With the regular 2023 football season fast drawing to a close, we can all start to look forward to warmer climes, longer days and weekends with family and friends. However, the end of the season also signals the start of anxiety and tension for thousands of young aspiring players up and down the country.
This will continue to build to a crescendo as the inevitable happens in early 2024. This is a time when the high priests of football, clipboard in hand, pass their expert judgement upon young futures. Some kids will survive for another 12 months. Many unfortunately, will not.
I’m talking of course about the nonsensical and outdated practice of putting kids through the ritual of trials. In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “ritual” is defined as “done in accordance with social custom or normal protocol”. The practice of trials, is of course, just that, an historical custom that is repeated year in year out and is accepted protocol to separate players based on some perceived, arbitrary benchmark.
Here in New Zealand, the practice of ability grouping, or “streaming” in educational settings is of course another accepted norm. However, is it beneficial for all our students? World renowned in her field, Auckland University professor and researcher, Christine Rubie-Davies, who specializes in high expectation teaching, would argue otherwise. “Students who are placed in ability groups learn different things depending on what group they are in. Students in high ability groups are often given stimulating, challenging, and engaging activities whereas students in low ability groups are given repetitive, skill-based, and low-level tasks. Put simply, students in these different groups learn more or less because they are getting more or less opportunity to learn.”
Sound familiar? It should, because the situation is no different in football clubs up and down the country. The minority of players deemed to have potential and “talent” on the back of trials, are given the vast majority of club resources including accredited coaches, more frequent trainings and competition matches. The vast majority of kids however, are left with a well-meaning, but often ill-equipped parent, with one training a week and even less game time.
With this disparity in learning opportunities is it any wonder then that those in the selected group progress more quickly, reinforcing the idea that the coach was right to select them. This self-fulfilling prophecy is known as the “Pygmalion Effect” and is a well-studied phenomenon in educational psychology. In his YouTube video below, Trevor Ragan defines this effect as one in which “our labels and expectations can become self-fulfilling prophecies” That is, adult or teacher expectations for their students can, and often do, determine their learning outcomes.
“What has all of this got to do with football?”, I hear you ask. Well, a lot actually. Adopting the viewpoint that our training sessions are essentially an open-air classroom, Top Flight Football Academy has taken the research of Christine Rubie-Davies and others and incorporated it into our development programmes. Thus, in our training environments, we have made a promise to hold high expectations for all our young athletes. With this viewpoint, the need to hold player trials simply disappears.
Taking this one step further, we have flipped the trial process on it’s head by putting coaches, not players on trial. Players turn up to a training session, they assess the coach’s ability to provide an engaging, safe and enjoyable learning environment. If they like what they experience, they stay. If not, they seek fulfillment elsewhere. All our players then train together, play together and learn together. The result of this innovative approach has been a joy to behold, laying the foundations for the astounding progress and development of all our young players.
Thus, at Top Flight Football Academy, the precedent has been set. It is now time for other brave coaches to join us in ending the historical ritual of putting children on trial. It can be done, it should be done, for the betterment of all our young athletes.
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