Growing up I loved a trick. Most of my childhood memories on a football pitch involve going past a defender at pace, usually with a big smile on my face.

What I also remember is hearing heckles from team mates and the odd coach here and there saying “PASS IT!”, “STOP HOGGING IT!”, “KEEP IT SIMPLE!”. The same people would give me a big pat on the back when my hogging of the ball resulted in a goal for our team. The difficult thing for me as a young boy was deciding whether I should take risks and dribble to beat defenders, or whether I should play safe and maybe limit myself to two or three touches. On the one hand I’ve got the potential glory and pride of doing something special, and on the other I’ve got the inevitable castigation from teammates, coaches and even parents if I give the ball away or whatever I’m trying doesn’t quite pay off.  

For a youngster, there are so many things to fear and to be unsure of. It could be fear of bullying, uncertainty of one’s place within a friendship group or even just a feeling of trepidation caused by walking into a classroom and being expected to meet academic standards. Things which perhaps as adults we look back on with laughter, at the time were huge issues in our young lives. For me a football pitch should never be a place of fear or worry.

We all want to be successful when we step on to the pitch and we’re bound to be disappointed when what we strive for doesn’t materialise. However a footballing environment at youth level should be one in which failure occurs, and mistakes are made and learned from. Simply telling somebody they’ve made a bad decision or even berating a young player for taking a certain course of action on the pitch can stop that player from ever trying it again. In most cases the course of action they chose could be extremely successful if executed with the correct technique and instead of their skills being honed and them learning from what went wrong, their fear of reprimand might diminish their freedom and confidence to try new things.

We all admire players like Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi.  A five minute clip show of these two players alone would display numerous instances in which they’ve made what looks like a potentially “bad” decision, and instead accomplished something so wonderful it has ninety-thousand fans out of their seats and millions of viewers glued to their TV screens at home. Lionel Messi’s willingness and liberty to take risks and do something different on the pitch is what makes him the player he is. On numerous occasions I’ve seen players of all ages criticised for attempting to take on multiple defenders with the ball and yet arguably the best goal I’ve ever seen involved the great Argentine taking on 4 defenders, beating all of them (one of them twice I might add) and smashing the ball past the Athletic Bilbao goalkeeper. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOX2QpfMkq4 (the video is one minute forty-five seconds long but you only need to watch the first twenty-five seconds…………believe me, watch the first twenty-five seconds!).

If you’ve watched that clip or been lucky enough to see it when it first happened like I did, you might want to pause and ponder if that ever would have happened if a 7 year Messi had repeatedly listened to the words, “PASS IT!”, “STOP HOGGING IT!”, “KEEP IT SIMPLE!”. Not everybody has the same gifts as he does. But I wonder how many players of talent, have fallen by the wayside because of those words.

We’ll never know what children can achieve if we don’t let them try.

Antonio Nurse