Home General How a Child Learns in Football – The Messy Path of Player Development!

How a Child Learns in Football – The Messy Path of Player Development!

by Coach Kurtis

What I have learned after 16 years of coaching with youth teams, schools & the community is that player development in grassroots football is never straight forward.

Since I became a football parent myself, I have been able to take more of a backseat and just observe the actions of many grassroots coaches.

Seeing them tackle the many challenges that kids sometimes throw at them is an interesting watch.

The thing with most adults is that we like order, and we like things to be done by the book no matter what we are doing.

You must realize quickly that this will unlikely take place when you are coaching kids in any sport let alone football!

“So, are you telling me I should just accept that there will be chaos”?

Sort of.

One of the most common things that I have noticed after observing many coaches involved in youth football is that we want things to look ‘orderly’ and if the players do the task as instructed it’s happy days for all!

But do they check for understanding of the task?

Can the players see where, when & why they would use whatever it was that you just taught them?

This for me, was one of the biggest areas that the majority of grassroots coaches struggle to implement and it’s where for me, most of the learning takes place.

In a real game of football there is no order! There is no sequence or pattern so why try and teach it this way!

If I were to think about how I learned things growing up then it would be by actually doing the task or an amended version of it with the guidance of a teacher, coach, or parent!

Whenever it was too ‘rigid’ I would switch off and whoever was teaching me would then have a job on their hands to reengage me and the other players.

So how kids learn in youth football? What are the best methods to not only engage but develop young players?

Here are some suggestions that I have discovered that work after teaching kids for 16 years in pretty much all settings.

Be prepared to adjust (differentiate)!

I will never forget my first ever coaching session for my first proper coaching job.

My boss at the time, wanted me to deliver session at an after-school club with about 20 + children involved.

I had it all planned and ready to go from the night before but I was still extremely nervous as it was my first proper session after taking my qualifications at college which was over a year ago by this time.

I gathered the group around me, told them the task and sent them off to do the warm up.

“This isn’t so bad” I told myself, as the players were getting on well in the warmup.

Little did I know that was all to change.

After about 5-10 minutes on that, I began to transition into the next section of my session, which is where all the problems began.

I went in and delivered to the group part of the session and sent them off to execute it as before, but this time not everyone was on task, in fact, many were not on task.

I had some players just chatting with their mates’ others looked deeply confused and others were just doing something completely different.

“What am I doing wrong” I thought to myself.

Things did not improve, and I was beginning to see my boss looking concerned on the sideline.

My mind suddenly went blank, and I could no longer think of what I could do to salvage the session and win back the attention of the players who were off task or struggling to do the practice.

Eventually, my boss took over the session as he could see I was clearly struggling and could not get the session back on track.

Why do you think I had so many problems with players doing the task?

After reflecting the main issue was the task that was set was beyond the players that I had working with me. Yes, a few could do it but only a handful and I was not prepared for anyone who really struggled with that task.

“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”

Ignacio Estrada

On reflection, I should have made the session easier by setting those who were struggling or just not getting it, a different task that would help bring them up to speed but at a level that is suitable for them.  

What you say speaks volumes (how you say things, tone, messaging)!

Something I see many grassroot coaches struggle with is knowing how to communicate with players on their team.

What you must remember is that you are dealing with children, so what you say must be short, quickly understood and holds their attention.

Getting your players engaged from the beginning is key for player development!

“Wait, I have to do all three?” you might be thinking, but to truly have the players implement what you want from the practice I recommend you work on all three along with demonstrations.

Anything that you must show the players remember to always demonstrate it!

If you have clear demonstrations along with the other 3 things I have just mentioned, then you will have the players listening and implementing the information that you have presented to them.

How to captivate (break the flow, win them to your way of thinking)

For me, the session starts the moment the kids arrive at the field, this is where you can begin working on building a strong bond with the players.

Typically, when the children arrive at my sessions, I try to greet every player. Sometimes I might say a joke to make them smile or ask them about their week or how they got on when they played for their Saturday team or school anything to get them opening up to you.

Doing little things like this each time has a massive effect when you deliver your practice.

The children will start to see you in a different light and realize that you are a lot more than just a coach.

Don’t just stop there, throughout the session throw in moments where the players see your humorous side. For me, this must be one of the biggest barrier breakers and can have the children hanging off your every word if done right.

Remember it is not just what you say that engages and wins the respect of your players but ‘how you say it’ as well!

I remember helping another fellow coach with his delivery in his sessions. Now he was working with some young children between the ages of 4 – 6 in a school.

