What might junior Australian football learn from soccer?

As a coach of soccer/football and Australian football I have the opportunity to observe the player development pathways of both sports. A recent twitter conversation stimulated by the English FA move to a 'Dutch style' small-sided games curriculum for junior football game development got me reflecting on my experience of the introduction to junior football.

With an Australian football background and sustained interst in the game our three boys all did the AFL Auskick program, not once but a few times each over 2-3 years (e were lucky enough to have two Auskick centres within walking distance from home – one at the local school and one at a local football club). All three of our boys found themselves preferring soccer to junior Australian football. I have often wondered why this occurred as I played football, their grandad and uncles all played football. Soccer was never on the television at home, it was Australian football.

As physical education teachers do, I found myself coaching my boys’ junior soccer teams (and I am still involved in coaching the youngest in his U11 team this year).

The first thing I noticed as a coach of both sports is that the junior football coaching resources are very different. The soccer resources are frequently game based rather than drill based. Horst Wein's Developing Junior Footballers provides a good contrast to the typical Australian football resources. The second point of difference I noticed was the emphasis on modfied rules small-sided game structures to maximise individual game involvement; providing children more touches of the ball in junior soccer, compared to junior Australian football where more traditional thinking about playing the ‘real game’ seem to persist.

Playing small-sided games has been proved to give children an increased number of touches of the ball while providing more goals and scoring attempts, more one-v-one encounters and more chance to attempt dribbling skills. It is this increased contact time with the ball that leads to children enjoying the game more while providing better preparation for the 11-a-side a game introduced at youth level (read Daniel Coyle’s discussion about Futsal in the Talent Code). Greater participation leading to feelings of more enjoyment increases the likelihood of continued involvement is a proposition that ‘makes sense’ intuitively: throughout my physical education teacher training the mantra was ‘maximum participation and active learning’.

It’s a shift in emphasis from teaching kids to compete to teaching kids how to play. The Football Federation of Australia curriculum adopted a small-sided games curriculum in 2009.  I wondered where this emphasis originated.

My research indicates that the Dutch football system has had a major influence on this small-sided games approach for soccer game development. Simply, the Dutch system is based on a belief that soccer is best learned by playing the game. This means that everything in practice should include progression of the game – being able to attack, defend and transition. This begins in 4v4 soccer with U6’s where the objective is to learn to control the ball.

The curriculum develops from U7 to U9 where the objective is to learn the basis of attack - beating an opponent to score. U10-U11, the focus is on learning to play as a team and then U12’s learning how to prevent scoring by defending through teaching the functions of positions. Playing as a team and then learning to be competitive marks the transition from youth soccer to adult competition at U18 level.

I have come to believe that this player-centred emphasis through a progression of modified small sided-games that aim to teach the game before teaching players to compete may in part explains the success of soccer as 'the world' game. While the 2008 AFL Junior match day policy moves towards a modified small-sided games model it lacks the specificity of the FFA curriculum and the skill development structure of the Dutch soccer curriculum.

While I still believe our national game, Australian football, is superior to soccer/football, at entry and junior level a move from ‘skill and drill” style ‘Dad’s at the front of the line’ directing the ball to players while they run off one at a time to take their turn, towards the small-sided games model employed by soccer would be advantageous for junior participation and player development. 6v6 (2-2-2) football at U8 with modified rules focusing player development on learning how to maintain possession might be a good starting structure, progressing to AFL9's (3-3-3) by U12's.

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