CYC-Online 64 MAY 2004
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Only a game

Mark Smith

Having focussed on child protection over the last few months, I want to maintain a serious note for the next couple of columns and talk about football (or soccer as it will be known to many in the Child and Youth Care community). This isn’t an altogether frivolous comment. I’ve a feeling that I quoted Bill Shankly, the former Liverpool FC manager in my early months of writing this column. Another quote of his comes to mind. It goes along the lines of, “Some people think that football’s a matter of life or death – but its far more serious than that.”

I look back on my years in practice and reflect that some of the best work I did stemmed from the affinity I built up with kids, playing or talking about football with them. Football takes on a particular significance in Scotland where affiliation to particular teams conveys a whole set of meanings about religious and cultural identity. My colleague Laura is now doing the research and the writing that I really wanted to do; around the importance of football as a therapeutic tool in working with youth. Now that she’s occupied the academic high ground, all that’s left for me is to offer a few reflections from an ageing sweeper.

A few months ago the group I play five-a-sides with were getting changed. The conversation turned to our involvement in running schoolboy or boys club football teams. About half of us had gone down that path. At one level this may be a sad reflection on encroaching middle age and a desire to achieve some of the glory we never quite reached through the hopes vested in our sons. At another level it’s indicative of just how important football has been to us and of a desire to see that significance passed down through the generations. A few of us have even done courses “in my case the most basic one, the Scottish Football Association's Early Touches coaching certificate. This was one of the most relevant courses I’ve done. It kept throwing up parallels between what we were being taught about teaching kids football and working in child and youth care. I want to share a few of these lessons.

The first is to be prepared. Before the kids arrive, have everything set out and ready to start the session, otherwise you'll get off on the wrong foot. How applicable is this to residential child care? How often does breakfast or lunch start badly because we haven’t taken the trouble to get organised. Having tables set and meals ready to be served is akin to having balls and props ready for a training session.

And to give a sense that you know what you’re doing, it helps if you look the part. In football terms, that’s about a coach being dressed appropriately for the role; tracksuit, shorts and appropriate footwear. There’s something too about the way you carry yourself. Workers in child and youth care should look the part. It’s fair enough to be casual but not slovenly. Coaches should expect kids too to dress appropriately, changing into the right gear. Likewise, we want to encourage kids in our care to look good and to dress appropriately for the occasion.

The next lesson was about how to manage a group. Tips as to how to avoid a mad rush to collect balls if you just say “Go and get a ball now.” Better to say something like, “All those in green vests go and collect a ball and return to your place–” then “All those in red vests–“. I was lucky when I started in youth care in that it was in a residential school setting where I could pick up some of these things from the older heads around me. I do wonder how young workers learn to manage a group. They certainly don’t get taught anything like this on social work courses.

One of the other lessons I took from the day was about responding differently to different kids. In the context of ball control exercises it was the job of the coach to wander around assessing the skill level of the various participants. The more proficient could be told “Use your left foot” or “Use the outside of your foot.” That way you’re able to alter the exercise to fit with their level of ability. Funnily enough, Henry Maier and his notion of responding to individual differences came to mind during this session.

One of the other memorable messages I took from the day was the statement “There’s nothing worse than a textbook coach.” Again, how applicable is this to residential care? How many of us have seen staff who want to put the TV off because it’s bed-time – five minutes before the end of a favourite programme? No, we need to be able to think on our feet and to vary our routines in light of prevailing circumstances. At another level, the layout of the training facility will determine what routines a coach can do. Similarly, the layout of a residential unit will impact on the programme that can be offered.

One of the things I was accused of as a manager in residential child care settings was of recruiting staff who were interested in football. I would dispute that, but even if it were true, I can now rationalise why I did so. It’s far more than a game. It’s a way of being – and in terms of child and youth care it’s perhaps a way of being that says to kids that you’re interested in being alongside them wanting them to enjoy themselves rather than sitting them down for the next counselling session. That seems to be a reasonable starting point from which to approach Child and Youth Care day.

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