John Leitch


JOhn Leitch

Youth Football –

Developing and nurturing Young Talent


Developing young talent in a footballing environment is always the discussion and debates amongst players, coaches, parents and Football Association’s around the world.

This article will look at aspects which are vital to develop, nurture and improve young talent.

  • Why do children play football?
  • Why do coaches coach?
  • Impacts of Leading or non-leading sessions
  • Encouragement to choose their own paths
  • Making Mistakes
  • Small sided games
  • Technical play/aspects
  • Tactical aspects
  • Street football games
  • Constantly Learning at all ages
  • Playing with older players and Similar ability


These are some of the topics that this paper is going to look at.


Topic 1.


Why do children play football?


Children play football for a number of reasons and not just one main reason. They also will change as they get older and develop (for instance a 10 year old playing at his/her local club will be different from a 16 year old at elite level). Below are the main reasons discussed.


  • Love of the game
  • To emulate their heroes they watch
  • To emulate parent or sibling
  • To play and interact with other children
  • Parent persuasion
  • To have fun
  • To become a professional football player
  • To win


For children the most important trait for them is that they have a love for the game. This is imperative as everything follows after this and they will develop.

The emphasis on enjoyment and to have fun are key and they should not be replaced with winning. It is important to develop young players that would like to win however, it should not be the main emphasis for the players and will hinder development and reaching their potential. Parents should also realise that if they put pressure on their child that it will also have the opposite effect they hope for. Children need to enjoy themselves to succeed and if they have their coach and parent telling them different instructions they simply will not enjoy and may cause them to regret playing. It is extremely important to support their child but not to be unrealistic or expect too much.


Siblings or parents are just as important as coaches. The reason being: if you train twice a week with a local club and have a match Saturday then I will only see my coach 3 times a week for in total approximately 6 hours. But I will see my mum or dad/brother or sister every day. Therefore, I will never be able to escape if I feel too much pressure. Every time I travel to matches or training I will want to impress whoever takes me. That is human nature, but parents need to be aware the effect they have. Parents should support and help but not play coach and tell them what they are doing wrong or why they are not doing well enough. That is the job of the coach. Children love to impress their parents so any victory no matter how small is a victory in their eyes so parents shouldn’t neglect that.

Topic 2.


Why do coaches coach?


Coaches are an integral part of developing young talent and it is our job to make sure we provide the right tools for our players to develop their potential. But why do we coach?

  • Love of the game
  • To develop players
  • For income
  • To develop ourselves as coaches
  • To take our child’s team
  • To emulate managers at elite level
  • To emulate team play
  • To win


Love of the game is once again the most important reason for why people coach. If they do not love the game then they shouldn’t be influencing the children as they may recognise the lack of enthusiasm and might get complacent or disillusioned in their coach and the message may not be received properly. Developing players at youth level is extremely important and matters more than winning therefore this should be more important than winning. Coach should be aware of long term goals and not short term goals. We are developing the next generation of football players so we can’t take shortcuts.

Coaches should also try and develop as much as they possibly can and seek new ideas, new methods, new training sessions to also keep developing. Which will also help develop players and improve our understanding of the game . It is also a coaches’ job to develop an environment where children will exceed and thrive in. Encouragement , trust , motivation , fun aspects. These are essential.



Topic. 3.

Leading or non – Leading sessions/ Choosing own Path


Leading sessions is extremely common throughout coaching at grassroots and academies as the coach we are meant to tell the kids exactly what to do during sessions and drills , Right?. Not exactly. ‘Give them a ball and set them free , children have a great way of working things out for themselves

Pepjin Ljinders (Fc Porto Technical coach)


During sessions it is essential to encourage players to make own decisions not just for entirely football reasons but also help with equipment i.e. Cones and balls. If you put your trust and ask ‘ I’m giving you responsibility could u please help collect the cones’. It not only sounds better than ‘ collect the cones’ but is also showing trust and children will relish that and want to impress. In a football context we can encourage decision making within any practice. Instead of constantly telling children where to be there are other ways to get them to think it through. ‘If the ball is on the left where should you be?’. ‘If your opponent who you are marking is near your goal how will you stop him’.

