The Power of Play

Altan Ramadan Toffa Leave a Comment

Around the world, fans flock to witness the creativity and wizardry of the great players, those who stand tall amongst the many. Here in New Zealand, our own national Talent Development Manual recommends allocating 50% of training time to attacking moments because “New Zealand Football believe that pro-active, creative attacking is more difficult to learn…”. How then should we go about fostering and cultivating this creativity?

The great educator Sir Ken Robinson once said, “I believe this passionately: that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather, we get educated out of it”. He of course said this within the context of education, but one can’t help making the parallels when thinking about current footballing development practices, both here in New Zealand and overseas.

Over the past 5-10 years we have been witnessing the steady and pernicious globalization of the game we love. A one size fits all, pyramid approach to development whereby clubs try to attract and hoard as many players as possible at younger and younger ages, only to discard them as they move through the grades, is seen as the optimal approach to “producing” the golden egg and attaining world domination. With this copy and paste approach to football, and player development, is it any wonder that increasingly in stadiums and on screens around the world, every game seems to be the same as the next?

The 2022 FIFA World Cup was a perfect example of this with all the teams pretty much playing a similar style of football. The only exception to this rule were the eventual winners, Argentina, who stayed true to their “la nuestra” values and style of play. This homogenization of the global game prompted Juanma Lillo, Pep Guardiola’s mentor and current assistant at Manchester City, to lament his dismay in an article published in the Athletic(1), stating that “…everything is globalised now. At club level, if you go to a training session in Norway and one in South Africa, they’ll be the same. ‘Look inside to find spaces outside’, ‘pass here, pass there’. The good dribblers are over, my friend. Where can you find them? I can’t see any.”

With every minute of every session planned and prepared, coaches educated and primed to point out predetermined coaching points, eager to intervene and “teach” their young athletes, is it any wonder that more and more fans around the world are bemoaning the lack of creativity and increasing homogeneity in football and football players? The truth is, that we will continue to see the dwindling of creativity in our game the more we adhere to the copy paste, structured, mechanistic methodologies used in practice environments across the world, including New Zealand.

Perhaps then the path to bringing back more creativity in our game is laid in the opposite direction to the one we are currently headed. To be brave enough, humble enough, to understand and acknowledge that this game exists for the kids, not the other way around. Perhaps, unlocking the vault to more creative and adaptive players is to simply allow kids to do more of what they do best…play.

For millennia free, unadulterated play has been a biological drive for children young and old. Free play in mixed age groups has been the means through which children have made new friends, discovered their immediate environments, learnt, and taught new skills, overcome their fears, and solved their own problems. It has been their way of taking control of their own lives. Now, much of that has disappeared. Instead, it has been replaced by adult-led environments where virtually every minute of every day is planned out for our children. Via our schooling systems, often unintentionally, we have been led to believe that children progress only via activities that are led, directed, and evaluated by adults with child led free play seen as simply time wasted.

Evolutionary developmental psychologist Peter Gray in his book, Free to Learn{2}, states that, “Nothing that we do, no amount of toys we buy or “quality time” or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways.”

With this in mind, is it not time we stepped back and took stock of what we are actually trying to achieve when we step out onto the grass to “teach” our young players. What if the key to more creativity and adaptability is less control, less intervention and more free play. What would that look like and how could we incorporate that into our player development approach?

Since its inception in 2011 Top Flight Football Academy has dedicated one of the three sessions a week to free play. This was and still is the favourite session for the players and coaches. Kids of mixed ages playing like their lives depended on it, making their own rules, solving their own conflicts, whilst the coaches watched on excitedly, with a cuppa in hand. This practice of weekly free play continues today at Uni-Mount Bohemian AFC with one small addition. Once a month, the parents now also join in the games. This makes for a fun “session” where kids of different ages relish the opportunity to play with or against parents, theirs, and others.

Football is a simple, beautiful game. Its beauty lies in its simplicity. Therefore, maybe the time has come to simplify our approach to coaching it. In 2024 and beyond, as coaches and parents, let’s all have the courage to start giving the game back to the kids. They do not need a teacher or mentor for the thing that they are already an expert in. Find ways to let them play more, and just perhaps, in years to come, we will be rewarded with creative, adaptive footballers who excite and inspire those who witness their art, not because of what we did as adults, but because of what we didn’t.



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