I've been in youth coaching for two years and two months now, and have seen a fair bit of the game at grassroots level. A topic that has constantly been on the agenda with the professional game is racism, but I have been fortunate enough to not have experienced it (yet). I do, however, have a problem with the game of football at my level: reverse ageism in hiring coaches and program leaders.
I'm turning 20 in four month's time. Yes, I'm young, but I have also been involved in a variety of roles and have coached across three continents for over half a dozen programs. In no way shape or form am I saying I know it all and I'm super experienced, but I have seen and learned a fair bit during the past 26 months working as a youth coach. Qualifications wise, I've constantly pushed myself to do all the coaching educations I could possibly do, and have had the pleasure of learning from top coach educators both in the US and in England. With all these in mine, it ticks me off when I apply for a senior coaching role and receive the following reply:
"We think you might be a bit too young for the role of (X) and we have not had a 20 year old in such position before, but we really like your experiences and qualifications and think you would make a great addition to the staff as a staff coach."
Great. Thanks. Bye. First of all, I applied for the head of coaching role, not the staff coach position. Secondly, if you like my experiences and qualifications, why not give me a chance to impress for the head role? I have a pet hate for interviewers who automatically assume my inability to lead at a young age while they have not seen me in action. You haven't had a 20 year old doing that role? Why not start now??? So many times I felt like if I was 23 with the same experience and qualifications I would be getting a lot more jobs and paid a lot more than what I have been offered as a 19-turning-20 year old.
One interview that ended with me accepting a job, my interviewer asked me what I like to do in a typical coaching session. I was impressed that they actually cared about the actual coaching instead of the non-important things, like my age! I took the job knowing that they trusted in my ability to take on the role successfully, that I would be paid accordingly to my ability and not my age. It goes a long way in developing a mutual trust that benefits the overall program.
It doesn't matter if it's in coaching, in a volunteer role or in any other task. If someone questions my ability to fulfill my duty simply because of my age, I will withdraw myself from contention every time. Judge someone by what they do, not how many years they've been on Earth.
Often times when I tell people I lead the Reception program for my club they dismiss it as not actual coaching, as the kids are "only five year olds" and "can't actually play football". Yes, they can't play proper football, but if they are not guided appropriately at this age they will not be able to play football properly when they grow older. Coaching reception isn't about football. It's about basic motor skills, social competences, and getting themselves familiarised with a sporting environment. And to me that's dead important.
According to a research conducted by Ohio State University, 86% of disadvantaged urban children of preschool ages lack basic motor skills. They do not have age appropriate ability in throwing, catching, dribbling, or even simple motions without an object like jumping and gliding. How do we expect any kid to become fine footballers if they are not equipped with the very basic of motor skills at a young age, when their brains and bodies are rapidly learning new concepts and acquiring new abilities?
Coaching reception isn't about football. In a typical structured session there are tag games, progressing to having a football at their feet to get them used to the concept of controlling and dribbling a football, lots and lots of turning and basic physical activities. Throughout an extended period of time these skills will become muscle memories, tremendously important for any athlete in any sport. How many times have we seen a seven or eight year old who struggles in a sport simply because they are not used to rapid movements, rapid turning and change in direction, hand-eye-foot coordination, or rapid body reaction?
And it's not just motor skills that are at stake. These sessions also allow them to familiarise themselves with playing and interacting with other children of their age, where they can learn basic social skills and allow them to develop psychosocially. Not only are these important in team sports, they also prepare kids for years of schooling to come as well when they will be interacting with classmates, teachers and other individuals on a daily basis.
My job is to ensure the kids I coach don't struggle both physically and socially as they get older and more involved in sports and other daily activities, when they hopefully will be prepared adequately to ensure successful development as both an athlete and a person.
I had a discussion today with my mentor and friend Chris Smith whom I started my coaching career under. We were talking about how too many coaches treat young players as professionals and coaching as their dayjob, and end up not enjoying coaching enough. They can never put on a smile or joke around with their players, simply barking orders and making kids sit still or stand in line in the name of "instilling discipline".
What fun does that bring to the coach or the players on their team, when the players can't have a laugh with their mates, afraid of being yelled at or punished by their coach for misbehaving? How enjoyable is soccer when a player is told off for doing something true to their nature: having fun?
I'm not calling myself an excellent coach, but I do have enough belief in myself to deliver quality sessions and manage a successful program. And I put this down to how I was able to put myself in a kid's shoes, understand their thought process and empathize with them. I was often praised at the start of my career by other coaches for how well I dealt with younger kids, and I believe this has propelled me to being the coach that I am today. Sure, I have enough technical knowledge to run a highly technical session, but a session can only be as good as how enjoyable it is, and this isn't going to be achieved by a cranky angry coach treating eight year olds like professionals. I try to put on what I consider as the right image for a youth coach: fun, energetic, approachable while still maintaining a high standard of coaching. In other words, I try to be myself and not Jose Mourinho.
Chris said something very true, and I'm going to quote him here: "every person working with kids should understand two things: 1. This isn't about you and 2. Kids will be kids." Stop treating kids like professionals, and stop taking away from not just them but yourself the joy of soccer. In other words, don't treat it like a job. You have a responsibility to teach them all the right techniques of the game, but it's about the kids having fun with it. Without them, you're not a coach. Smile. Laugh. Joke around with your players. Be yourself. They won't be around forever, nor will they have the same level of energy and fun a few years down the line. Enjoy yourself and let your players enjoy themselves.
About the Author
Bao "Terry" Cao is currently a coach at Manchester United Foundation and the FA Development Centre for girls. Terry is licensed by both the FA and USSF. He shares his personal experience of being involved in youth soccer as both a coach and an outside viewer.