Steve Jefferys is a football coach working currently with under 6s for the first time. Aged 39 he supports Arsenal, lives just outside Bath and works in advertising.
I’m not a football novice. I played in teams from the age of 8 and – while not blessed with bundles of natural talent – I had passion, dedication and the desire to fit in. I was also lucky enough from my late teenage years to be treated to a rich diet of early Wenger football from my own North London heroes so I’ve probably become more rather than less engaged in the beautiful game as the years have rolled by.
More lately, though, I’ve become fairly accustomed to my lockdown Saturday morning routines of leisurely coffee, croissants and reading mindless stuff on the internet. But a return to school routine, structure and the quickening advance to my fourth decade hastened me to shake things up a bit. To scare myself a little. To get out my comfort zone. So what better way to do it than take on my village’s U7 football team?
Taking on a group of young boys and girls, however, and being responsible for developing and sustaining their interest in the game was nothing short of terrifying. What if they don’t listen to me? What if they laugh at me? What if they don’t come back after the first week? And having my own son joining the 12-strong throng on a Saturday morning only added to the pressure.
So I decided to dive straight in and make a proper go of it. Fail to plan, and you plan to fail, as the saying goes. And there were some important lessons I learned in pretty short order.
Take care in assembling your backroom staff
Like any coach, I invested time in reconnaissance. Not of opposing teams, but of other coaches. A couple of Saturdays at my local park told me unequivocally that every budding Ferguson needs their Brian Kidd. And possibly their Mike Phelan, too. And you need to choose them carefully. You can’t merely pluck from the first tentative parental handraise at the head of the first session. No. You need to identify them in advance, court them and persuade them. You need to look at them and how well their style will complement yours. There’s no point in having two shouters or two quiet people. You’ll need someone who is reliable, can carry out your instructions and who can call it when things are going south: like thwarting the latest grass-throwing ruse as soon as Head Coach’s back is turned.
Have a plan B (and C, and D…)
My own 5 year old son gives me plenty of insight into the younger age-group mentality. Attention span is minimal and everything is an immediate no unless it is fun. Yes, fun. All roads lead to fun. Get the first laugh and you’ve got them. Make it seem like hard work and you’ve lost them. Instantly. I’ve binned off exercises within a minute by ‘reading the pitch’ and knowing either I’ve explained it badly (so easy to do) or what I’m doing with them doesn’t involve zombies, aliens, throwing grass, or allow for hugging each other (very difficult to get them to practice any kind of social distancing).
Man management is vital
While simpler than their adult counterparts, some small people still need handling sensitively, even at a young age. I noticed fast that for every five children who approach their first get-together gung ho there is one hanging back, wimpering on their parent’s knees and wilting under the pressure of seeing numerous people doing unfamiliar things together. I decided quickly I wasn’t going to just give up on those lost souls. So I sought out those struggling and spoke to their parents discretely post session. I suggested we get their child together after school one day in a small group with some of their friends and ease them in. And yes, make it fun. Without the pressure of performing, managing things in smaller groups and giving them the opportunity to be praised. And do you know what? When you see the smiles it gives you an amazing feeling. And you see them come back the next Saturday and slip straight in. And hopefully, you’ve managed to get one more person into a game that provides so much fun and excitement.