We all know that in the long run results at youth level do not matter in the context of an adult career. But competitive sport has more to offer youngsters than just winning and losing, as long as the adults get things right.

Competitive sport is a great way to prepare young people for they face as adults in the real world. The real world is not Disney World where things always turn out alright in the end. In the real world things do not always go your way. Learning how to deal with stuff when things wrong, how to bounce back and accept that luck is not on your side is an important lesson to absorb before venturing into an adult world. Competitive sport if managed properly by the adults involved can supply these valuable lessons.

I have spoken before about the traits individuals need if they are to be successful in life. It is probably worth reminding ourselves of them.

Curious to learn
Works well with others
Stays calm in turbulent times
Behaves well under pressure
Reacts positively when things go wrong
Sticks with challenges until those challenges surrender
Tries hard to improve
Prepares well
Makes the best decisions more often

For most young people sport is about fun and enjoying time with their friends. In fact in a recent survey 64% of the nations school children couldn’t care less if they win or lose. However sport is a physical activity where people compete against each other, there are winners and losers, it is the very essence of sport. The important thing is how the adults model winning and losing. How the adults promote the above traits when their children are competing and trying to do their best. Then sport can provide valuable lessons for life and promote essential life skills.


Demonstrations can be a very useful tool for the coach; it is important that the coach understands the impact of demonstration, how players view it and how best to use it to the players’ advantage.

Good demonstrations act as guidelines not absolutes, therefore the coach should not be wary of their employment but prepare carefully for their deployment.

For example

When demonstrating to younger players an adult should be particularly aware of the speed at which actions are performed and for example the range over which passes are hit (most 12 year olds find a 30 yard diagonal pass quite a challenge).

If they are proficient footballers adults can often make things that youngsters find very difficult look easy and that could be a problem. It is often better to get other young players to show good practice rather than the coach.

A good picture may be worth a thousand words but where players observe from is very important, a different viewing angle may give off an entirely different impression of how to execute an action.

Demonstrations can be very useful but only if the players

Know what they should be looking for and at, and can see what is important from the same viewpoint as the coach.

Appreciate fully the purpose of the action so as to put it into some sort of context.

Link the action to an expectation as to how it can be used effectively in a game situation.

Feel that the action is easier because of what they have been shown.

Demonstrations also hint at the way things should be done and can cut down players’ licence to be creative and work out their own ways to solve their football problems; but if used correctly demonstrations can be a productive tool to support players’ learning.


Although athletic prowess is not a requirement for playing football as any Sunday morning park will testify, the physical demands placed on individuals at the highest levels of the game are significant. To this end the players’ development as athletes will enhance their chances of achieving a standard of football career which matches their skill and understanding of the game.

The coach ignores athleticism at their peril but in young players it is not the be all and end all; there is after all no guarantee the prepubescent athlete will still be able to perform in late teenage years and that the late developer will not end up with the athletic physique of an Adonis.

The complexities of coaching children who are experiencing a constantly changing process of simply ‘growing up’ can be difficult for the coach as well as the player.

This review is not prescriptive but merely raising awareness of the physical corner and its influences as a feature of player development.

It is not suggesting that current education provides the coach with all of the intervention tools in this particular physical toolbox. That said, recognition of the needs of the player, if discussed sensitively with all concerned, may offer the player support which could be highly beneficial.

Football ability will ultimately determine where players’ are to play. However, there are many influences on the final outcome and in this respect it is sensible to consider the physical contribution.

Physical Growth

The level of coach education required to fully support players in all of “The 4 Corners” can be extensive. This article reviews the physical changes alongside the impact growth has on other areas, (e.g. technical, psychological and social development). Consequently, how we interpret ‘growth’ when described in conjunction with ‘maturation’ and ‘development’ has to be defined.

‘Growth’ is an increase in the size of the body as a whole or the size attained by specific parts of the body e.g. an increase in cell numbers, and/or an increase in cell size.

‘Maturation’ is more difficult to define than growth and is often described as the process of becoming mature.

Maturity in a physical sense varies with the biological system considered, for example:

Sexual maturity is a fully functional reproductive capability.
Skeletal maturity is a fully formed adult skeleton.

