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Bullying in youth football – tackle it head on

Youth football coaches need to look out for signs of bullying and be prepared to take quick, positive action to nip any problems in the bud. It’s our duty as the temporary guardian of children in our charge to know what bullying is, how to recognise it and how to prevent it, preferably before it happens.

What is bullying?

“Behaviour by an individual or group, usually repeated over time, that intentionally hurts another individual or group, either physically or emotionally.”

The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF).

Bullying manifests itself in a variety of forms. It ranges from teasing and spreading rumours to pushing someone around and causing physical harm. It usually happens in front of other people.

Name calling, mocking, kicking, taking or messing about with personal belongings, writing or drawing offensive graffiti, gossiping, excluding people from groups and threatening physical violence, are all forms of bullying.

The effects of bullying

Bullying makes the lives of its victims miserable. It undermines their confidence and destroys their sense of security. It can cause sadness, loneliness, low self-esteem, fear, anxiety, poor concentration and lead to self-harm, depression, suicidal thoughts and, in some cases, suicide. (NHS UK, http://www.nhs.uk/live-well/bullying/facts.aspx)

Bullying will certainly result in players leaving a club. And not just the ones who are being bullied. A football field where bullying is allowed is an unpleasant place for everyone, not just the victims.

Who are the bullies?

The bully can be any person. For example, a bully could be:

A parent who pushes too hard.
A coach who adopts a win-at-all-costs philosophy.
A player who intimidates other players or officials.
An official who places unfair pressure on a person. (http://www.activesurrey.com/)
How do you know if children on your team are being bullied?

There are several tell-tale signs of bullying and, as a coach, you are in a good position to spot them. If one or more of your players,

Suddenly decides they don’t want to take part in activities they used to enjoy.
Becomes anxious or lacking in confidence.
Appears distressed.
Has bruises, cuts or scratches, and gives improbable reasons for them.
Has possessions regularly damaged, lost or “go missing”.
Appears nervous of walking to or from training.
Appears frightened of a particular individual or group.
Becomes aggressive, disruptive or unreasonable.
Starts bullying other children.
Is frightened to say what’s wrong…
you should find out if they have become a victim of bullying.

What can you do about bullying?

Ensure your players know what bullying is and that it will not be tolerated. Tell them that it’s okay to complain if they are being badly treated by one of their team mates or anyone else. And, just as important, they should tell you if they see someone else being bullied. After all, you don’t have eyes in the back of your head and bullies can be very secretive.

If you spot behaviour that can be classified as bullying, you should take prompt action but don’t dive in. You could do more harm than good if you identify a child as the victim of bullying in front of his or her peers. So be sensitive. Take the victim to one side (but not out of sight of everyone else) and ask the child to tell you about the incident.

You then have to discuss the incident with the bullies and their parents. This will probably be difficult, but it has to be done. It will be a lot easier to talk about bullying with an ‘offender’ and parents if your club has an up-to-date and well communicated anti-bullying policy.

What to include in your anti-bullying policy

A reminder that players must play within the Laws of the game.
What bullying is and the forms it can take – name calling, making racist remarks, threats, hitting, kicking, unwelcome physical contact, exclusion from groups, making unwelcome remarks on social networking sites.
That bullying is unacceptable behaviour and will not be tolerated at any time.
How to complain about a bullying incident (to the coach if it involves players, to a named club official if it involves the coach).
What will happen when a complaint is made (there will be written feedback to the complainant and how long the process will take).
Who to complain to if the process is not followed.
What sanctions will be taken against bullies (verbal warning, written warning, temporary ban from the club, permanent ban from the club).
Links to websites where bullies, their victims and parents can find more information (see ‘useful links’ below for some suggestions).
This policy should be reviewed and issued once a year to all parents. It should be included in the welcome pack you hand out to new players and be displayed.

Cyber bullying

It’s never been easier for a child to bully another child. Social networking sites such as Facebook can be a fun way to exchange messages, but they have been misused by some children who post spiteful comments with a quick click of a mouse.

You should discuss cyber bullying with your players and make sure that they know that you consider this to be as serious as any other form of bullying.

Useful links








My girls won’t stop chatting!

“I have an U12 girls all star team. We are in our third month of the season and the girls are becoming very comfortable with each other. Sometimes, too comfortable. They are constantly socialising during any skill work or small-sided competition.

“I always like the girls to have fun during training, but they are forgetting why they are there – to play football. Do you have any suggestions on how to handle this?”

My answer

I completely understand your problem! I’ve coached girls’ teams for the past nine years, from U8 to U16, and I know that inappropriate chatting can be a common problem for a team coach.

You must admit it’s nice they are getting on so well. Girls teams at U12 and above can have quite serious problems with cliques and players who don’t feel as though they belong. At least you don’t have that to deal with.

But all the chatting is now becoming irritating isn’t it? Believe me, I know how you feel. In the past I’ve read the riot act to my girls teams on more than one occasion. And, do you know what? It didn’t work. The girls might have been quiet for one hour or two, but they soon went back to chatting.

What could I do?

So, I took a step back and tried to analyse the situation.

