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Mark Carter, Director

The purpose of this biography is to look at what I have learned (and how and when), in order to help explain and discover where my values come from. It has been said that we teach how we learnt, and that we value and try to produce the same kind of learning environment that we had when we learnt. I think there are certainly themes from the biography below that help explain the Ministry of Football values of Creativity, Inclusion, Learning and Enjoyment. Writing this has helped me understand where these values come from and which experiences from the past have most shaped by behaviours and views. It has helped me to understand why I coach like I do, and it has helped me reflect on my work with coaches and teachers in order to better help them understand why they teach and coach in the way they do.

In addition, if I can understand better where my values come from, then maybe it will allow me to look beyond my own my experience and history ('how it was for me') and question whether the way I do things are really the best way; There are probably some values I hold close that are very useful for the development of the children at MoF, while there may be others which need challenging, altering or re-thinking.

Family

There was no culture of organised sport in my family when I was a child. I think my brother went to about two Judo lessons, but other than that the only weekly activity was the local church youth club on a Friday night when a few of us used to play footy in a tiny church hall. Our family was a single parent family, and my mum had no time or money for taking us to sport clubs or classes. There was also no culture of TV - we just had an old and very small black-and-white telly which was only allowed on at certain times. My brother, sister and I invented loads of games to play around the house, and we were encouraged to go out and play whatever the weather. I recall coming home covered in mud countless times and having to get changed on the doorstep before coming in. We played games around the house too, "Off-Ground-Touch" for example, where you had to get from one place to another without touching the floor.

The rules at home seemed simple: We were allowed to play. We were allowed to go out and explore. We were not allowed to not get on with each other. Simple stuff really, but it created a happy place of creative exploration, collaboration and invention.

School

To tell the truth, I hated school. I felt frustrated at being locked up in a classroom all day and forced to do long hours sitting at a desk. The work was mostly dull and unchallenging, and I couldn't see the relevance of it to what I might want to do once I left school. It didn't help that I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left school, I had no pathway, no vision and nor did any of my friends.  I have since met people who had a vision of their future when they were a child, and I have worked with children who are driven by a specific purpose. In my opinion, there is simply no substitute for this kind of vision in terms of being able to focus, behave and enjoy learning in early life.

My secondary school was a viscious, violent, horrendous place. It was the antipathy of a positive learning environment; there was nothing cool at all about wanting to learn. Most classes were just crowd control as far as the teacher was concerned, and some were so poor at keeping order that it was common to get absolutely no work done at all in a lesson. Bullying was everywhere, fighting was common, gangs would wait outside of the school gate sometimes, teachers got beaten up, the prettier girls got something called "feels" which was where a group of boys would set upon them and grab anything they wanted. I watched all this for 5 years at school. My mum said I had to leave to go to another school, but I didn't want to, not sure why now.  We came to a deal where I could stay as long as I studied at home. It was clear I was learning nothing in the classroom. All I learned at secondary school was how to hide.  

The teachers said I was "good" at school, which I now know means I had the patience to sit still for hours, and to regurgitate facts in exams and tests at the end of mind-numbingly dull programmes of work. I got the best exam results in my secondary school, which wasn't hard seeing as most kids were learning in a second language and struggled to read and write. I remember being sent to the school career adviser at that age, and being told I should be a graphic designer, based on what I was good at. I don't recall anyone ever asking what I enjoyed doing, or suggesting sport and coaching as something I might try. 

I went to college at age 16 to do 'A' levels, and had the shock of my life when I finally found out I was not so clever. At college there were seriously clever people. I struggled, especially in Maths. It would sometimes take me hours to get the answer to one question of Maths homework. The very cleverest students in the class had already completed the homework before the lesson ended, but I would be up till midnight struggling with it. The others from my old school dropped out of the Maths class, but I had hope that if the clever kids could do it, then so could I. Spurred on by my best-ever teacher, Mr Morton, I persevered. I drew equations in black paint on the bedroom ceiling, so I could revise before I fell asleep. At the end of the course I did the exams and I got a A grade. I'd never been so proud.

Football, sport and play

I remember very clearly when I started playing football. It was with my brother and step-brother in the school playground when I was about 7 years old. I remember how I found the ball so hard to control at first, and how I learnt early ball control in a concrete playground in the midst of other ball games, skipping games and a maze of deep and not-so-deep puddles that were so well known to us that on rainy days we could have run through the playground with our eyes closed without getting our feet wet.

