This is a really exciting time of the year for us, as our MegaStrikers (pre-school year children) begin to prepare to play simple, age-appropriate 'matches' as part of their weekly sessions. It always makes me smile when I think back to the parents reactions back in September, when I tell them our aims for the MegaStrikers year include introducing matchplay - "you must be kidding" and "not a chance!" are the typical comments you hear being passed between parents, accompanied by knowing looks. And yet, by this point of the year, the children are ready for it.
Of course, we don't just pitch them into an 11-a-side match, with throw-ins, corners and offsides (to be honest, if Premiership officials at Stamford Bridge can't understand the offside rule, what chance would 3 and 4 year olds have?). However, we are able to introduce them to matchplay through very short, small-sided, simple rules games. In case you are wondering, 'simple rules' means i) no kicking, pushing or pulling each other etc ii) you shouldn't pick the ball up with your hands and iii) you stop if the whistle blows in order to listen to the Coach.
It is such a thrill to see children running and dribbling with the ball close to their feet, performing drag-back turns, shooting, and even (occasionally!) passing to a team mate. Because of the small-sides (which is usually just 2 or 3 per team), and the fact that we match teams by current confidence and ability levels, every child gets lots of touches of the ball. The matchplay enables the children to put the skills they have been working on for up to 18 months into practice, and therefore, to develop even more quickly.
How are we able to do this at such a young age? Well, there are three key reasons:
1. Most of the children will have been with us for up to 18 months and have been practising the skills they need to use for a long time. This is a big advantage of having a regular, settled membership.
2. We have built up gradually towards being ready for playing a 'match' where there is only one ball between the children playing.
3. We make the matchplay fun, with no pressure to have to win or score. At the end of each week's session, the coaching emphasis is on who tried their best, rather than who scored a goal.
So, as we move towards this stage of the programme, I am really excited, as I love seeing all the skills practice and motivation coming to fruition. There are some children whom I already suspect will be very proficient, but one of the main joys is actually seeing other children really take to matchplay who I didn't expect to do so readily. Maybe there will be a future Messi or Rooney in there somewhere?