Following Australia’s performance at the Olympics – which some say was less than acceptable – the head of the Australian Olympic Committee, John Coates, has advocated for increased spending on grassroots sports. This is in line with the 2009 Crawford report, which also advocates for increasing the proportion of total monies allocated to grassroots sports. This is not a controversial idea, and one that perhaps most Australians would also advocate for. Indeed, sports participation has many physiological and psychosocial benefits for young people.
Recently, Craig Foster has suggested that football is in a better position than most other sports to drive an initiative that is aimed at increasing the number and experience of youth sport participants. Football has 360,000 participants nationwide from the ages of 5-14, thus making it the #1 participation sport in the country for boys, and #6 for girls. Further, FIFA, unlike any other major sporting body, has systematically undertaken scientific research which demonstrates the significant health benefits that are derived from football participation. These include positive effects on: fitness, strength, skeletal health, self-esteem, social skills and quality of life.
The FFA have worked hard over recent years to overhaul the “system” of youth football in Australia. Certainly, the advances made by way of small-sided-games and the national curriculum have been substantial. However, these changes have served the sole purpose of generating players with a higher technical and tactical proficiency. The ultimate aim, of course, is to have better players competing at a higher level, thereby lifting Australia to be one of the top footballing countries worldwide.
More importantly, we have to ask, how have these changes served to increase the positive experiences of our young footballers? How have they served to maintain and increase the participation base of football to ensure its competitive advantage in this space? And, how have they served the physiological and psychosocial development of young players?
The changes that have been made to the education of coaches in Australia epitomise the overhauls made by the FFA “system-wide”. The community coach education courses have been enhanced through the addition of a coherent framework of technical and tactical education. Thus, coaches are able to produce more highly skilled and tactically astute players (assuming, of course, that the coach can actually pass on this information to players). However, coaching is never this simple. Indeed, by maintaining a focus on technical and tactical knowledge, our coach education courses leave coaches absolutely unprepared to facilitate any meaningful personal gains for young athletes. Where is the information on how to build a meaningful positive relationship with a young player? Where is the information on athlete development and skill acquisition? Where is the information on communication and leadership?
These glaring omissions reinforce the narrow focus of the FFA at the exclusion of all else. No coach – young or old – could ever walk away from a community coaching course feeling prepared to handle a team of young players. How do they deal with misbehaviour? How do they deal with bullying? How do they deal with the parents? These questions remain unanswered in the service of trying to develop “better” players. But let’s face the truth, until coaches can be taught the necessary skills within the coach education system, Australia will reap no reward in terms of increasing its participant base, providing a better experience for young players, or (given that coaches will have no idea about how to teach the technical and tactical knowledge that they receive) even more skilful players.
The FFA must get this right. However, this will require a change of mindset. A change of philosophy. Great players, and great footballing nations, are not built solely and technically and tactical proficiency. They are built on a football culture. The FFA needs to change the goal posts and realise that overhauling the “system” can only be an overwhelmingly positive thing when those changes serve the vast majority of footballers in this country – the young participants – who will go on to form the backbone of Australia’s footballing culture in the years to come.