If your youth football team are winning every week, are you really “winning”? UEFA A licensed coach, Dan Wright, unpacks the constant search for an appropriate challenge.

Almost weekly online I see results that just don’t make sense. Teams winning 22-0 and promoting it, wearing it like a badge of honour, instead of reflecting on who is really benefiting in these one-sided games. I see Tweets about grassroots Under-10s teams going 60 games unbeaten and labelled “invincible”. But as talent developers, we should be looking instead for an appropriate challenge for our young players to really benefit their development and progression.

An “appropriate challenge” might mean different things to different coaches, depending on your perspective. From my perspective, over the course of say 7­-8 games players should ideally experience varied, but appropriate challenges. These are challenges in which they can experience success, adversity, challenge, and opportunities in which to demonstrate what they’re good at or even take risks to try new things.

Success” in development football isn’t about winning every week. Winning is a by-product and part of the process, but shouldn’t be the only reason you coach youth football. If the role of the youth coach is to develop “Better people and better footballers”, then perhaps we are failing our young players if they win every week or if we haven’t afforded them an appropriate challenge for months. These games are opportunities for players to learn, and we know that learning takes place in uncertainty, struggle and change. It doesn’t take place in the ease of winning every week.

What might this look like? Over a period of weeks these appropriate challenges might feature:

  • Playing a game you would expect to win
  • Playing older or better opposition
  • Playing more physically maturated opposition (where appropriate)
  • Competing in a tournament where results matter
  • Playing opposition who have a different playing style
  • Playing in different environments (pitch, weather, refereeing, etc)
  • Playing different formats of the game (11v11, 5-a-side, 9v9, futsal, etc)

In my experience, young players are motivated by these challenges. They like playing against top teams or older opposition and can see the benefits and learning opportunities generated from losing or struggling. The old saying of “Talent needs trauma”, often springs to mind.

Let me be clear, this doesn’t mean young players don’t enjoy winning. It’s just that for the result has to be earned in order to be meaningful. Think back to that feeling you had when your parents or older siblings let you win – even at a really young age you are aware of it and know it just doesn’t count. It has lost the feeling of a win. If the coach can compile a meaningful, appropriate and varied games programme, he is going to increase the fun and the purpose of playing…and winning!

So why is this important? Well, if your group is winning every week are you really “winning?” I would suggest not. Imagine if the first time a player experiences adversity or challenge is at first-team level. Will they have the toolkit to deal with it? As an athlete it is easier when you win. You could suggest that these constant huge scorelines and “wins” will have an irreversible effect in the player development process as it has been consistently easy.

Will the individual ever truly fulfil his potential if he is never stretched or challenged in more testing environments? Step away from your trophies and think about it. Even the young forward who scored 100 goals a season will struggle when he’s marked out of the game or has two chances in a game rather than 25. The learning and skills developed from interacting in a pressurised and demanding environment will be missing, and these can’t just be added later. They will have been earned and emerge through the journey.

“Success is not built on success. It’s built on failure. It’s built on frustration. Sometimes it’s built on catastrophe.”

Sumner Redstone

These challenges should also exist at training. I once worked in an environment where the academy manager suggested parts of the players’ week should be beyond their current ability – he insisted we created sessions where we knew players would fail elements of it. The logic here was to create a “practice culture” and leave the players aspiring to reach the next challenge. It also showed the Under-11s things they couldn’t achieve…yet. This approach to session design almost replicates that of a video game, where there is always a “next level”. I even use this language with players: “Got it? Right that was level 1 are you ready for level 2?”

This strategy allows the coach to differentiate in the session itself, to design a task right at the edge of the players’ grasp. For example, Billy might be able to strike a ball 20 metres using his non-dominant foot and Dave might only be able to use his dominant side.  This means one might progress to level 3 whereas the other might have to work harder and practice until he catches up. It doesn’t mean one is better than the other, as the ideal coach would look to find and design a skill where Dave outperforms his peers.

As with all coaching, there is a balance to achieve here. If all the sessions are too difficult players will become disengaged and feel the task is impossible to achieve. There is a difference between a challenge and drowning, and we might need to move up and down the spectrum every week or even session-to-session. Young players need to feel competent to perform the task and know that what’s needed to perform the action required.

We know that different players will achieve these landmarks at different times on this non-linear path and we must be careful of constant comparison and assessment. Appropriate challenges ideally need to be linked to the individual needs of the players. I like to look at it view it similar to a tailored suit. From the outside it looks like we are all uniform and wearing the same colour and style, but in reality each individual’s garment is cut and the length is unique and custom to their needs. This custom fit takes effort and energy. But it always looks better than a one-size-fits-all approach!

If we zoom out from the sessions and games themselves, this striving for an appropriate challenge is necessary to develop the young person across the four corners (Technical, Physical, Psychological and Social). Every coach, like every sportsman wants to win, but it shouldn’t be the sole reason we coach – especially in development football. Football is a great tool and platform to create and develop good people. We develop these characteristics and values in young people by stressing them occasionally and putting them in the lion’s den. It’s not comfortable there, but maybe as an adult your ego is the problem rather than the player’s ability.

Clubs and coaches talk about their philosophy and values, but this is something we must live and breathe, not just have as signs on a board or a presentation at the beginning of the season. If we value creativity, character, dedication and honesty, for example, then our players should know this because we display and reference it regularly in games, under pressure and when we are exposed. Young people will struggle to develop these values if they are not earned or built. You can’t develop persistence, resilience or understand hard work if your team wins comfortably every time they enter the field.

An appropriate challenge is one of the hardest and most valuable things for youth coaches to find, for teams and individuals, in both training and games, to develop as a person and a footballer. But finding them is one of the most appropriate challenges you can set yourself as a coach.

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