‘Why is it important we keep the ball? Ok so how are we going to keep it?’

Not only will the player’s attitude will develop positively towards the coach, but they will be able to adapt in different and difficult situations.

If the emphasis is depending too much on telling them exactly what to do, they will start to depend and rely on their coaches. This will mean that if they are not there it will be difficult without their coaches’ orders. Players need to have an understanding of what they are doing. If a player kicks the ball up front , he and we need to understand why?.

If you are building a house and don’t know why you need a roof. You will have a problem , in football it is no different.


It is up to us to make sure players have an understanding without coming across as negative or frustrated.

We must let the players develop their own answers and encourage to ask questions and let them decide. In a maths exam you have to show equations , so should our football players. We can’t just let them have the answers needed to pass.




Topic 4.

Making Mistakes



In football mistakes are usually treated with an unwelcoming manner at any age group, From youth football right through to the professional game. Now this should be more common at professional level as the players are employed to play football. However, at youth level if players are discouraged when they make a mistake then how are they ever going to learn?. Making mistakes are extremely important to develop not only in football but in all aspects of life. We learn from our mistakes which is just as important as not making them. We must encourage our players to learn after they make a mistake.

‘ why did that not work?’ ‘what will you do next time you are in that situation?’’

‘ could u have passed before you lost the ball’?

‘was there someone in a better position than you?’

These are questions we must provide for our players to fully understand why they failed and what they will do next time.

Arjen Robben believes the reason he became so good is because he was never fearful to make mistakes’

Pepjin Ljinders ( Former PSV coach)




Topic 5.

Small Sided Games


Small sided games are sometimes overlooked in developing talent as many coaches believe they aren’t as relevant or as important as playing a bigger match (7v7 or above). Small sided games around Europe are an extremely important way of developing talent and it is important to constantly encourage players to try new ideas within the games. You can have so many different games to keep players challenged and engaged.

  • Rule 1. – Passing forward and to the side not backwards
  • Rule 2. Passing sideways and backwards not forwards
  • Rule 3. Player with ball must not move


These are examples of rules that can be used within a match to get players to think about what is they are being asked to do. Soon there will be certain players that start to realise quite quickly what they can do within the practice. It will make the players think quickly and develop a good understanding of what they are doing.


Playing small-sided games also will mean that players will get many more touches of the ball than playing a larger match which means more participation. Sometimes when children play 10v10 or 7v7 they don’t receive as many touches of the ball.

The game is the teacher.

With small sided games, stand back let them play, let them make mistakes then let them solve the problems, let them walk their own path.



Topic 7.

Technical Play aspects

Technical practices need to specific to the age group you are coaching they also need to playable by the players. I.e. you wouldn’t do a drill on attacking movement and overlapping with 6 year olds.

The drills need to develop their technique but also develop their brain with decisions being match specific for the players. The structure of the session is also extremely important in developing the outcome of your topic. You must structure the session to ensure you can give the players the maximum chance of carrying out what you want them to do. Example:

Do not do a session on passing and moving and then proceed straight into a match the players will not know what is required of them especially if you are dealing with young players and are playing 5v5 or more.

Technical ability is extremely important to producing talented individuals, but it also just as important to challenge them with game related practices so they can produce good technique in tight areas that are related to football matches.


Topic 8.

Tactical Aspects


Every player who plays football at any level needs to understand not only, about tactics of football but that most importantly it is a team game.

For coaches they also need to understand the demands of the team and not just on an individual as well. Many coaches focus solely on what the player with the ball is doing but just as important is what is happening with players off the ball. (are they supporting? are they still in shape? what happens if we lose the ball?). The philosophy you wish for the players to play is important to develop their understanding of what you want as a coach but is also important when dealing with young players that you try and stay open minded and also let them see or work out other ways to play football.

