Chris Waddle and 20-a-Side Football
Participating in unstructured games of 20-a-side and not being involved in a specialist academy environment until the age of 18 doesn’t sound like the traditional way to produce world class talent.
But this was the childhood and youth of Chris Waddle, an England star of the 1990 FIFA World Cup and standout performer in European club football for over a decade.
Waddle was a thrilling winger.
He had the ability to beat opponents at will and on his day was virtually unplayable.
His body swerve left countless top-level defenders either facing the wrong way or planted squarely on their backsides. Waddle was a trickster. At the very last split second he would dip his shoulder and spin away from defenders.
Waddle puts much of his success down to a childhood of play.
Speaking on the excellent Big Interview with Graham Hunter podcast he describes never having a coach that stopped him from developing the creative side of his game. Attacking play involves a high element of risk that the ball will be lost. However, Waddle’s coaches were prepared to take that risk through his junior and youth career. The upside of that approach was that Waddle could break a game apart and create an opportunity from nothing.
Constantly playing in an unstructured environment provided the chance to practice and embed new skills.
By perfecting his craft he developed the innate confidence to perform. From the very start of his professional career with Sunderland in the old English Second Division he was ready to attack, despite the league being notorious for its physical approach.
Waddle is despairing of the future of English football and believes the collapse of play in society has reduced the number of flair players being developed. He is further rankled that children in other countries, specifically Spain, regularly attend pick-up games on multipurpose football/basketball courts that are easily accessible in metropolitan areas.
The skills to do the unexpected, the ability to unlock a well-organised defence are accelerated through play.
Formal coaching can be too restrictive. Individuals need to have the opportunity to evolve their talents in an environment that is open to failure and free from criticism – the backyard or playground – to become truly expressive.
Waddle also believes that many coaches are not assessing talent correctly.
Hunger and desire are often not as high on the list of talent identification attributes as he would like. In his mind pure athleticism is now the marker at a young age in determining if a young player will “make it”. This United Kingdom based approach ignores individual determination and also the fact that physical development takes place at different speeds for different people.
Waddle himself is proof that physical attributes at a young age are not a predictor of talent. He was self-confessed skin and bone until his early twenties.
Andreas Iniesta and Lionel Messi, two of the absolute standouts of our age, would possibly have been ignored as prospects in a culture where athleticism was the driver in selecting talent on the basis of being too small.
Desire is much harder to evaluate and recognise, particularly if a young footballer is shy – as was the case with Waddle. Certainly Waddle has the view that he was misunderstood by his early professional coaches who mistakenly took the view that his outwardly quiet demeanour reflected a lack of intensity to win.
Hunger is viewed by Waddle as a primary reason for the success of South American footballers.
The need to make a better life for themselves and their families creates a drive that is hard to match. Extrinsic needs like fame and material items don’t compare to internal factors such as pure motivation and mastery. For the ex-England man, this mental edge is missing from many young English footballers today.
Bringing it Together
Play and desire to succeed is given momentum when a young player enjoys their football.
For Waddle, crossbar challenges, practicing tricks and vast unstructured games involving 40 kids were par for the course when growing up in the north of England.
This combination of creativity and fun sits at the core of elite player development.
The more our children can spend time alone or with friends playing with a football the better they will become. When linked to the guidance that Top Flight Football Academy provides, anything is possible for a young Kiwi footballer.
Subscribe to The Big Interview with Graham Hunter podcast for more stories and insights from footballing legends.
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