Now a ‘veteran’ of four seasons running my son’s Junior Football team I find one of the hardest things to overcome is coping with the complete mismatch between the expectations of different groups of people.
Starting with the players in youth football, it is only natural that they hold ambitions and dreams of being the next Ronaldo or Messi and to a large extent this is to be encouraged. We want our young players to fall in love with the game’s superstars and aspire to be as great as them.
We want them to play with the same energy, enthusiasm, passion and freedom as the world’s best players do. If anything, the likes of Ronaldo would credit his incredible achievements to the fact that he’s managed to hold onto that sense of joyful passion for the game which has manifested itself into a freedom as a top professional.
In many respects it is that sense of pure love for the game first felt as a starry eyed schoolboy which drive the likes of Ronaldo through the endless hours of practice, the pain of injury and the difficult times.
With junior footballers though, and particularly since the introduction of the Academy system which can very quickly become an all-consuming enterprise, I think it is important to keep a sense of perspective, at least as an undercurrent.
The bare facts are that the odds remain stacked massively against any young player wanting to play at a senior level, let alone go on to become an international Superstar.
With something like a hundred or so professional clubs in England with a playing staff of approximately 35 each it doesn't take a great mathematician to see that the approximate 4 million players engaged with junior football have a very tight squeeze to fit into the number of available places.
With the introduction of the Academy system and its growth by creep more and more into the lives of elite youth football players, they have very quickly taken over.
Many grassroots clubs look at the work done by local academies and try to replicate aspects of this in their coaching and their approach. Again whilst there are merits to this I think it's important that young players remain young people first and continue to enjoy other things in their lives.
It is a delicate balance to find the right drive, enthusiasm and passion for the game which any young player aspiring to make the top must possess, but also enjoying other things.
With the odds stacked so heavily against, it's a balance that I think must be found and too often is missed.
Arguably the hardest group of people to manage the expectations of are the parents of junior players.
This is an age old problem in junior football with the expectations of parents being totally unrealistic in just about all facets of the game. The results of the team, the playing time of their own child, the position that their child is playing are all particular areas of contention.
It doesn’t take long for this to turn into disappointment and poor behavior when their wild expectations are inevitably not met.
As somebody who fell into coaching through being asked to get involved at his own son's junior football team I can see this from a number of different viewpoints. Again it is not unnatural for parents to have a high regard for the ability of their own child.
There are numerous horror stories of the behaviour of parents spilling over into rebuking or abusing their child or even abusing another player and physical violence with other parents on the touchlines of junior football pitches!
In the cold light of day it's hard to believe that anybody could behave in such a way however there are numerous examples of this that occur on a weekly basis.
It is a personal view but I think too much focus is put on the value of results in junior football. Again there is a fine balance to find somewhere between kids enjoying themselves (and I recognise that results play a part in that) and the result becoming all-encompassing.
The moment that starts to happen is when coaches fall into the trap of trying to find their ‘best 11’ and adjust the game time of individual players to suit this, and that is the point at which players start to feel frozen out or like they're being treated differently to other players in the team and become disillusioned.
All players develop and mature at different rates. My view is that the coach has no right to be making choices on behalf of young people about whether they can continue to enjoy their football. Label a kid as a ‘sub’ or a ‘squad player’ and just like telling a child that they’ll end up in prison when they grow up, then that’s how they see themselves and their future.
It is essential to keep everybody engaged and to give everybody the opportunities to develop and become better, both through active practice and through playing in game time.
One of the best things that I did, and I regularly thank my lucky stars I did it, when I first started coaching was to set out the priorities for the team in writing to the players and parents when they signed.
I think the point at which players sign, which also requires a parental signature, represents a great opportunity to manage expectations.
I made a point of setting out that our three priorities are:
- That everybody enjoys themselves
- Everybody gets better and improves themselves
- We try to win games
In that order.
If you're players and parents have signed up to this from the outset then it can be useful to refer back to if you come into a situation where you have to manage the behaviour of an individual or need to have a difficult conversation.
But if you’re involved in running a team, you’ll know that the weight of people’s expectations do not end there.
There is the level of expectation placed upon you by the club who need accounts keeping, financial contributions making and committee meetings attending.
Then there’s lifts to organise to make sure you have enough players and don’t forget the kit, the balls, the bibs and the cones.
Thankfully we now have the benefits of technology to make that whole process more manageable. The likes of Teamstats keeps everyone in the loop and can support even the most disorganised coach (of which I am one).
The Junior Football Leagues are quick to ensure you meet their expectations as well. Audits over coaching qualifications and other mandatory training soon come around again and the penalties for not complying are getting stiffer.
When you think of all the expectation placed upon by the different people involved and the seemingly million and one directions you find yourself pulled in, it’s hard to remember sometimes that you are giving up your own free time as a volunteer!
That’s why I think it’s important for you to focus on the good you are doing, without you those young players probably wouldn’t have a team to play for. It doesn’t matter what expectations others place on you, the expectation you place on yourself to deliver that opportunity to those players should be the one you pay most attention to and never lose sight of the fact that you’re making a brilliant contribution to their lives.