currently touring county FAs and youth leagues across England to discuss the new proposals.
Overview - a child-centred approach
The proposals are centered around the people involved - the children who play the game. Nick Levett and his team have done a lot of research on the subject of child development from both within and outside of the game. He was able to quote from numerous research papers, the Sports Council and even the United Nations on the best way to approach child development, but the most important research was the FA's own consultation with the game itself.
They spoke to over 300 youth clubs, hundreds of grassroots coaches, over 150 youth leagues and, arguably most importantly of all, 42 different groups of young footballers aged 8-12 from both professional and grassroots clubs.
All of this research has fed into the proposals, which aim to make football fun and enjoyable for kids, particularly at the youngest ages, to aid the development process and reduce the chances of kids dropping out of the game.
"It's a child-centredÂ approach," said Levett, "because adult values and child values are very different. If four kids had a ball to make up a game, they wouldn't have subs and they wouldn't stick themselves in a line and take it in turns; they'd just have a game."
The roadshow has been met with largely positive feedback, but Levett accepts that not all of the proposals will be to everyone's liking. However, he strongly believes in the changes the FA are seeking to make to the game and is confident that, if the changes are signed-off after the period of consultation, by the time they are put into place for the 2013/14 season the FA can, with clubs and coaches, help to develop the game to meet the needs of the children.
An increase in small-sided football Â The FA's new youth football structure will see an increased use of small-sided games for all age groups up to under 12s. This will allow children to progress gradually through age-appropriate formats, rather than jumping straight from mini-soccer to the 'adult' 11-a-side game before they even finish primary school.Â Â Â Â The entry point for under 7s and under 8s will be the 5v5 game. Under 9s and under 10s will then step up to 7v7, followed by a new 9v9 level for under 11s and under 12s. Each step will feature appropriate pitch and goal sizes allowing kids to develop with the game, before they take the final step up to 11-a-side at under 13s level.
Playing smaller-sided games has been proved to give children an increased number of touches of the ball, while providing more goals and scoring attempts, more one-v-one encounters and more chance to attempt dribbling skills. It is this increased contact time with the ball that the FA believe will help children enjoy the game more while providing them with better preparation for the 11-a-side a game.
The FA's Director of Football Development Sir Trevor BrookingÂ has been a long-time advocate of such a change.
"Any skill I might have had as a player was almost there when I was 11 and I donâ€™t see that in sufficient 11 year olds these days,If your technical skills arenâ€™t there when you start playing 11v11, youâ€™re never going to cope with the game."
The introduction of 9 v 9
One of the biggest changes in the FA's proposals is the introduction of 9-a-side football for under 11s and under 12s. The new format is designed to help bridge the gap between mini-soccer at under 10s and 11-a-side football at under 11s - a jump so big that this age group currently suffers from one of the biggest drop-rates in youth football in England.
It seems absurd to many in the game that children as young as 11 are expected to play on a full-size pitch and in full-size goals. And kids, being kids, are able to highlight this absurdity in brilliantly simple fashion. Here are a few of the comments that Levett heard from children in the under 11 age group while discussing the change to 11-a-side:
â€œWhy do I have to defend the same size goal PetrCech?â€ - Josh
â€œWhy is the pitch so much bigger than last year? We're only a little bit bigger.â€ - DJ â€œHow am I expected to save shots in a goal that's so big? When the adults come to take the nets down they use a step ladder!â€ Adam Â
The bare statistics back these views up. "The fastest-growing kid grows 2.5cm in the three or four months between leaving mini-soccer at under 10s and starting 11v11," says Levett. "In that time, we increase the size of the goal by 265% and the size of the pitch by 435%."
By introducing an intermediate-sized pitch, Levett hopes to remove the temptation to play a "territorial game" with the biggest kids at the back and the fastest kids up front.
The smaller pitch, he hopes, will encourage teams to play through the thirds, thus giving kids more touches of the ball and more chance to develop their skills while still moving towards an understanding of the full-size game.
The 9v9 game will be largely welcomed by the grassroots community according to a Club Website poll from May 2010, when 74% of our members said they favoured using 9v9 as a "stepping stone" from mini-soccer to the 11-a-side game.
Of course, there will be valid concerns over how teams can accommodate another format of football,when ground space for pitches is already at a premium. Aware of the issue around facilities, Levett says the FA's solution is "not about losing 11v11 pitches; it's about being more creative with how we use them."
