Youth football matches should be about providing young players with a range and variety of playing experiences in a competitive and enjoyable environment. I have advocated for changes to the current federation youth competition structure since I returned to New Zealand five years ago. We do not currently maximise the playing experiences of our young players and are missing out on an opportunity to develop a truly unique youth games programme.
The debate over winning and losing in youth football is not a new one. My take has always been that winning and losing are a part of player development but not the sole focus. Learning to compete rather than a win at all cost mentality should be the aim and while winning and losing should be present in youth football, it should never be prioritised over the long-term development and well-being of players.
What we have in most federation youth competitions in New Zealand is an obsession with gauging success by league tables. Well-meaning coaches that lack patience and understating will often use results and league table positions as their only measuring stick for success and failure. We foster this obsession by posting results and league tables on websites and social media. This leads to short sighted decision making in an attempt to gain short term success. Young player’s development and well-being are shoved to the side in order to chase glory in the local U13 competition. Let me again reiterate that young players learning to compete and compete with determination is good a thing. Young players getting some experience of winning and losing is also a good thing. But coaches and parents getting swept up in a win at all cost mentality is not a good thing, particularly as coaches and parents are the ones that control and shape the environment for youth football. Simple changes to the federation youth competition structure in New Zealand would go a long way to improving the playing experience for young players from a well-being and development standpoint.
If we replaced the traditional federation youth competitions with less formal inter club game days, I believe it would go a long way towards creating a much more practical playing environment that would also foster and promote the development of skilful players and teams. Game days would involve Club A playing against Club B at all age groups from U12 to U16. Club A hosts the first game day while Club B hosts the return fixtures later on in the season. When necessary kick off times would be staggered to manage pitch allocations at venues. This is a model that I experienced in the English Academy system and I believe it has many benefits.
Scores would obviously still be kept during the games, but they would not count towards any league system. This would encourage long term developmental thinking such as an emphasis on more skilful and challenging game styles, movement of player’s through a variety of positions and equal playing time within teams. When the result doesn’t count towards a league structure it no longer carries over to the next week. Every game day would present a fresh opportunity for players display creativity and individualism without a league table position impacting their coach’s decision making. Players will have ample time to experience the pressure of results when they move closer to first team senior football.
To compensate for the minor loss of the winning and losing experience of the current federation competition structure, four additional tournament days should be scheduled over the course of the season. These tournament days would be made up of shorter more frequent games with points and results recorded and a clear winner recognised at the end of the day. This would provide the young players with a taste of winning and losing - which as mentioned earlier, is important. But it wouldn’t become the weekly focus of their matches and wouldn’t overshadow their long-term development as skilful players. As the players move closer to the first team, they can start to be subjected to more of these types of tournaments and competitive structures to prepare them for senior football.
*This is a progression that must be handled carefully and skilfully!
Removing the “league” element from the existing federation youth competitions would also remove the majority of the rules and regulations that currently bog down youth football in New Zealand. Less structured game days would provide a unique opportunity to create a varied and modified games programme for young players. At present in New Zealand, from the age of 13 through to 17 players will participate in 11 aside football. These games are played on pitches that are too big with goals that are too large and normally involve payers in the same position every week playing the same style of enthusiastic but primitive football. By the time a young player reaches senior football, instead of having a range of varied playing experiences they have often just had the same experience over and over. Less structured game days would provide opportunities to modify and adapt games to create different experiences for the players. Examples of some modified game formats are as follows:
Varied pitch sizes. Smaller & tighter, longer & narrower, wider & shorter etc.
Smaller sided. 3v3, 4v4,5v5 etc.
Overload/underload. Team A plays with a man up in the first half, Team B plays with a man up in the second half.
Altered score line. Team A starts 2-0 up, Team B must chase the game while Team A defends the lead.
Scrambled teams. Players from Team A and Team B are mixed together to form new teams creating unique social outcomes and challenges.
These are just a few examples of how modifying the traditional 11 aside game format could bring out some great themes and experiences. Exposure to a varied and modified games programme in the youth development phase on top of standardised 11 aside football would help produce well-rounded players with greater levels of skill, decision making and game understanding.
Less rules and regulations would also make the moving of players across teams and age groups for development purposes far easier. Depending on their development needs, players could move up or down age groups to ensure their ideal challenge point is always met. At present the strict rules and regulations of federation competitions make this nearly impossible. With this model a player could potentially play across two age groups in a single game day. e.g Player X plays 40 minutes in their own age group where they thrive as the best player on the pitch and then balance that out with 30 minutes in the age group above where they are forced to really struggle and strive. Instead of grouping players by the outdated method of their date of birth they could be grouped by the stage and level of development they are at.
The duration or number of games any player takes part in would also be increased for any game days that involved travel time of over two hours. This could be achieved by playing one longer game with more break periods or two shorter games with a longer break in between**. This would alleviate the current problem we have in New Zealand whereby a young player often completes a three-hour round trip to play 40-50 minutes of football. We must balance out the amount of time a young player spends in the car travelling to a game with the amount of time they actually spend playing the game. Playing time should be maximised wherever possible for young players not restricted by competition rules.
**Playing time must still be monitored to ensure there is no unnecessary risk of injury through excessive overloading.
In summary, these are my recommendations for the future of federation youth competitions in New Zealand:
Remove all league competition formats up to and including U16 age group football.
Replace weekly league matches with less structured and regulated inter club game days.
Do not record or publish results of these game days.
Encourage and allow modification of traditional 11 aside game formats.
Allow for movement of players across age groups based on their stage of development rather than their date of birth.
Extend the playing time of any game days where players have had a travel time greater than two hours.
Schedule four in season formal tournament days where teams can compete in and experience a win or lose environment.
Covid-19 will undoubtably have a severe impact on our game at all levels. But it also provides a unique opportunity to reset the game in many areas. I believe we have a fantastic opportunity to remodel youth football in New Zealand and create a truly unique games programme that focuses on the long-term development of highly skilled players and teams.