Maturation therefore refers to the tempo and timing of progress toward the mature state.
This is the fundamental distinction between “growth” and “maturation”.

Physical growth focuses on size
Maturation (in a physical sense) focuses on progress in, or rate of, attaining size

‘Development’ is a term often used in conjunction with, or involving both. Growth and maturation for this review also denotes a broader concept of progress, e.g. these features also interact to mould the child’s self-concept, the manner in which the child evaluates and perceives themselves. This is an indication of the range of influences that physical change can have on other areas and it should be reasonably clear therefore; that no one set of isolated phenomena describes a player’s growth, maturation and development.

Growth of the human body involves many complex processes many of which are outside our control. As such, understanding the basic changes at a more simplistic level may reduce our concerns regarding the complexity of growth. The growth phenomenon which impacts the developing player in football seeks to reflect the differences which arise from player to player. During the first two decades of life virtually all physical growth changes that are necessary for adulthood have become established. The timing of these changes and the rate at which changes take place vary enormously between different players. Bone growth (as with other structures up to full maturity) is constantly changing, albeit usually at a very slow rate. The changes are generally acceptable and will normally be accommodated by most children on a day to day basis. As such, even over some weeks, the process is gradual to the point of being insignificant from the player’s perspective.

Bone growth variations produce some irregular patterns which are mostly involving the growth of long bones, e.g. the bones found in legs and arms. Average height outside the growth spurt period may increase 5 centimetres per year. This tempo can be easily absorbed by players and their adaptations remain small to the point where the changes have little adverse effect on training and playing performances.

However, this pathway of change may go through more dramatic periods for some players. None more so than throughout the ‘adolescent growth spurt’. This phase generally occurs between twelve and fourteen years in boys and usually two years earlier in girls. During this period, skeletal height may increase to twice the rate previously experienced and by 11 centimetres per year. The change may be fast or slow, smooth or erratic and chronologically early or late; it’s these variations that make growing up the truly individual factor it surely is.
(Malina and Bouchard 1991)


The way we manage change in young players through difficult periods is a vital part of their development process and should be seen by the players as an encouraging and supported experience in football.

The variations in maturity, body size, strength and skill can also affect behavioural development both psychologically and socially; these factors can have considerable consequences throughout growth.

Response to any given stimulus may be as varied as shown here.
Understanding these differences at least offers some explanation as to why we get a particular response from one player and something very different from another.

Managing difference within training programmes is important. Producing sessions for varied stages of development and response is beneficial. As is striving to meet the individual needs of the players in order for them to participate and progress.

Given such variability among children and young players, it is necessary to provide appropriate activities whenever possible and to enhance the opportunity for learning and enjoyment in training.

Skeletal growth in early teens is capable of quickly undergoing change, e.g. children growing taller. Other structures (muscle, tendon and ligament) undergo slower change and this is often in response to bone growth, (for a given period these associated structures may be compromised, e.g. flexibility may be reduced whilst injury risk may increase). These adaptations may present problems for some players more than others when the rate of change is fast. The differences between the afore mentioned early or late change or the smooth or erratic experience has significant variability and may affect the players performances.


With these growth features arising during the early teens, we need to look at other periods which support effective and influential change. These are times when less change offers more favourable responses to the stimulus of conditioning players. For example; the late years of nursery school and throughout the primary school ages present opportunities for developing the foundations of movement, e.g. agility, balance, coordination and speed (the a, b, c’ s). This gradual period of growth allows children to adapt more easily to these activities whilst growing up. Although height and weight gains are more obvious to the naked eye; it is the less obvious features that have to be considered when judging responses to growing up. Children learn and adapt through these phases and the impact on the technical, psychological and social development cannot be ignored.


Given that football is a competitive physical game, physical size and strength are advantages that can offer dominance over opponents, (these benefits can also have adverse outcomes – we will come back to this discussion) therefore players who are physically mature may enjoy early success but this may be at the expense of other factors. For example

Do the early physical developers learn the same lessons as the physically late developers?

