Football without a ball so no one keeps score. One way to do it I guess. Your thoughts?
This appeared on my twitter timeline not long ago. The piece it linked to explained that many Canadian soccer associations had eliminated the concept of keeping score due to the growing concern over the effects of competition on junior sport. One association had gone a step further and removed the ball:
We want our children to grow up learning that sport is not about competition, rather it’s about using your imagination. If you imagine you’re good at soccer, then, you are.
And it does make you think. What sort of inventive tricks, formations and interchanges kids could come up with if they didn’t have to worry about a ball. Wouldn’t it be liberating to run around a field with a group of friends, conjuring a game from thin air. Wouldn’t it?
It was, of course, a hoax. Or, more accurately, satire – created by Canadian comedians behind the radio show and website ‘This is That’. It had enough of a ring of truth to it to convince one English coach on twitter, however.
A joke is a joke and perhaps it would be best left there. But the idea of junior football being a subject for satire has intrigued me. I don’t think it is unprecedented for the culture of junior sport to be played for humour. The Fast Show had a series of sketches about Competitive Dad and his put upon kids playing family games of monopoly, arm-wrestling, cricket, etc. There have been portrayals of coaches who take themselves and the sport too seriously, none more enduring that Brian Glover’s bullying, delusional PE teacher in Kes who is coach, referee and wannabe-Bobby Charlton rolled into one.
This target of the Canadian satire is different, though. It’s not inappropriately macho behaviour; it’s the opposite. It’s the efforts of well meaning coaches and organisers to make junior sport a better experience by removing the sting of competition. Playing without a ball is a fiction, but not keeping score is real in Canada, the UK and probably many other places; and it’s that which gives the satirical piece its hook back into the real world.
I am interested in what it means for modern junior coaching practices to be satirised. Does it mean those practices are wrong and those that pursue them are laughable? Definitely not: anything that is new or counter-intuitive is easy-pickings for satire. Well-intentioned people, trying something different and harmless for the betterment of children deserve respect not mockery.
I think it means that the proponents of junior football for fun have yet to win the argument. There remains a dominant view that junior football is adult football played by smaller people. Opinions polarise around this issue. The football establishment seems to be on the reformist side of the argument wanting to make the junior game about participation and the development of skills and social awareness. They have not yet won over their constituency of parents and football fans. Until this balance shifts, any innovation, any deviation from the established pattern of matches, results, leagues, cups and champions will be viewed with suspicion and subject to satire.
What will it take for the popular view to come into line with that of the experts? Gary Lineker wrote recently about the corrupting influence of pushy parents. Perhaps the public support of high profile football personalities for junior football being played for its own sake, not for results and league positions will play a part. It might take the evidence of better adult players graduating from a system that values play more than victory. But perhaps that evidence is already available from societies such as Holland, without influencing attitudes elsewhere. It might just be when demand from children to play for fun outstrips the demand for competition at a young age.
I suspect, however, it will happen when the parents of a future generation hark back to their youth as footballers and talk about the fun they had, not that they played in a league with points, winners and losers and that it did them no harm. If you’re a coach or junior organiser who just wants to ‘let them play’, you need to accept you’re in a long game and there’s a fair chance that there are people who will want to satirise what you do for a few years yet.