Like most boys of that age, I quickly became obssessed with football, both playing it and following the stars of the game. My heroes were Norman Whiteside, Bryan Robson and Jesper Olsen etc. I pretended to be them every playtime at school. In my last year at primary school (in a class called Class 7), we had a chart on the wall with scores of our games against Class 8. We made a cup from a yoghurt pot and silver foil at the end of each term and whoever won that playtime celebrated wildly. It was fair to say that I lived for playtime and for football time. 

In late primary school, and throughout secondary school, I played football with my friends every opportunity we had. In the summer months, I played 30 hours of football a week (before school, playtimes, lunchtimes, after-school, weekends, holidays). Only one or two hours of these (school football practice at primary school) were taught; none of the other hours even had an adult around - no referee, no organiser, no coach - just kids. Football for me as a child was something we did on our own, away from adults. In the local park after school or all day on weekends, we organised our own games, challenged other groups to matches and invented new games to play. When games were uneven, we re-arranged teams and rules. We welcomed children of all ages and abilities and we all played together. When there were arguments we sorted it out. Our social group of football children grew and we got to know children from all over the neighbourhood. We didn't need to organise a game, just walk round the corner to the park and you'd know someone there. How different it all is nowadays.

Sport at school was taught in a stale and dry way. We had PE every week in both primary and secondary school, and two hours of games on Wednesdays after lunch in secondary school. The playing fields were sold in my first year at secondary school, and from then on we were taught on a concrete playground at the side of the gym block. Lessons were inactive, with lots of waiting time and an eternity spent getting changed in and out of kit. The only lesson I bunked off in school was games afternoon. We would slip out between the railings at lunchtime to go to the park to play football all afternoon. 

I remember playing 11-aside football for the primary school team when I was a tiny 10 year old. A huge pitch; tactics that we couldn't comprehend; enormous goals with a crossbar so high that we could stand on a teammate's shoulders and still not reach it; so few opportunities to dribble the ball; our biggest kick forward barely reaching the player closest to us. As children we didn't question the madness of that. All we wanted was to play footy with our friends, any chance we got. It was exciting to play for the school team. But how much more exciting would it have been if we had played small-sided games on pitches designed for our physical growth and learning needs. Of course, football has changed since then, and we are more enlightened nowadays and pitches and team sizes are smaller for younger players. But this enlightenment is not widespread; I still visit primary schools and see the obligatory adult-height basketball hoop in a playground used by 8-year olds. 

Development, learning and growth

I am summer-born, small and a late physical developer. I had no chance at all of getting into the school team at secondary school. We had five boys at Charlton Academy, including Chris Bart-Williams who went on to play age-group level for England. I remember the first school practice at secondary school and the teacher gave us a ball each and asked us to juggle it to the end of the hall and back. To my surprise there was about a dozen kids for whom this was not a problem at all. I realised then just how far behind I actually was. But that was the first and last chance to get into the school team, and I was nowhere near. At age 11 I wrote a letter to Manchester United to ask how I could get to play for them, and they wrote back saying I had to be selected to County level and then they had scouts who watched games.

I was obssessed with football, and other sports simply didn't get a look in. There was almost no variety at all in my sport, I was completely specialised in football. Had I become even half as interested in another sport during primary school, then perhaps I would have had something to play at secondary school when it was clear to me that I was not going to be a footballer.

I got injured for the first time at age 16, a dislocated knee. This happened again countless times over the next few years, before I finally had an arthroscopy operation and extensive physiotherapy. The chap who operated said that if I carried on playing football then he would see me back for more operations in the future.  Several years of being too injured to play footy had a great effect on me: The main purpose of sport and play is to be found in the enjoyment of the present moment, not in the teaching and learning of skills to be used in future moments. While watching my mates play footy from the sidelines it wasn't the learning that I missed, it was the chance to run, move, shoot, pass and play. Football has to be about Now. Children's football must have at its very core, the chance for all children to find Joy through play. If Learning has to go head-to-head in a fight against Enjoyment, then Enjoyment must win. (Luckily no such fight exists, as they can both work together, enhance each other; neither needs to be sacrified).

I am a firm believer that children need variety in their early sport experience. There is so much to learn from different sports, to specialise too young is to miss out on so much. Physically, a growing body finds it hard to suffer the continual strain of the same movements from the same sport over and over. As we grow and age, different opportunities present themselves to become involved in new physical activities. It is a real advantage to have the growth mindset of "yes, I can do that, I love sport" rather than "it's not football, forget it". That doesn't diminish the importance of becoming obsessive at one pastime, rather that this obsession doesn't need to happen until later, teenage years.

