Sunday, August 19, 2007

Junior Utopia

I recently decided to change clubs and coach juniors closer to home. Completely by accident I have managed to join a club that is the future of junior football in Australia.
Whilst Les Murray and the SBS crew sit on high in their ivory presenters desks observing the junior coaching system and pointing out it's flaws, the real hero’s on the ground go unnoticed.

On Saturday I woke up early to meet my future club. Nestled amongst the valleys and fog was an icy complex of playing fields. Cones, goals made of PVC piping and flags stretching for hundreds of metres. As I walked from the car park to a huddle of parents, children and the odd coach huddled around a coffee stand, something felt a little different. I’m familiar with the buzz of the suburban football field on a Saturday morning. The whistles, shouts and cheers. One thing I didn’t expect to find was such warmth on such a cold winter morning.

As the games started up on small pitches with 4, 5 or 7 a side, not a whisper of negativity emanated from the sidelines. Coaches stood quietly, speaking only to utter praise. Parents refrained from groaning at the refs decisions or barking instructions at the kids. There was no doofus dad screaming “Get rid of it!” or cliques of parents glancing side-ways as they spoke disapprovingly of their child’s coach. In fact, the behaviour of every adult was exemplary, and only bettered by what I saw on the pitch.

The 11 year-olds I noticed were entrancing. Confidently shifting the ball from right to left foot. Moving into space, looking up and assessing the field of play before receiving the ball and opening up their bodies to elegantly slide it to one of their team mates. Each one expressing themself with a confidence only nurtured in a non-judgemental, loving and fun environment. I noted that not one of them was interested in booting the ball at goal and the only aim was to intricately tic-tac their way to a simple tap in.

It reminded me of the way I used to play the game as a child with friends on the street or at a local park. It took me back to visions of children playing for hours without keeping score on dirt pitches in the alleyways of Argentina’s city’s. Experimenting, teasing, learning. This is the future of Australian football.

Again my mind swings back to the hours of lectures repeated ad-nauseum on “The World Game” show on SBS. Like a fire and brimstone sermon from an apoplectic priest we are constantly told of the evils of our “British” coaching mentality and our backwards, archaic and ugly approach to the game. I have experienced exactly what Foster and Murray are on about, when I was eleven. To be sure, twenty years later that mentality still exists in pockets. However the reality is that clubs like the one I visited on Saturday exist all over the country and associations and federations across the continent are reforming and improving at a startling rate. The criticism of the work done at grass-roots level is over-blown, condescending and for the most part, inaccurate and counter-productive.

When one of the SBS crew launch in to a tirade, I like to remember a story I read on a club website quite recently…..

Great motivational speeches
TFF reader Ben Shine was sitting at a sports ground in the inner city
waiting for his soccer grand final to start, and passing the time by
watching one of the curtain-raiser games, between two under-9 teams.

"The first half," he writes, "was a tense affair with parents and
other onlookers screaming their lungs out at these kids, and it was
obvious that this grand final meant a lot to them. The first half
ended 2-0 to the blue team and, as I was lucky enough to be sitting
next to the losing team of Abbotsford, I overheard their coach give
their half-time pep talk.

"Instead of the usual 'play it up the guts', 'give 110 per cent'
speech, the coach's speech consisted entirely of an enthusiastic
rendition of, "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands". It
was obvious that this coach, who had a strong Greek accent, cared
only about the kids being happy and not the result of the game,
unlike many of the parents.

"Anyway, the Abbotsford team went out in the second half and
proceeded to score three unanswered goals, thus winning the game,
sending the team and the coach back into another chorus of , "If
you're happy and you know it, clap your hands". It was an amazing
sight, and I only wish I had a coach like that."

TFF salutes you, Coach, wherever you are.

The Fitz Files (TFF) - The best of 2004 ...
By Peter FitzSimons
Sydney Morning Herald
January 1, 2005

And that, my fellow students of the game puts it all in perspective. Champions will come from being allowed to play, being nurtured and being happy, and from those wonderful parents and coaches who for the most part volunteer their time, effort and expertise without remuneration. Not from the zealots on TV on a Sunday afternoon.

Apologies for not updating the blog for some time. If I have learnt anything, it's to get my flu shots!