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Importance of letting them play

Posted by Dan Kitchen | 9th June 2016

I am writing about this as it is something I see on the sidelines weekly, and it continues to be a huge issue within youth development. Go to any game up and down the country this weekend and you will see coaches screaming instructions to their players throughout the game. Not only does this make them nervous and confused, it has an extremely negative impact on their development. 
Game intelligence is one of the most important aspects to a players game. It is defined by how well they 'see' the game, and the quality of decision they make with and without the ball. Players like Lionel Messi are 2 or 3 steps ahead of most of their opponents. They know what they are going to do before they receive the ball, and are more likely to choose the best option once they have it.

Players from a young age will gradually develop their game intelligence, just by playing. As a coach I like to set upgame related sessionswhere my players are required to make quick decisions in varied situations. Whether they make the right or wrong decision they are figuring out what works and what doesn't. Coaches who make those decisions for the players by telling them where to pass, or where to move, are essentially taking away a learning process.

In my own coaching practice I adopt aspects of ‘Guided Discovery’ into my coaching style. Guided discovery simply means that the coach raises questions and provides options or choices for the players, guiding the players to answer the questions for themselves because they become curious about the answers.

I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.’ – Confucius.

Skills require less attention with practice, but the nervous novice thinks too much about what they are trying to do, a form of paralysis by analysis. By using guided discovery players discover the most effective way to perform by responding to specific questions. A very basic example of this might be trying to teach a child to play a long ball.

Q1 What kind of kick would be needed to pass the ball to someone who is far away?

A1 A long kick.


Q2 How do you overcome an opposing player positioned between the ball and the receiver?

A2 The ball must go over the opposing player.


Q3 In what way should the ball be passed to go over the player?

A3 Low, under the ball.


Q4 To send it over the player, which part of your foot must contact the ball?

A4 The top of the foot (instep).


By adopting this approach to learning players are:

  • Actively involved in the learning process
  • Enhance problem solving and task mastery
  • Developing holistic thought and empowerment

Coaches need to take a step back and remember its the kids game. Football came from the streets, kids played in unorganized environments without adults watching over them and giving instructions. No kid on the street ever relied on their parent or a coach to tell them what to do when they got the ball. In environments like that players will flourish, express themselves, and have to make their own decisions - improving game intelligence.

Development squads

As coaches and parents, we need to do our best to recreate that environment. Whilst I accept most games will usually be organised and supervised by adults, we need to leave the kids to it. Coaches have sufficient time in the week to do their talking at practice, and devise sessions that will best teach their players the game. When it comes to a game day there should be no need for a coach of younger players to constantly give instruction from the side if their players have been coached properly at training. Offer encouragement, praise, and support.