*          *          *

One sport that I hated as a child was swimming. I had a seriously bad attitude when it came to learning swimming: I was completely adamant that I couldn't do it, and proved myself right time and again in weekly swimming lessons. I just refused to learn. This was odd really, given that I was a good learner in other areas of life. Eventually, after I'd left school and college, I decided one day to learn to swim, and did so in just a few visits to the pool.  Looking back now, this is a good lesson on teaching: If the attitudes of the learners aren't right, no amount of teaching will make much difference. We talk about learning environments, and the key factor in that environment is the mood, energy, focus and motivation that the learner brings themselves.  I have more recently found out that the attitude I had toward swimming as a child is called a Fixed Mindset, and that what I needed (and displayed later in life when I learnt to swim) was a Growth Mindset. I don't buy into the idea that people are either Fixed Mindset or Growth Mindset. In my experience, people have different Mindsets towards different things, and can change day to day depending on mood and who they are with. This is important to remember when coaching children as each lesson will be different, depending on the collection of moods the children bring with them when they walk into your lesson.

Early Coaching

I first coached children on a summer programme called World Cup Soccer Schools when I was a University. Looking back I was a terrible coach. I recall some of the sessions I ran in those summers, and they were atrocious. I remember screaming right in the face of nine-year old because they had lost focus during what I thought was an exellent session on free-kick taking. The fact that the children spent most of the session in a defensive wall or waiting their turn to take a free-kick was lost on me. I expected great behaviour but only allowed games at the end of the session if the children behaved during the first part of the lesson (during which I coached and demonstrated at length if memory serves me correctly).

But actually that is not why I was a terrible coach. After all, most young coaches start off by delivering the same stale, dry sessions they themselves hated as a child. No, I was a terrible coach because I did not yet have the ability or habit of reflecting on what I had delivered and what real learning had taken place. I had the attitude that I was the expert, simply because I was an adult and they were children. I had not yet even considered what learning really looked like, and to what extent my role in their play time was a positive one. 

These days I see lots of young new coaches run sessions much like the sessions I ran when I was 20 years old. I always remember to have patience with them, as they are just starting their journey. All good coaches start somewhere. I try to offer the wisdom, support and challenge that I found it difficult to access when I was just starting to coach. If only I knew then what I know now! My main advice for young coaches is to find a person, a role model, someone who you consider brilliant, and get them to be critical of what you do. Copy them, ask them questions, listen to their feedback, it can seriously fast-track you on your journey. 

Qualifications and courses

I've done tons of courses since leaving school, but the main ones that have had a lasting impact on my ability and confidence to coach, my values and beliefs, and on the development of the Ministry of Football programme are: 

  • Presentation Skills, Office for National Statistics
  • Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL)
  • Landmark Forum, Landmark Education 

These three courses combined have been hugely more helpful and powerful than all the football qualifications and courses I have done put together. That is not to say that football courses have not been useful, rather that they have had limited impact as they only deal with narrow aspects of life. In my experience, a football course may give you new ideas and new motivations - but they rarely get into the kind of depth necessary to create fundamental permanent change to behaviour, thought processes, confidence or values.

I was always a quiet and shy child, someone who would never put their hand up in class for example. Like many others, I found the thought of standing up in front of a group and talking absolutely terrifying. It is hard to envisage a future as a teacher or a coach when you have this kind of fear. The courses above helped me confront that fear and be comfortable and powerful infront of groups.

Teaching 

I started teaching when I was at school. A boy arrived to our class from Greece, he didn't speak English and I helped him understand what was happening. At University I taught statistics to friends who were struggling with z scores and p values. I have always enjoyed the one-to-one interaction of helping someone else learn something that I know or that I can do. It is rewarding, it is useful. Helping each other is essentially what this is all about I think.

My first paid teaching work was as an English Teacher in an English language college. Once I finished the TESOL course, I started teaching at Golders Green College. Later I would work for various English Language schools in London town. I worked for a Language school in Auckland, and also taught Korean students from the back of my van to make some money for breakfast when I was house-less in the same city.

