The Kids Are Alright

WORDS: CHRISTOPH WAGNER

Parents screaming from the sidelines have long been an unspoken problem in youth football, but one revolutionary kids’ coach in Germany has suggested three simple rules to combat the problem and his ideas have started to spark interested in the upper echelons of the game’s governing bodies…

Kids playing football

Image: Geomangio (via Flickr)

Football for kids is supposed to be fun. They exhaust themselves in a playful manner while chasing up and down the pitch and dream of being Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, or even the star striker for their local team.

Often, though, this dream is interrupted by the kids’ parents on the sidelines – a worrying aspect of youth football which needs to be addressed.

There is a scene in the 2004 film, The Football Factory in which the leader of the Chelsea firm, Billy Bright (played by Frank Harper) and his Millwall counterpart Fred (Tamer Hassan) exchange blows on a football pitch after their competitive parental cheering at a game of kids’ football involving their sons gets out of hand. Soon, the fathers are on the floor fighting. Although it was only a film, this scene was not really so far-fetched.

Ralf Klohr, a soccer coach from south-west Germany, has made moves to revolutionise children’s football after a similar incident had a profound effect on him.

In 2005, Klohr witnessed a fight between parents at a game between their kids. The reason? A decision by the referee that the parents of one team did not agree with.┬áIn another instance, Klohr’s own son turned to him, despite being through on goal, and told him to shut up.

These are scenes that could be found on any weekend in any country across Europe, and yet they have no place on the football pitch, regardless if it is an Under-7s tournament, or a seniors match. Football is a game. Sadly, this is all-too-often forgotten by those watching.

Klohr realised that something was going wrong in youth football. There was too much emphasis on the competitive side and this, in turn, led to training sessions being dull occasions that exhausted kids and took the fun out of the game. However, kids grow up playing and thus discovering. Every parent witnessing kids playing together will know that the youngsters sort themselves out fairly quickly and don’t need any ‘parental guidance’ or mediation.

His idea was to put the fun back into kids’ football. At the end of the day, if no one guarantees sustained interest among a bunch of 7 or 8-year-olds; other leisure pursuits or different sports might take over. For Klohr, it is not important that kids play soccer all their life but that they get the feeling that sports can be entertaining and maintain an active lifestyle into adulthood. Therefore, it seemed clear that the fun must be put back into football – in training as well as the match.

Troubled by what he saw and stung by the words of his own son, Klohr developed some new rules for the kids’ game that he hopes will lead to a change in the atmosphere surrounding youth football in parks everywhere.

1. Distance from the pitch

Having identified the parents as a source of noise and stress for the children, Klohr demanded that they stay behind a handrail, some 15 metres away from the pitch. This way, the kids’ play would go on undisturbed by aggressive or angry shouts from their parents. In senior football a running track between plaing field and the terraces often had a debilitating effect on the atmosphere at a game, but for the kids this rule should prove a blessing, not to mention that it may well be good for the parents’ health as well!

2. Coaching Zone

The introduction of a “coaching zone” in which both coaches must stand during the game has helped to take the hectic aggressiveness out of the instructions shouted onto the pitch and of course changed the behaviour of the coaches towards each other. Normally, coaches are also kept apart from one another during games, limited to their respective zones, but even having just one zone for the coaches has proven to have a regulating influence on the game.

3. No Referees

Finally, the abolition of referees in the kids’ game has played a key part in bringing back the fun. Children are ruthless when it comes to telling the truth. How often have parents experienced their child chatting back to them with one of their own phrases. Children are like mirrors for their parents in such situations and they also have an incredible sense of justice.

Therefore, Klohr suggested, the children are possibly better authorities at refereeing their own games than an adult who is telling them what to do. After all, kids are exposed to adult authority from an early age and only in playing do they find their own little space, in which they can make the rules. In giving kids the chance to officiate a game of football, you also give them a chance to learn how to deal with differing opinions and critical situations, such as the awarding of a penalty.

It seems Klohr has hit the nail on the head in many ways. With the introduction of these three simple rules, he has helped to put the fun back into football for many kids and his thoughts have tamed parents and coaches alike. More often than not, football is taught with winning in mind, but for kids under the age of 10 it is all about playing and discovering. This is the mindset that Klohr is successfully challenging and for which he has been acknowledged by luminaries such as former DFB president, Egidius Braun. He is now promoting his ideas in a new role as an advisor to the DFB – proof that ears are open to the idea that kids’ football is all about playing.

Christoph Wagner is the editor of anoldinternational.co.uk, a football blog with a strong historical emphasis. He also blogs about Anglo-German football and cultural relations at donotmentionthewar.wordpress.com. You can find him on twitter @wagnerc23
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