If you want solely for your team to keep possession then you and the players must understand why you need to keep the ball? But also how you will keep the ball. Likewise, you must understand why you may need to play another way of football and how you will achieve that. Football changes and the players we coach should be able to adapt to the change.

Matches are full of 1v1’s, 2v2’ and collective battles throughout the pitch. The only real time it is 11 against 11 is in the tunnel before the match.















Topic 9.

Street Football


Street Football…. Important or not? The answer is very.

Street football is not just simply children spending time playing after school before their dinner it is a different source of football and a way of developing skills quicker and easier than training with their team. Players all over the world from Rooney, Van Persie, Ibrahimovic, and Sneijder all developed their game in the streets.

Street football is hours spent harnessing technique and skills either in a group or individual, games have been devised with friends to increase participation and enjoyment.

It is vital that children continue playing these games for their own development.

Let’s look at why this is so important –


Idea – in pairs or individual players must advance through each round till no one is left but the winner.

Teaches – to work in pairs 2v2 and also 1v1s, Competition


Headers and volleys

Idea – to score volleys or header past a goalkeeper

Teaches – Technique of volley and header without realising (working in a team)



Idea – 4v4 or 5v5 games played with a heavy ball

Teaches – Close control, ball must be played on the floor, quick feet, working in a team, attacking, defending, passing and moving.


Crossbar challenge:


Idea – against a partner you must hit the bar to get a point. First player to 5 points wins.

Teaches – accuracy, technique of hitting the bar (laces , inside , outside) , weight of shot


Every one of these game have something in common… There is no adult so it is the children who are the ones in control. Children even have a way of working out teams that are fair in ability and sometimes will swap players over to keep the game competitive. This creates their own leadership and means they play to their own beat without the help of a coach. The children walk their own path. Thus, creating an environment that they enjoy and can improve in themselves




Topic 9.

Elite Players in Depth


In this topic we will look at elite player traits and decision making in matches.

It will identify why they do it and how they do it. These players all have a huge amount of ability but they can be broken down and used to encourage with the players we coach.

It will help develop players to know what their favourite players’ do in matches.


Arjen Robben

Position: Winger

Foot: Left


Cuts inside off the wing (when playing on the right hand side}

Why? To get a shot on goal, open up space for full back behind to exploit.

How? Bends his knees, gets low to the ground, accelerates with every touch whilst keeping the ball close, Fake’s to shoot.


Gerard Pique


Position: Centre defence

Foot: Right

Trait: The ability to bring the ball out of defence.

Why? To start attacks from the back and keep possession

How? His full backs push on allowing him space to operate in. Takes first touch forward and he keeps the ball close with calmness, once he passes provides an option by angling body to help player on the ball.




Eden Hazard


Position: Attacking midfielder

Foot: Right

Trait: Uses his knees to help get the ball between him and the defender.

Why? To keep control of the ball in tight areas near the opponent’s goal. To ensure the defender must only get the ball if he   fouls him.

How? By bending his knees, creating a low centre of gravity, he then protects the ball with his arms and shoulders. Knee is always between him and the defender and waits for the tackle.


Santi Cazorla


Position: Midfielder (centre)

Foot: Both

Trait: Transfers the ball between both feet to switch play quickly

Why? To change the attack during the match quickly , important to get the ball to move quickly to catch opponents off guard. To get out of trouble.

How? Bending his knees he switches the ball to opposite foot by faking , dropping the shoulder and accelerating in the opposite direction.







Last Word

There are many ways in which players develop, it also very important to understand that players develop at their own pace not just technically but physically and mentally as well.


This paper has looked at key ways in which players develop there is also other ideas – i.e. do players develop quicker playing with better and older players?

It is up to coaches to develop the future generation and develop practices and sessions that will help and not hinder their possibilities.


It is extremely important that players are able to identify for themselves. Not simply just because their coach has told them, but they need to understand the why? And also the how? If they can establish these things in training sessions then the coach is successful.









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