It’s that time of the year again. Kids and parents across the country will be out shopping for fancy new boots and training gear, eager to launch into another season of navigating the suburbs looking for far-flung grounds in mysterious places.
Coaches, many first-timers fresh from completing an accredited coaching course, will be laying plans for global domination — well, at least a creditable performance in the U11 Eastern B league.
Junior football can be a marvelous thing for all concerned. It’s even better when everyone approaches it with the right attitude. Parents teach their kids a lot by the way they behave on the sidelines and it’s often a bad look when parents invest more emotion than sense in how they “support” their child.
It’s interesting to look at what has changed and what has stayed much the same over the years when it comes to junior football and what we expect coaches to teach young players.
While I applaud the commitment of FFA to implementing a standardised approach to coaching across the country based on a ball-centred philosophy, the strength and reach of that commitment does not always penetrate to the grassroots of the game.
There’s not a lot more - short of dictatorial ‘re-education’ measures - the national authority can do to get its message across to coaches and parents. In fact, many parents are barely aware of things such as a national coaching curriculum or what a Han Berger is. I still cringe when watching junior matches and hearing the same calls of “boot it” that I heard way back in my junior days (when dressing rooms were caves).
The move from an ad hoc to standardised system is very much a cultural change, and that sort of change can often be slow and haphazard. Of course, it’s as much a misnomer to think that the FFA has invented the wheel when it comes to a national coaching scheme as it is to think the A-League is our first attempt at a national league.
Back in the hope-filled days surrounding the Socceroos’ first qualification for a World Cup Finals in 1974, the Australian Soccer Federation had undertaken the task of developing a national coaching structure designed to teach coaches to teach young players.
The ASF appointed well-credentialed English coach Eric Worthington to oversee this program. While Worthington certainly had his critics - as does Berger - he did lay the groundwork for a better structured junior football system in this country.
His reign also came at a time when the Federal Government, on the back of a dismal medal count at the 1976 Summer Olympics, started investing heavily in a training centre for talented young athletes known as the Australian Institute of Sport — a place that certainly produced its share of quality footballers over the years.
I think one of the overlooked stories of past thirty years in junior football has been the shift from a fitness to ball-centred approach: to frame it in a crudely simple way, we’ve become more ‘European’ in our approach. The label is really irrelevant, what matters is that kids are not running mindless laps or sprinting pointlessly across sand dunes while a bag of footballs gather dust.
Without getting too 'Craig Foster' about it, the next time you’re at a junior football game and some vein-bursting bonehead screams at a 10-year-old to “boot it”, maybe ask them if they’ve watched a Champions League match recently.
If we had less “boot it” at grassroots level we might just get more Australians playing Champions League football.