English Language teaching is seriously challenging. I worked mainly in schools where there was continuous enrolment (you never knew who would turn up to a lesson or how many), no syllabus or curriculum, poor or absent management and high staff turnover. It was a real challenge to plan and deliver lessons that reached all the students. Schools had an abundance of books and materials to use, and I experimented with these. I also made up my own lesson materials and tried different approaches to motivating and engaging the students. I soon worked out that some of the best lessons involved controversial topics or gap-fill materials where students had to work together to reach a concensus. I remember a great class where a group of international students were debating whether it was OK to eat a cat if you were starving. They were going at each other so vociforously that they had forgotten that they were not confident in the language. In the very best lessons I delivered, my job was simply to throw in more fireworks ("what if the cat was terminally ill?").

In Papua New Guinea, for two years, I was a secondary school English teacher. I had classes of 55 children and my only technology was a piece of chalk and a blackboard. This was tricky. My magic Jedi TESOL teaching skills didn't work in this environment. I had to learn new skills.

In PNG I learnt that our values and beliefs regarding Learning come from somewhere deep within our own culture. PNG simply didn't fit with what I thought I knew was the truth. I thought I knew why children went to school, what a teacher's role was, what parents' expectations of a school were etc. But I only knew these things within the culture I came from. In PNG these cultural "truths" were useless. (Or as Ian Rush said while reflecting on his move to Italy, "it was like being in a foreign country"). To have what you know blown apart in such a dramatic way is quite frightening, but it is also hugely liberating. To tell yourself "I have no idea how to do this" is to put yourself firmly in a learning position. 

Coaching 

While teaching at secondary school in Papua New Guinea I started coaching the school football team. This is an epic story in itself and involves - among other things - a wonderful, tropical training ground under the sun, a brilliant group of young eager people, a serious shortage of football boots, some very frustrating refereeing, and even a full scale football riot. More importantly, in terms of the development of my coaching values and philosophy, my time in PNG was the key critical intervention in my teaching and learning that shifted the way I coach away from the way I was taught.

We had an abundance of space in a field next to the boarding houses, and there were even a set of football goals on a full-size field, and a rugby pitch with rugby posts too. The sun always shone on footy practice day and I can't remember practices ever being cancelled because of bad weather. We had a squad of up to 40 children, of all ages and abilities throughout secondary school, and they came to footy practice in bare feet and a pair of shorts in dribs and drabs after they had finished lunch or dinner. We had two practices a week, and they were my favourite lessons of the week. I had reservations about the colonisation of language implicit in my English teaching programme, and I often wondered what difference I (and the collective group of 'do-gooders' that I belonged to) was really having on the lives of the students we were put infront of. But on the footy pitch none of that caused me any concern, for there was no doubt that the healthy, competitive, community feel of the activity could be anything but good. 

Success for me - back then - was dominated by results. I wanted to win games and I wanted to win the league, and I was very affected by the results of games (happy it we won and annoyed if we lost). We were a school boys team playing in an adult league, we often had no transport (I remember running through the settlements for an hour one weekend to get to an away game), and we had to cope with all the issues of illness (malaria) that are part of life in a tropical boarding school. Undeterred, and in pursuit of victory, I embarked on a marvellous journey. In terms of coaching, the three biggest challenges were:

  • A lack of footballs
  • A lack of a common language
  • A lack of resources for me to learn from

Each of these 'lacks' however also offered opportunity for innovative solutions, and it was these solutions, often reached accidently, that provided me with the key learning and change to beliefs and values.  I was also fortunate that I had lots of time to myself, no family, just an empty house in the evening with plenty of time to plan sessions and to start learning how to reflect on what I had tried. 

In PNG I was almost completely isolated from external learning sources. There was no internet, no telephone, no coaching manuals even. The school, although only 10 miles from a largish city, was situated in a settlement area and it was too dangerous to go out of the house after dark. There was a bus that went into town, but it was an ordeal to get it, and there wasn't much in town anyway, certainly nothing like a football academy or children's club that I could partner with. So I was left to myself, pretty much. And in the absense of anyone else's suggestions, philosophy or wisdoms, I was able to embark on ways of doing things within the constraints of language, footballs and resources.  

We had six footballs. For 40 kids. This doesn't seem so bad really, but it's not enough to do lots of ball mastery work. In addition, sessions had to be easy-to-follow as my language skills weren't good yet. The solution I chose was to make sessions game-based.  This may seem an obvious answer to a modern coach, but to me it was completely new to start a session with 3v3 and 4v4 games.