The solution - already happening in 9v9 leagues around the country - is to use existing 11-a-side pitches and mark out 9v9 pitches in blue lines, with either one pitch from box to box or two pitches across half a pich (see diagram above).
Portable intermediate-sized (16' x 7') goalposts will also required, but the FA are currently working with the Football Foundation to make funding available for these as part of the Grow the Game scheme, while Sport England can provide 100% funding for 9v9 goalposts via the small grants scheme.
Levett believes that the FA can learn lessons from the 110 leagues already playing 9v9 across England, thus helping them to implement the new format across the country. "Working locally I think we can find solutions to any problems," he says. "It is about us opening our minds and being creative doing that."
Raising the age of "competitive" football
As part of the new proposals for youth football, the FA plans to scrap league tables for any children at primary school age (under 11s).
Research that the FA carried out with 42 groups of 8-12 year old kids found consistently that winning league tables and trophies did not even register as a reason for kids wanting to play the game.
Conversely, they found that increased pressure from parents and coaches wanting their team to finish higher up the table put kids off playing and often led to kids dropping out of the game.
Once again, this comes back to structuring the game around the needs of the child rather than the adult.Â "We need a child-centred focus," said Levett. "Not adult-driven around league tables and trophies. That's the difference."
"We want kids to play the game so we have to make it as attractive as possible and if parent and coach pressure is one thing that's forcing kids out of the game then we need to change that."
This might set alarm bells ringing for parents and coaches who want to see childrens' teams playing in a league structure. In fact a recent Club Website survey found that 63% of our members worried that removing league tables for under 11s risked making them less competitive.
Levett understands these concerns and recognises there is a place for some competitive football - "there's nothing wrong with under 7s playing for a cup three times a season" he says - but he is confident that kids will be naturally competitive enough without the adult-driven imposition of league tables.
â€œKids want to win whatever they play. But their emphasis isnâ€™t on winning so for us the emphasis shouldnâ€™t be on winning. It should be about enjoyment, fun, learning the game, falling in love with it and getting better at it.â€
As for league tables helping the development of young children, Levett refers to the model employed by Premier League and Football League clubs.
â€œIn the professional game there are no leagues at all [for under 16s]. If it was good for development they'd put it in," he says.
"I've tried to balance the research where I can, but I can't find any research that says drilling children into competitive leagues is good for development. All I can find is research that says it increases pressure which increases dropout." Â
Age groups and the Relative Age Effect in football
The Relative Age Effect describes how people born later in their selection year - e.g. the youngest children in a school year group - are much less likely to go on to achieve high-level sporting performance.
This effect has been demonstrated in academic achievement and in numerous sports around the world. Football is one of them. In 2009, 57% of Premier League academy students had birthdays in September - December, 29% were born in January - April, while those born in May - August accounted for only 14%
So with a bias towards the older children in a group, how many potential stars of the future are being lost to the system at an early stage?
FA research has found the effect when looking at the grassroots game - i.e. teams finishing at the top of their league have a higher proportion of 'older' children than those finishing lower down - and so they are looking to de-couple youth football from the traditional academic year-groups and run it based around calendar years, as per the system already in place in Scotland and in most other countries around Europe.
Such a change would shift the bias in grassroots football towards the January - April group but, with school football still structured around the academic year, it would mean children born in May - August would no longer be the youngest in both school football and grassroots football. Add to that some new some formal FA competition structures to benefit those children born in the summer months and the long-term relative age effect should be reduced.
For those parents and coaches worried that this might break up existing teams, don't worry. If the proposals are accepted, the FA will introduce the calendar year system in 2013 for the new under 7s age group only, before phasing the system in gradually for each under 7s age group that follow.
Timetable for proposed changes
All of the FA's proposals detailed above are currently undergoing consultation. They will be put before the FA council next month and, if accepted, could be signed off in May.
If the proposals are accepted, the FA are keen to give clubs a decent lead-in period to prepare for the changes. Â As a result, none of the changes outlined would become mandatory until the 2013/14 season, and they would be phased in for those age groups where a change in format is required (e.g. an under 12s team in 2013/14 would not be forced to switch to 9v9 for just one year, having played 11v11 at under 11s the season before).
The 2012/13 season would be an optional season for leagues to make the change ahead of schedule if they choose to, while no changes will be introduced at all next season
So there, in quite a large nutshell, are the proposals on the table for changes to the youth football setup in England over the years ahead.