Do the early physical developers feel the need to concentrate on developing the foundations of; agility, balance, coordination and speed at the younger ages?

Does the ‘catch up’ period apply to all players at different ages?

Consider the goalkeeper – is this tall player different? Genetics influence height whilst the player’s lifestyle and behaviours will affect development.

Early developers often demonstrate:

good passing techniques which could be affected by other influences – e.g. strength
exceptional power to weight ratio – e.g. masters the body
less change and adaptations to undergo during mid teens
early confidence which may be derived from comparing with other same age players

Late developers may be:

demonstrating poor body power to weight ratios

relearning distances and angles – often very quickly during mid teens

clumsy and out of proportion – particularly as goalkeepers

uncoordinated as goalkeepers regarding fine and gross body movement

adjusting to ball speed – depth and width assessment

making questionable decisions – sees it, but body and mind out of sync

self-conscience of full body image

adjusting to speed of nerve transmission and reaction time

trying to master the body and the mind

learning to cope with external and internal forces – opposition miss-match

coming to terms with the complex mix of The 4 Corners


Do consider the social, emotional and cognitive stages of development.
Do ensure that all players have solid foundation skills.
Do modify expectations of player’s, coaches and parents in accord with maturity.

Don’t mistake levels of physical maturity for maturity in other areas
Don’t assume current success as an indicator of proficiency
Don’t over burden players that represent the more extreme early or late developer


In reviewing ‘difference’ it would be remiss not consider age as an influential factor.
This dimension at school ages reflects a bias towards selecting the older player in any year classification and is referred to as the ‘Relative Age Effect’ (RAE) or ‘Seasonal Bias’.

The benefits of being older within a year group often includes

Increased stature
Added experience
Peer age group
More opportunity
Extended learning
Wider maturity

A recent study of 8,000 schoolboy players in professional clubs demonstrates this phenomenon:

Players born

Sep to Dec – 56% of those in professional clubs
Jan to Apr – 28% of those in professional clubs
May to Aug – 16% of those in professional clubs


THE SIX FOR SUCCESS (in no particular order)

Learn your job. Know your job. DO your job. ‘Brilliant Basics’

Take responsibility and look after yourself

Play with courage, purpose and the warrior spirit

Put in a shift then go the extra mile

Work well with others, do all the little things than need to be done

Have SMART targets but aim high


You cannot improve by playing it safe, you don’t know how good you can be.

To become elite you have to take risks, failure is an option fear is not.

You have to seize opportunities to learn, build for hard work and improvement.

You have to challenge yourself, who wants it most?

You have to step into the PRESSURE ZONE

Rising to the challenge is the challenge but you have to be prepared to be wrong and make mistakes

Only mediocre people can be at their best all the time

You have to live elite to be elite



Avoid distractions

Look after yourself first off the field in every aspect of your development and life (rest, recovery nutrition hydration sleep)

Develop self discipline

Build a body for the game working from the inside out

Practice with intent

Play with courage

Do your job

Put in a shift for yourself and your team mates

Believe that worry about winning or making mistakes will hinder your learning potential

Love the game with a passion this will get you through the tough times



Be flexible not fixed as players will surprise you

Sniff the wind to suss out what needs to be done

Be tough but fair

Encourage bravery but understand fear


Organising a team against a counter attack is essential if they are not to be caught out. Even as the attacking team are crossing the ball into the opposition penalty area they may only be eight-seconds away from picking the ball up out of their own goal. Back players must be pro-active and ensure they are not compromised in this manner e.g. if their opponents leave two players up-field they should be marked ‘man for man’ and a player posted in front of the markers and their opponents.

The aim of opponents taking part in a counter attack is speed. On gaining possession of the ball they want to cover the middle zone of the pitch as quickly as they can with or without the ball. The reaction to regaining the ball is essential to a successful outcome. Speed of thought; the right decision i.e. to counter or keep the ball, should be made within six-seconds for maximum effect.