Now he found it difficult to keep them on task and listen to his instructions. After watching him deliver a session I concluded it wasn’t that he couldn’t clearly explain what he wanted, they just weren’t interested in what he had to say.

I explained to him you need to speak less, demonstrate more, and vary your tone of voice.

“Vary my tone of voice?” He said with a confused look on his face.

I continued to say “Yes, to truly captivate young children when coaching you have to learn how to vary your tone to really emphasize certain teaching points and keep them engaged on what you say”.

I showed him an example of what I meant, by taking a small part of his session where I went from a calm speaking voice to a slightly louder and upbeat tone when I was moving quicker to show how quick I wanted them to try and move the ball!

He quickly realized the difference and began to implement it into his coaching.

Finally, another tip that I picked up from one of my mentors was to have a way of getting the children to want ‘your’ attention and not you trying to get theirs.

I remember first seeing this when I was watching a coach called Roger Wilkinson who mentored me at the beginning of my coaching career.

In the session, he would have the players doing the task that he asked them to do then all of a sudden stop the practice and say “This is ok, but I know you can play quicker! Now I would say this is championship level (2nd tier English league) and I want to see premier league!”.

He would then point out one player who he felt was doing well and say, “Paul right now is in the Premier league and at the moment the rest of are still playing in the championship, who else wants to be in Premier League?”.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is conflicting-copy-2-1024x536.png

All the other players hands would shoot up and then he would say “Then show me, play quickly!”.

The effort of the players after he did this always improved. Every player wanted him to say that they were in the Premier League like Paul so they would increase their effort to win his approval!

To this day, I still use this strategy and it works like a charm each time. The players instantly want my attention and respect, so they increase their work rate to gain it.    

Help them see why it matters to accelerate player development! (Clear progressions)

Everything that you teach in the session should be a progression of what was previously taught!

This is something that has never left my thoughts ever since it was introduced to me from a great coach called John Cartwright.

I remember watching him deliver a session to a group of players between the ages of 13 – 14 at Lilleshall National Sports Centre.

Every section from the warmup to the small-sided game, smoothly progressed into the next one.

Because each stage gradually progressed in difficulty the players quickly understood what was expected of them and showed progression in their play throughout the practice.

The reason why I think his methods were so successful with the players was because the players ‘see’ why they had to the things that was asked of them or they would not solve the problem.

Here is an example of how a session should look when the difficulty is gradually increased over time!

  1. Introductory phase -This would normally be the warmup phase, but it can be used to prepare the players for what is about to come. Introduce ball work with passive pressure i.e., dribbling amongst each other in an area (no tackling)
  2. Mid-phase – This phase tends to offer some of opposition or conditioned aspect that presents the players with a reoccurring problem that they must overcome to be successful.
  3. The end game – The final phase of the session should be used to assess that the players have taken on board everything that was previously taught. This is normally in the form of a small-sided game and can sometimes feature various conditions to bring the focus back to the topic of the practice.

Currently there is a big movement towards ‘just letting them play’ which normally entails setting the task and just giving them a ball and say nothing.

Now this is not all bad, a lot of kids do learn this when they play out with friends, but I do believe we miss some excellent opportunities to help accelerate their development by adding some guidance.

Remember, this is not the coach stopping the session and laying out every step that the players must perform but setting up a scenario that creates problem for the players and you only stepping in they struggling to find the answers.

When you do step in, help them towards the solution do not just give it to them. At times you can tell them what you would do in that scenario but at most times asking good probing question or cues will be sufficient.


Coaching kids isn’t easy, and every child will be at different stages especially in grassroots football.

I honestly believe that coaches not only need to be good at delivering sessions but also good at quickly recognising the needs of the players once they start training.

It is at this point; changes can be made to home in on that player needs and help either bring them up to speed with the rest or push them on even further.

Finally, remember the importance of consistency! To truly implement any strategy there must be consistency and that is no different with children.

So, this means if you have behavior strategy you need to be consistent, or a season planned curriculum you need to follow it through and not deter away from it just because you had a bad game.

Remember there is always a way of getting through to a child if it’s something that they enjoy and care about, you just have to find the right solution and sometimes it can be something as little as acknowledging them every time they arrive that helps break barriers.

Do you agree with the above?

Share your thoughts in the comments below or on Facebook.

Free Youth Football Coaching Guide!

Save yourself the guess work and get my free youth coaching guide today!

You may also like

Leave a Comment

Optimized with PageSpeed Ninja