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Patrick Morrison

“Don’t fence me in!”

I WAS playing football with my son recently, going through the usual skills like catching, kicking, passing, dribbling on the ground, shooting for a target, squash off a wall, handling and ball control, etc.

As the play develops, Lochlainn’s mindset changes from recreational into a more competitive mode. He suggests that we play keep ball, whereby one of us tries to keep the ball off the other and one attempts to dispossess the other of the football. He loves both sides of this game and giggles vehemently while giving it his all.

Once I have the role of ball-keeper, Lochlainn fully commits himself to tackling me as best he possibly can. At only four years of age (five in May) he is bordering four feet tall, built very well, and is as solid as a child twice his age. (To answer your question, we are feeding him cement!)

He uses his physicality as best he can and comes in with his full force to try and dispossess me off the football. Fearless and unrelenting, each time I can see him trying to figure out new, improved and more effective ways of winning the ball back.

After a few minutes, he decides his best option is to slide in head and hands-first very much like a goalkeeper would when diving at an attacker’s feet when they are through on goal. He understands that his daddy plays football and possibly understands that I play as a goalkeeper, but I wouldn’t say he understands just yet what way a goalkeeper usually plays during games.

In my own goalkeeping experience, I have found that it’s very rare for this trait to be found naturally in players this young. If I saw this trait in any player at this age, I would ear-mark them as a possible future goalkeeper. But it is vitally important not to pigeonhole players as goalkeepers when they are at a young age.

As Lochlainn grows older and develops through the underage ranks of the club, I will allow him to explore whatever position he feels he wishes to play. Whether that be as a defender, midfielder, forward or even as a goalkeeper I will understand the importance of letting him find his own path.

Yes, I will guide and advise him as best I possibly can but ultimately where he wants to play is his decision. This story brought back a conversation that I had been told about by another coach within my own club a number of years ago.

The coach had been in charge of one of the numerous underage teams and one of his young players came to him and requested to be played in goal because he had a curiosity for the position and wanted to try it out.

The coach duly obliged and during that training session and the next game granted the young player his wish and started him in goal.

The young player played well for their first time playing the position and expressed his delight at being able to try out the position and was enthusiastic to play in goal again.

At the next training session, the same coach was approached by the child’s father who wanted a word with the coach. After taking the parent to the side, the child’s father began to express their disgust at his child being played in goal, questioned the coach’s authority to play their child in goal without consent and demanded an explanation from the coach.

The coach explained to the father that he was merely granting the wishes of his child and thought there would be no issue especially when the child wanted to play in goal.

The father replied: “do not play my child in goal again. They are going to be a forward.” The coach was left shell-shocked and agreed to the parent’s demands and the player was not played in goal for the rest of the season under that coach.

Discussing this with that coach, they did ask what I may have done if faced with the same situation. My first response to the coach would not be printable in a family publication, as I’m sure you can imagine. But once that feeling had passed, I explained to the coach that I would have told the parent that they were damaging their child. I would have also told them straight, in front of their child so they could hear it, if they wanted to play in goal that is where they will play.

It is important for parents to support their young ones development not micro-manage it. Understand what positions they are interested in and have them experience them all as much as possible.

The more experience they have in each position the better informed they will be to decide what position they will eventually want to play. As well as this it will create a more all-round player who can use the skills of various positions in their own game as well as better understanding the needs and skills of their teammates that will be playing in these positions.

It will also be very important for all coaches to ensure they allow their players to develop at their own pace and not to rush them or expect too much from them too soon.

All players are unique and will develop at different speeds. It is also vital for coaches to not place players into positions because they feel that is their best position or play them in a position because they are short of a certain position (defenders/forwards).

If the coach were proactive, they would allow their players to experience playing in as many positions as possible in every session and every game to allow them a better understanding of where they might like to finally play.

For parents and coaches alike, it is crucial for them to remember their roles are to nurture our young stars as best we possibly can. We are here to guide them through their own journey and not sour it with our own desires or agendas.

In the immortal words of that old cowboy song Roy Rogers sang, “Don’t Fence Me In!”

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