When Should Children be introduced to Competition?

In junior sports, competitive games make for an interesting debate. At what age should children be introduced to actual competition? Here, we shall look at the national game, football, as the example.

In England, the Football Association (FA) run leagues for teams starting at an Under-7 age level, however, the results of these games are not recorded in the traditional sense. No league table is maintained as games are played in a ‘developmental’ system – this, therefore, removes the threat of a heavy defeat being recorded which may discourage children from playing. It is the same at Under-8 level.

However, while there is no recorded league table until young footballers reach Under-12 level, competitive football is introduced at Under-9, when teams take part in cup competitions. Here, games are recorded and children begin to play for the reward of winning a trophy at the end of the competition.

Development to Competition

Many coaches and parents argue that competition is one of the key factors is aiding a young player’s development. When there is something to play for, players build experience in playing under ‘pressure’ which, as any sportsperson will know, is completely different to playing without having an end goal such as a trophy or medal.

In the English FA’s system, the idea is that players are given two years starting at the age of six (when they can first sign for an Under-7 team) until the age of eight of development games without the pressures competitive football. The result doesn’t matter and players and coaches can focus solely on the enjoyment of the game, although it is only natural that teams still aim to win each individual game.

Once players reach the age of eight and move up to Under-9 football (at this point, the game format moves up from five-a-side to seven-a-side), they are gently introduced to competitive football with cup games on selected weekends. The majority of games are still ‘development’ games where results are not recorded.

Change in Mindset

Although players will always aim to win, it is the coaches where a change of mentality is most apparent. All, or at least most, youth coaches at junior level try to incorporate equal play, ensuring that game time is shared out as evenly as possible. When the games are ‘uncompetitive’, coaches are more willing to share game time but, as soon as there is an element of competition, are coaches still sharing minutes evenly or are they favouring the so-called better players?

Many do and, at the age of eight, how do players cope with sitting out all or a large portion of the game in favour of another child who the coach believes to be better? At such a tender age, there is still much more time to develop, but if such opportunities are taken away as the coach picks a team to win, as opposed to developing players, that player’s development becomes stuttered.

It’s Not Just the Coach

While the coach does make the final decision on who plays, parents can often be an influence on team selection – rightly or wrongly. Parents can often be split into two groups: those that just want their children to have fun and those that believe their children to be the best. Most parents fall into the first category, but there are some that come across overly pushy and, if their son or daughter does not play every minute of every game, you can be sure that the coach is all too aware of their disdain.

What you have to remember is that, at this early stage at grassroots level, coaches are volunteers and do not get paid for what they do. Many take up the role because they have a child that wants to play and no one else was forthcoming, so they decided to step up themselves. They do not hold aspirations of becoming the next Sir Alex Ferguson; they just want to allow children to play a game they love. So when unhappy parents begin to take it out on the coach they are left with a decision to make – do they bow to the demands of the parents? Explain why they made the decision and stick by their guns? Or decide that they don’t want or need the hassle?

Sadly, competition can and, frequently, does make a game far more serious than it really needs to be and, ironically, it’s not the players themselves that make it that way. Coaches and parents easily get caught up in trying to win, when all that children want to do is play and have fun.

Keeping Sport Fun

Competition can be fun and not for one second are we saying it is bad because, in many ways, it is good for the development of children by teaching them how to win and lose. However, many children do not react well to pressure at such an early age, which is why parents consciously choose not to sign them up to teams.

Instead, they opt for clubs kids can attend after school or during the holidays as they tend to enjoy a much more relaxed atmosphere where the focus is on having fun. Friendly games and the inclusiveness promoted is a big winner for parents that simply want to give their children the opportunity to have fun whilst being active, instead of sitting at home glued to a screen.

Many do acknowledge that grassroots football in England is far from perfect, and the FA is doing more to make the game as welcoming as possible. Is Under-9 football too early to introduce competitive football? Or should all competitive football wait until players reach Under-12 age when league tables are introduced (or possibly later)?

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Alan Cole

Alan is a Freelance Website Designer, Sports & Exercise Science Lab Technician and full time Dad & husband with far too many hobbies: Triathlete, Swimming, Cycling, Running, MTBing, Surfing, Windsurfing, SUPing, Gardening, Photography.... The list goes on.