An open letter to those on the sidelines: ‘Let’s help our kids enjoy their football’

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Rachel Lilburn has spent eight years on the sidelines of junior football, first in Chile and now in her native New Zealand as her football-mad son follows his passion for the sport.

Since returning to New Zealand, she has coached and managed several junior teams, spent a year as the Junior Club Admin for Taupo AFC, and has travelled throughout the country to development camps, games and tournaments. 

Ahead of the new season, she’s drawn on her observations of junior football and has written this open letter to parents and other adult supporters …

By Rachel Lilburn

Clubs and schools around Aotearoa are finalising teams and organising coaches for the junior football season kicking off around the country over the next few weeks.

Parents are pulling out the puffer jackets and hats, readying themselves for chilly winter mornings on the sideline.

Main photo: Teams are getting ready for the new season ahead. Photo credit: Rachel Lilburn.

From kids taking their first touch of a football, through to skilled tweens, the junior football umbrella covers a broad range of ages and stages of development.

Junior football starts as young as four, and goes through to 12-year-olds. While some kids have already developed a passion for the game of football, others are looking forward to having fun with friends, learning new skills and maybe trying something new.

As parents, it’s important we remember football is not just about the technical skills of dribbling a ball and scoring goals.

For 99% of kids, junior football is not a stepping stone to a professional career.

Football — like most sport — is a vehicle for teaching many life lessons, such as respect, resilience, working with others, decision-making, discipline, perseverance and commitment.

Here are a few other reminders for how we can support our tamariki to have a great football season.

Junior football … above all, it’s about having fun. Photo credit: Rachel Lilburn.

Be a role model for sportsmanship

At the end of a game, lead the way and thank the referee, the coach, and the other team. No matter what the result, or what you privately think of them, it models great sportsmanship.

The referee is most likely a parent volunteer or sometimes an older sibling. They’ve stepped up to do the job; they may not completely understand the rules. They may choose not to follow the rules of the game to the letter. However, they have the whistle, and they make the calls.

Learning to respect a referee’s decisions, even though they might not agree with them, is hard, but it builds resilience.

Please, don’t yell your disagreement at the ref. You are likely to embarrass your child, and potentially put off that person from picking up a whistle again.

Recognise not all kids have the same motivation

Your kid might have dreams of playing in the Premier League, but remember that we know (through lots of research) that the majority of kids participate in sport to have fun with their friends.

As hard as it is for those of us with competitive children to believe, not all kids are there to win.

Your child might be in a team with others who don’t have the same love of the game or desire to succeed, or the same level of skill.

You may have a few players new to the game. This can be frustrating for everyone, but learning to be a team player and involving everyone in the team equally is a valuable life skill.

Junior football is about development (not winning)

This one causes so many arguments among parents.

Many kids are inherently competitive and motivated to win. That’s not something we need to coach or something we want to discourage, and saying football is about development is not saying we don’t want them to win.

However, a junior coach with a focus on development knows that winning is a result of improvement and development, and not the objective.

If the objective is winning, then you put your best team on the pitch. Substitutions are based on impact on the field.

“Weaker” players stay on the bench and don’t get game time. Play badly, make mistakes — you get taken off the pitch.

The focus is on getting players to score goals, however they can, meaning individual play from stronger players is encouraged. Players stay in positions they are good at, and don’t learn new skills/positions.

If the focus is on development, all players get equal game time.

Substitutions are not based on who is “playing well” or “playing badly”. Players will be moved around to learn other positions. Using skills practised in training is encouraged — mistakes are OK.

In five years — or even in two years — it’s likely you and your child will likely not remember how many games they won or lost, or how many goals they scored this season.

Let’s hope they remember a season where they became a better footballer.

Let the coach be the coach. Photo credit:

Don’t coach (unless you are the coach)

I know it’s tempting to give instructions from the sideline about where your kid should be and what they should be doing.

But, honestly, just bite your tongue.

Firstly, most of the time, kids can’t even hear your specific instruction. They can hear the tone and the yelling — and if you are yelling instructions, your tone is likely to be negative.

Secondly, it’s likely to distract them from the game, and make them even less likely to do what you are telling them.

Thirdly, you might be telling them something different than their coach has which creates conflict in kids who want to please both parents and coaches.

You can be a fantastic supporter without providing specific coaching instructions.

Photo credit: Rachel Lilburn.

Be positive — especially straight after a game

We all make mistakes in life, and all footballers will make mistakes on the pitch.

It’s tempting to point out those mistakes, or how they could have done better, right after a game.

Please don’t.

What your kid needs right after the game is praise. This might be “I loved watching you play”, or “you were great out there”.

If your kid wants feedback on what they could improve, they’ll ask.

If you really need to tell them, wait a day. Let the emotions cool.

Ask them what they thought went well, and what they could have improved on. Chances are, they know what they could have done better.

Kids are enormously motivated by parental approval, and praise for what they did right encourages that behaviour more than a critique on what they did wrong.

Reframe what success looks like

It’s easy, and possibly lazy, to frame success as winning. It’s easy to frame success as scoring goals.

It’s likely that your kid’s team isn’t going to win all the time, and it’s likely many of the goals will be scored by only a few kids on the team.

By all means, count goals and assists and praise them. But also look at other things you can count or measure.

For the older kids, maybe you can count successful passes. Can you count successful tackles? Intercepts?

What happens when the other team scores? Do your team keep their heads up high? How do they stay motivated?

Resilience is built by practising our reactions when things don’t go our way. Praise your player for keeping on going when they were losing.

For younger kids, praise running and getting involved. Praise the enthusiasm that they have shown. Praise sportsmanship.

Football is a game of decision-making. Encourage good decisions, even if the outcome (or result) is not what you hoped.

If your child is blocked in front of goal and passes to an open teammate — and the teammate misses — praise the decision-making of your child. They made the right decision, even if the teammate didn’t finish.

Photo credit: Unsplash – photographer Alberto Frias.

Be on time. Communicate well. Get involved

Junior football in New Zealand, for the most part, is run by a grassroots network of volunteer community coaches.

While some bring an enormous amount of knowledge and experience, some are there because they were the only ones who put up their hands.

Here are some ways you can support volunteer coaches and managers:

Be on time to practice. This usually means drop off at least 5 minutes before training starts. Make sure your player is ready to go and has everything the coach has asked of them (probably training kit, football boots, shin pads and a water bottle).

Communicate with the coach. If your player isn’t going to be at a game or training, tell them. Volunteer coaches often put in a lot of time and effort and planned training sessions can require a lot of rework when kids don’t show up.

Get Involved. Ask what you can do to help. Can you organise a snack? Can you help organise subs? Can you be another adult at training to support the coach?

Help your child stay committed. If they’ve signed up for the season and decide partway through it’s not for them, can you work with them to see out the season? To understand that keeping their commitment is important?

Footnote: This story was first published by Friends of Football in May 2023. It has been updated for republication ahead of the 2024 winter season.

Rachel Lilburn

Taupo-based Rachel Lilburn is a volunteer writer for Friends of Football.

You can read more of her stories here >>>>

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