If a counter attack is to be effective, decision quality and speed are of the essence. Attackers must split up making the pitch long and wide but keep within passing range. Efficient execution is based around the speed of the players and the ball; the quality of the techniques and skills involved i.e. passing and running with the ball; support play around and away from the ball. A timescale of eight-seconds from beginning to end is critical to maintain the momentum of a counter attack.

The defenders job is to nullify these opportunities.

After denying the attackers as much space as they can, a defender’s aim should be to squeeze and restrict the space forcing the life out of their opponent’s attack. By restricting space, attackers have to work and defenders can eliminate their best options and encourage mistakes and poor decision making by cutting down the time they have to play.

If they find themselves outnumbered the main task for the defenders is to delay and deflect the counter attack, buying time for their team mates to make recovery runs. Recovery runs behind the ball differ according to where the recovering defender is placed on the pitch. Central recovery runs should be towards the penalty spot, while wide recovery runs should be made towards the near post. Not all recovery runs will end up behind the ball, some may be aimed at cutting off the attacking teams support.


Prediction is often the product of team arrangements e.g. strikers working together to force back players to pass into central midfield areas where their midfield team mates are awaiting opportunities to intercept and counter attack or full backs knowing team policy about where to begin showing their opponents outside and ‘down the line’ as opposed to inside.

The reason for these team arrangements is to force play in a direction that everybody sees and can react to. They provide a huge opportunity for defenders to be proactive as opposed to reactive.

Making play predictable can greatly enhance a team’s chances of an interception or a tackle to win the ball back and hence create a successful counter attacking opportunity. These will often occur when the opposing team is committed to attack itself and consequently out of defensive position and shape e.g. full backs committed into advanced positions.


Defending as a Unit

Effective defending also involves the rest of the unit and the team. For this purpose I shall refer to ‘around the ball’ for those defenders close to the first defender and ‘away from the ball’ for those defenders furthest from the first defender.

Support and Cover

Around the ball issues centre on support and cover for the first defender as cover is nominally the job of the second defender. The correct angles and distances are critical to success; the angle cannot be such that the first and second defender are too square with no depth as this would allow a simple through pass to bisect them both; the distance between the first and second defenders should be such that an attacker with the ball can neither beat them as one nor beat one and then settle to beat the other.

Communication between the second and first defender is imperative. The second defender can give the first defender confidence by letting him know they are there. This may encourage the first defender to be more assertive if he knows the second defender is there, it will allow him to do more than simply delay their opponent as it can provide the opportunity to show a direction e.g. depending on circumstances, down the line or inside team arrangements and strategy.

Away from the ball more players naturally become involved. We begin to involve a third and in the case of a 4.4.2 midfield and back four, a fourth defender. Issues for these players centre primarily on balancing up the defence. Decisions then revolve around marking players (and if so, how tightly), space and about leaving players who don’t pose a ready threat.

Covering spaces can be complex. A good rule of thumb is normally; the closer your opponent is to the ball the more likely a defender will mark the player; the further their opponent is from the ball the more likely that marking space will be preferred.

When covering space the fourth defender must beware of coming in too far over towards the ball and over-covering as this may allow the attacking team to exploit the spaces behind the fourth defender and out in the wider areas of the pitch. The third and fourth defenders should also keep an open body stance, keeping their opponent in view in case they try a blindside run.

The fourth midfield defender will often push up a little higher on the third midfield defender giving the unit a dish like appearance. The distances between the back, middle and forward team units should always be about the same when defending. If one unit gets too isolated from another the spaces in between them can be exploited too easily. Compactness in defence is a critical constituent of success.

If attackers have composed possession or defenders are out numbered they will probably not be able to apply to press the ball with confidence, defending units should drop deeper towards their own goal and only engage the attackers when their goal is directly threatened.

Recovery runners may not always recover behind the ball but they should recover to recognised lines. When recovering from a wide position defenders should use their near post as a guide and from a central position, the penalty spot should be used. The aim of the recovering defenders should be to supply cover for team mates or cut off and destroy the attacker’s support behind the ball.

The basic premise of defending when organised is down to successful marking. Defenders should aim to keep their opponents and the ball in view, and station themselves between the ball, their opponent and their goal. When outnumbered or dealing with a swift counter account things can be very different.