Why were they chatting? I gave them plenty of drinks/socialising breaks and they were keen to play football… So why didn’t they focus?

Eventually I saw the light. The games/drills I was asking them to do were often too easy, too hard or too complicated. That caused them to switch off from the reason they were on the field – to play football.

So I asked them what they liked to play and we agreed they could choose one activity per session, PROVIDED they worked really hard at one or two games/drills of my choosing first. I also agreed to keep the drills to an absolute minimum and let them play small-sided games (SSGs) instead.

Now they are much better behaved. Sure, there is still the odd day when all they do is chat. But if that happens, I just wait until they stop. Eventually, one or more of the players will tell the others to shut up because they want to play.

So, to sum up. Don’t get uptight. Ask the girls why they are chatting. Find out what they like and don’t like to play at training and reward them for their hard work.

You won’t stop them chatting completely, but you will at least get half a session of hard work out of them!

Supporting the triangle

This is a great game to promote movement, ball skills and passing accuracy between your players.


To practice support play, passing and receiving.

Skill level:


Set up:

Create a 20 yards by 20 yards grid for every five players in your squad. Place a triangle made of poles or flags in the centre of each grid. Split your players into groups of five (four attackers and one defender). Note: You can play this game with three attackers and one defender if necessary.

How to play:

The attackers pass the ball around the grid, keeping the ball away from the defender. They score a point every time they can pass through the triangle to a team mate. Make the game competitive by challenging each group to reach a certain number of points first, or see how many points they score in a set time.

Coaching points:

Good communication (both oral and visual) is important. Attackers must “stay out of the defender’s shadow”, pass the ball rapidly and make decisions quickly if they are to succeed.

A foolproof plan for your first coaching session

This session plan is designed for coaches setting up a new team between the U6 to U9 age groups and meeting the players and their parents for the first time. The objectives of the session are to provide a fun and engaging introduction to football to the children, and to encourage parents to sign their children up for your new team.

I am assuming the session will last about 60 minutes and will be held outdoors. I also assume you will not be choosing your players according to their ability. There will be an article on how to hold try-outs (trials) in a future edition of this newsletter.


The groundwork for a successful first session is laid several days before you meet the players. Parents need to receive information about the session at least a week before it takes place.

Make sure the parents know:

Where the session will take place.
The start and finish time.
What the children need to wear (boots, if the grass is likely to be wet, and shinpads).
That their children need to bring a drink.
What you will do if the weather is bad (provide your mobile phone number).
Provide a consent form that they complete and bring with them.
You can download a customised consent form from footy4kids.co.uk

Be prepared

Make sure you have at least one ball for every player and enough cones to set out several small training areas. You will also need training bibs in four different colours and some portable goals (or poles/traffic cones). Ensure you have enough help on the day. Aim for a ratio of one coach to every eight players.

On the ‘big day’

Get to the training ground early and set out several playing areas. You need one 20 yards by 25 yards area for every six players you are expecting.

As the players and their parents turn up, introduce yourself, ask them their names and offer the children a ball to play with while they wait for everyone to arrive.

When everyone has arrived, ask the children to put the balls back in the ball bags and get them together so you can introduce yourself and thank them for coming. Tell them what they are going to do (have fun), how long the session will last and (most important) where the toilets are.

The session

1. The warm up
Explain why players need to warm up before training sessions (to get their bodies and minds ready to play football). Then move the children to one of the playing areas. Demonstrate how you can move around the area with a ball – walking, jogging and turning – and ask the children to copy you. If possible, they should try to touch the ball with every step they take.

Then play Anatomy dribbling – it’s a great ice breaker and parents love it!

Finally, ask the children to move around the area with a ball and then, on your command, get into groups of 2, 6, 9, 7 etc. Finish on a number that gives you four groups and tell the players they are now in their teams for the next game.

2. Let’s all steal the ball!
Put all your footballs in the middle of the same playing area. Place the groups at the four corners of the area. When you say ‘go’, one player from each group runs to the middle of the area, collects a ball and takes it back to their corner. Then the next player goes.

Repeat until there are no balls left in the middle. The winning team is the one with the most balls in their corner. Very young players can carry the ball. Older players can dribble it.

After a couple of rounds, tell your players they have 30 seconds to steal balls from the other teams’ corners. Again, the winning team is the one that ends up with the most balls.

3. Drinks break
You can relax too – it’s going really well.

4. Now it’s time for a dribbling race
Using the same playing area, your teams stand next to a cone on one of the touch lines facing a cone on the opposite line. Use one ball per team.

The first player in each team dribbles their ball around the opposite cone and runs back with it until they get within passing range of the second player in line. Note: With six-year-olds, this might be three yards. With eight-year-olds, it could be 10 yards or more.

As soon as they are within range, the ball carrier passes to the next player, and they run around the far cone. The first team to complete the race is the winner.

5. Play football
Hopefully, you already have four teams of three or four players. If not, you will have to split the children until the team size is four or less.

Now all you have to do is put goals at the end of each playing area. Give different coloured bibs to the teams and let them do what they came to do – play football! Don’t even try to coach during these games. Applaud everything and let the children enjoy themselves.

