Saving the grassroots: Creating positive match experiences for young people

I have always felt that our relationship with the clubs using our facilities is more than a provider/customer one in that we both should take ownership for safeguarding the long-term future of the game. A new bespoke training course written exclusively by us for team managers in the Selkent Youth Football League is the latest example of how this partnership can work.

At this time of year as the Premier League kicks off I am reminded of my favourite Confucian saying, “when two elephants fight, it’s only the grass that suffers”. On Sunday mornings on our fields and on pitches across the country you see a repeat of what was witnessed on Match of the Day the previous evening. All this is fine whilst the behaviours and attitudes displayed are worthy of emulation. But when they fall below a certain standard and are self-serving, malicious and are detrimental to the image of the game, we have a problem.

When players and managers at the highest level cross that line and their behaviour brings the game into disrepute they are rightly either fined or suspended (or both) for the indiscretion in question but they are not held to account for the incalculable damage they might do to the sport lower down the food chain. Unfortunately, those working at grass roots, where the priority is not about winning the next game to stay in a job or playing well enough to earn another ten grand a week, have to pick up the pieces. Their goal is to create such an enjoyable experience that the players come back week after week and, in the process, keep fit, meet friends and learn social skills that will last them a lifetime. However, all this is put in jeopardy when players, coaches, managers and parents come to games with an intolerant and adversarial “win at all cost” attitude. Whilst the 69 cameras and a worldwide audience of millions keep the behaviour of the superstars in check who polices the grass roots game?

The answer is the disciplinary system designed and implemented by The FA and the affiliated leagues. However, the current system is not working and the ill-discipline shown on the pitch and on the touchline remains one of the biggest threats to the future of the grass roots game. How embarrassing and upsetting it must be for a young player whose dad has just ran on the pitch to confront the teenage referee over a decision he didn’t agree with, resulting in the abandonment of the game. Sadly, this type of incident is all too common and unless we can create a more positive and child friendly match environment for young players, participation rates will continue to fall.

One of the pivotal figures in establishing and maintaining an enjoyable match day experience is the team manager. Ensuring that players and parents buy into the manager’s philosophy goes with the job. Attitudes are contagious and if he or she models behaviour that is respectful to his/her own players, opponents, the officials and to the game itself, others will follow.

One obvious solution is training and convincing team managers to adopt attitudes and behaviours that put the enjoyment and the ongoing participation of the player first. The six-hour course has reached 755 team managers since January and it is anticipated that it will help reduce the number of abandoned matches (currently running at one per week). The response from managers to becoming better role models has been overwhelmingly positive and we await the forthcoming season with some optimism in the hope that the grass will remain undamaged.