Are we in danger of burning out our young players?

The damage we could be doing to the next generation of footballers is an issue that we need to address.

Can over-training actually create smaller players? Perhaps. Are we in danger of burning out our young footballers? Definitely. Having moved into youth coaching after my time at Adelaide United, I find myself worrying about the damage we could be doing to the next generation. It's an issue we need to address.

At the recent Football Conditioning course run by the FFA, presenter Raymond Verheijen proposed an interesting theory. After researching some 10,000 youth footballers in Holland aged 12 and over, he came to the conclusion that overtraining in young players can deplete them of the energy required for growth and consequently prevent them from reaching the height they were genetically pre-disposed to reach. In other words, over-training actually created smaller players.

Growth could be recovered, however, if the programs were modified before the players had become adults. The stats he presented made sense to me and no doubt many others in the audience. For years now I've felt there are sometimes just too many demands on young footballers. Far too much is expected of them, and they're too often over-trained AND under-coached. Now that I am actually working with younger players I'm convinced of it.

Whether I would go as far as to say the next generation of emerging players will be smaller than they would normally be is debatable. I-m not qualified enough, and don-t have the resources at my disposal, to say for certain. But I can say the demands on a kids- time and their “workloads” these days can be excessive.

I spend a lot of time at Christian Brothers College in Adelaide where I work with players from Year 4 through to Year 12. School sport is compulsory so I get a very broad cross-section of abilities, but I will say I-ve seen some exceptional talent - especially from Year 8 down.

That-s not to say there aren't some very talented players at the top end of the school, but time is limited for these kids both in terms of their educational workload and their time to develop as footballers. But in all the age groups there is a strong representation of local club footballers, and herein lies the problem. There is a real conflict between school and club commitments and, additionally, there are now extra demands on the more talented players because of programs run by various governing bodies in each state. This isn-t a new problem. I can vaguely remember conflict between school and club back in my days in the early 1970-s, but there was nowhere near the demands on time there is now.

The game is on a massive growth curve in Australia. It is firmly embedded in the mainstream because of recent, successive, World Cup qualifications and the success of the A-League. In schools it has become “cool” to be a footballer and/or know all about the big-name overseas and local stars.

It-s a far cry from those prejudiced times I grew up in when you were victimised and ridiculed because of the sport you played. Participation rates in schools are at an all-time high and continue to grow. I-ll go out on a limb and say school football now is as big - if not bigger - in ALL States than any of the more traditional codes.

The numbers are also growing at club level. More and more young boys and girls are playing. Great for the game, but where do all these kids go as they hopefully improve as footballers growing into adulthood?

The coaching structure has improved in recent times with instigation of the National Curriculum and a formalised and uniform Coach Education program. But that is yet to translate to quality coaching across the board at club level. I was recently quoted an example of an under-11 side having to warm-up for half an hour including running and push-ups. Some people think I-m a bit of a dinosaur, but that's even too primitive for me!

Across the nation there is a consistent philosophy, although just how this is implemented varies from state to state. The goal is to produce better quality footballers through a uniform philosophy with a relatively consistent method of application. Fair enough.

The trouble is the more talented players now have a range of “elite” programs that they can participate in if they have the desire to make a career of being a footballer (or maybe that's the desire of the parents). This is where the excessive demands on time - and finances - begins.

So let's take it as a given that kids dream of becoming a footballer. The system is what it is, and for me schools need to become a more important part of the process. At least 35 hours per week are spent at school, so why not take advantage of this and allow the game to nuture it's future in this hotbed of youthful enthusiasm?

We need a consultative process that ensures we don't overwork these young footballers and peddle false hope. The school, the club, AND the local associations need to work together to ensure we get the best outcome for everyone. Especially for the kid.