6. Cool down
Take the children for a slow jog around one of the playing areas, shaking your arms and legs as you go. Chat with them while you’re doing it. Tell them how well they’ve done!

7. Session review
At the end of the session, gather everyone together and review your objectives.

Did the children have fun? Of course they did.
Will they sign up for your team? I’m sure they will.
All you now have to do is hand out sign up forms to all the parents and look forward to seeing them again next week. Job done!

How can I help my U7s see ‘space’?

“Steve, do you have any specific exercises for Under 7s to improve their awareness of space?”

My answer:

Six year olds are not mature enough to have much ‘awareness of space’, they are really only concerned with getting close to the toy they’re playing with (the ball). Most of them simply can’t see spaces on the field.

That said, there are games you can play that will help them realise that the field extends beyond their own personal space. One of the most effective ways to do this is to play a small-sided game with four goals instead of two. You can put the goals anywhere, but to begin with I suggest you put two on each end line about ten yards apart. Each team attacks and defends two goals.

After a while you may see one or two players realise that they can score more easily if they move to an unguarded goal. That shows they are looking around rather than keeping their eyes fixed on the ball all the time.

Reward any player who does drift away from the pack (my patches are ideal for this) and eventually others will do the same.

It’s a long process and you can’t rush it. But they will see the spaces in the end!

These articles may be of interest:



Good luck!

Are you a WAAC (Win At All Costs) Coach?

Coaches, parents and players all want to win matches. That’s only natural. But enjoyment is replaced by stress if natural competitiveness gives way to a ‘Win At All Costs’ (WAAC) attitude.

But you’re not a WAAC coach, are you?

Hmmm….let’s see shall we?

Please answer the following five questions HONESTLY. Assume your team is aged between six and eleven and you’re playing seven-a-side mini-soccer in a league that allows roll on, roll off substitutes.

1. The opposition turns up with six players. Do you:

a) Offer to start with six yourself; or

b) Put out your full team. It’s not your problem if they can’t field a full team, is it?

2. One of your players is new and not as skilful as the rest of your team. He has been on the subs bench since the start of the match. There’s ten minutes to go in an important league game and you’re leading 1-0. The only player on the pitch who hasn’t been subbed yet is your star defender. Do you:

a) Pull off your star defender and put the new player on; or

b) Leave the sub on the bench.

3. In the scenario above, you put the new player on and he makes a couple of mistakes that cost you the game. After the match you are confronted by parents who say that ‘you lost us the game’ by putting on the new player. Do you:

a) Remind the parents that your main concern is developing ALL your players, not winning matches, and players won’t improve by sitting on the bench; or

b) Apologise and mentally kick yourself for making a bad decision.

4. At half time you’re winning 7-0. Do you:

a) Rest your goalscorers in the second half (or put them in defence); or

b) Do nothing – it’s going pretty well and you want to improve your teams’ goal difference.

5. Your main striker gets a kick on her shin and wants to come off. You’re losing 2-1 with five minutes to go. Do you:

a) Take her off and hope your depleted forward line can get you a point; or

b) Ask her to stay on for the last five minutes. It’s only a little knock, she’ll be OK.

The ‘correct’ answers are pretty obvious but what would you really do?

If you answered mostly ‘A’s you’re clearly not a WAAC coach. If you answered mostly ‘B’s you need to ask yourself another question:

Is what I’m doing in the best interests of all my players or am I more concerned with accumulating points and trophies?

Putting too much emphasis on results will cause you and your players stress and makes everyone afraid to take risks. The resulting ‘safety first’ culture stifles player development and may well result in more losses in the long term.

Furthermore, if your answer to question 5 was B, the English FA (and I assume most other associations) would view this as child abuse. Remember, your first priority as a coach of children has nothing to do with the game itself. Your first priority is to protect the welfare of your players.

So please – don’t worry if you lose the odd game as a result of a risk that you or one of your players took that didn’t come off. It’s a learning opportunity, not a disaster!

Try to give all your players an approximately equal share of match time and respect the opposition.

Treat them as you would like to be treated if you were in their shoes.

That way we’ll put the enjoyment back into match days!

Hit the target

Objective: To improve ball control, passing, support play and communication.

Age group: U10 upwards.

Number of players: Whole team.

Equipment: Flat cones to mark the playing area, one football.

Set up: Mark out a 40×30 yard grid with a 2×3 yard grid in the center of the larger grid. Divide your squad into two teams, Team A and Team B (you can give the teams more exciting names if you wish!).

How to play: Team A puts a player in the small center grid. They score a goal every time they can play the ball into the center grid player and back out again to a Team A teammate (ground passes, volleys, headers all count as goals if successfully played back out to a Team A player).

Team B tries to keep Team A from scoring. Team B scores a goal if it completes five consecutive passes. Team A tries to disrupt Team B and intercept passes.

Reverse the teams regularly.

Progressions: If your players find this game difficult, award team A a goal for simply getting a pass into the centre grid player (who now doesn’t need to return it to a team-mate) and team B get a goal for three consecutive passes.

If your players find the game easy, make the space smaller to put more pressure on the ball carrier and make them take quicker decisions.

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