Mixed Age Football, Play and the Community

The following is a fascinating guest post from Paul Cooper of ‘Give Us Back Our Game’. It’s a must-read for any coaches who deal with U9 or younger players, but it’s also a worthwhile story for any soccer coach who believes in a child-first philosophy.

If you enjoy this post and would like to find out more about Paul’s coaching philosophy, you can hear an in-depth interview with Paul Cooper here.

Mixed Age Football, Play and the Community

Mixed Age Football - Guest Post with Paul Cooper

‘Children’s Song’

We live in our own world,
A world that is too small
For you to stoop and enter
Even on hands and knees,
The adult subterfuge.
And although you probe and pry
With analytic eye,
And eavesdrop all our talk
With an amused look,
You cannot find the centre
Where we dance, where we play…


John arrives some forty five minutes early. His favourite bit is helping to inflate the goals.

He is nine with severe behavioural problems. His is a sad but not uncommon story. His dad left when he was young and his mother is embarrassed by his behaviour and is never seen out with him. The week before at an organised kid’s event he had tried to stab some older children with a pair of scissors and swore at the adults in charge before being taken home by the police.

His school have been notified, but they are well used to his behaviour as he has bitten, punched and kicked some of the teachers there.

The time putting up the goals and getting the equipment from the coaches’ cars is a chance to talk one on one with a bloke. Just chatting about what he did that day, but with their undivided attention.

He makes for the pitch where the younger ages play from 3-7. He helps out and organises the games and is fabulous with the younger ones.

One of the mums who help from the estate has started to take him to church on Sunday. The local community are beginning to look after John.

“I am sure those games instilled in me and my pals a sense of responsibility and a notion that one had to adhere to rules in life if you were not to spoil things for other people.

We had no referee to apply the rules of the game. When a goal was scored we restarted the game with a kick off from what passed as a centre spot. When a foul was committed, a free kick was taken and no one took umbrage. We seemed to accept that if anyone did not play by the rules of football, the game would be spoiled for everyone. Those games played without supervision taught us that you can’t go about doing just what you wanted because there are others to think of. Of course it was not a conscious thought at the time, but these kick-abouts on the bomb site taught us the rules of society and prepared us for life.”
Tommy Smith

Mike is small for seven but has magic feet. He plays for a local U7s team and scored all their goals the week before in an 8-0 win. He makes straight for the pitch where the older lads play. His eleven year old brother goes with him and when on the other side makes sure his younger sibling does not take the mick with some crunching tackles, although he inevitably does with some of his dribbling skills.

Mike is the youngest on this pitch with players as old as 19.

This pitch is for the serious players. They play flat out for 2 hours, taking individual water breaks when their team allow.

The coaches never need to interfere here as they look after their own game.

The offer of bib’s are shunned as the kids like to play in the kit worn by their heroes or whatever they want to wear.

“A lot of great players in the world will often say they don’t know how they produced a piece of game changing magic – “It just happened”, said with a shrug of the shoulders.
What has actually happened is that they have often merely instinctively carried out an act from the archives of tricks and instincts built up over the years of playing football with no boundaries in their formative years.”
Oscar Egbogu – (Grew up playing street football in Africa and now plays 5-a-side in London)

Alex is ten and he makes for a pitch which attracts the mainly semi sporty. They enjoy football when it is a laugh but it is not top of their priority list. They take quite a few breaks and mess about on their bikes down the grassy slope.

Later the mums come from the estate with the little ones ages 2-3. They look after themselves and have the time of their lives kicking the balls around and making structures with coloured cones. The mums usually end up in goal or playing against the little ones. When the mums sit down for a rest and a natter the little ones invent their own games.

I watched one two year old build a semi circle of coloured marker cones before putting a ball on each. She then proceeded to kick the one at the end to try and topple the one opposite and so on.

At the end all the boys and girls help put the gear away and beg for a ball to be left out so they can then get in another 10 minutes play.

There are no facilities so it is a case of having to use one of the big trees to sped a penny, which is very rare as they get so lost in play.

This is all about the community and using the equipment and space as they please. There is something for everyone and they just select who and where they want to play with some younger children playing with kids more than twice their age.

Learning social skills and football go hand in hand.

At a recent coaching workshop with an inner city council, I was explaining that in our experience the chief ingredients that have worked beat are mixed ages, where kids can chose where and who they play with and allowing them to organise and referee their own games.

The twenty football development community coaches were in agreement but health and safety and child protection issues don’t allow this to happen.

So John won’t come early and put the goalposts up and help and coach the younger ones. Mike won’t be ‘megging’ the teenagers and his older brother will not be bringing him on the crossbar of his bike. The mums will stay at home and a chance to play footy with the tots is lost.

Meanwhile organised kids’ football is getting further and further away from how children socialise and play.

I had an email from one of the mum’s last night. She said she had been crying for the last hour. Her son of 11 who comes to the community sessions has just been dumped by the local club after playing in the same team since six. She was informed by text and had already paid the seasons fees.

No community, no play, no development and the adults get to decide.

The answer lies within the community itself. For generations they have sorted it out but have now had their wings clipped by checks and balances, fear and mistrust.

The time has now come to take off the shackles and let them manage themselves.

That includes places where kids can just go and play as well as proper community clubs where all children are catered from and have a cradle to grave policy where football becomes a healthy lifetime obsession.

“If children don’t play, their minds don’t grow. Play is where they learn to make their own decisions, trust their own judgement, set their own targets. It’s where they learn to get along with other kids, meet triumph and disaster, and then come home for tea. Adults can help by helping them find somewhere to play, sorting out the boundaries, being handy with the plasters if something goes wrong. But otherwise we should leave them to it! This is why I support your work.”
Sue Palmer, author of 21st Century Boys and GUBOG supporter

Image Credit: Jill Cooper
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