Some of the older children spoke some English, most of the young ones did not. So I had a group of leaders within practices who I could talk to, and they would disseminate information and coaching to the groups they were in-charge of. Once all children had arrived, we would usually split into 4 groups, with each group taking a football or rugby goal. I would demonstrate a starting position to the children and then they would go and play from the start position on their half-pitch. So for example, I would highlight corner kicks as a problem we were having in games, and suggest a starting position for dealing with this. The leaders of each group would recreate situations from the weekend's games and work out ways to deal with them. Inevitably each group invented seperate solutions, and it was useful for me to bring groups together to show what they had come up with when something worked well. The children - given freedom - often came up with much better, simpler and more appropriate solutions than the ones I had in mind, and were better able to make these work in their weekend games because they had developed them themselves. This in essence is where the values of freedom and creativity at Ministry of Football come from. I have developed a firm belief that to limit children to learning only everything we know is to do them an injustice. They are worthy of knowing more than we do, and only knowing what we know now will not be enough for the world of the future.

After a while of half-field practices, with one group attacking a goal and another defending it, it became obvious that the defending team needed a target too, so we invented the "dribble the ball over the half way line to score" rule for the defending team. It was fascinating to me, years later, to go on my first football coaching course in New Zealand and learn about Phases of Play which are essentially exactly what I invented in PNG in the absence of any helpful resource.

In terms of 11-aside play, we had two teams represent the school. The coaching of these teams, especially on match day, was tricky. I tried my best to use Pidgin to coach in, with a bit of success, but more often I had to make use of broken English which only some children would understand. Either way, I was not able to give long lectures, I had to be brief and to the point. I also had to surrender a lot of the formation and tactical decisions to the children, not so much because of a philosophical view on my part that children should be in charge of their own learning, but simply because I was not able to make myself understood. I lost count of the number of times I was suprised by the answers the children came up with. Left alone to experiment and lead themselves, children would come up with solutions that I hadn't thought of at all. Certainly, in PNG, the overwhelming feeling I had as a coach and a teacher was that we were all - me and the children - all learning together.

Below: Grand Final winning team, LAHI division 1, 2001

Education Officer, Papua New Guinea 

In my final year in PNG, I worked on a national education programme which looked at (among other things) the relevance of the curriculum to the future lives of the learners. PNG had used an Australian school curriculum for years and many of the materials, beliefs and pedagogies had lasted from the Aussie era and continued unquestioned. It was something I had asked myself often while teaching in PNG: What are we educating these children to do? There were very few office or factory jobs, and the reality is that the majority of the children would need to scrape a living back in the village or in settlements in the outskirts of towns.

Together with some inspirational PNG national colleagues, we set up an approach to education which focused on making a livelihood from the land. The approach took the best elements of agriculture and micro-finance projects and used them in a PNG context, using examples from successful schools in the highlands of the country. It was a great example of collaboration, with input from the national education department, agriculture college, and the rice growing association. The impact was powerful . For example, within a few years, the school I worked at had become self-sufficient at growing rice and was even selling some at local markets. Most importantly the project was owned and run by national people and organisations.

I loved the fact that I had been part of such a success, and that we had worked together to make it happen. I also found inspiration in the way we had challenged the system and made it better for the benefit of children and future children. It gave me hope that school education can change for the better.

Director of Coaching, Three Kings United, New Zealand

I arrived in Auckland in 2003 as Director of Junior and Youth Coaching at the largest sports club in the country. In terms of collaboration and a football learning community, the environment in Auckland and New Zealand at that time was a complete opposite of that which I had experienced in Papua New Guinea. Again I had lots of time, but I also had lots of opportunity to meet with other teachers and coaches, to watch sessions and to ask questions, and to experiment collaboratively with new ideas and approaches.

I went to seminars and coaching demonstration sessions, I watched tons of other people deliver, and worked closely with several different coaches. Teaching Games for Understanding (TGfU) was getting a major boost in New Zealand at that time, with workshops and events held in 2004, and this gave me new ideas and new motivation, as well as giving a name and vocabulary to some of the pedagogy that I had developed in isolation in Papua New Guinea.

The learning curve at Three Kings United was steep though, and it took me a couple of years before I really began to develop strong beliefs on how children's football needed to be in that environment. By 2005, I was watching on the sideline of weekend games and for the first time I started having internal conversations about how much learning was happening for the children playing. I started to think more clearly about what learning might look like, and how that related to coaching, play, practice and games. It started to seem crazy to me that children's football centred around these large-sided, high-pressured, kick-and-rush matches. There are huge drop-out rates from football in New Zealand in the teenage years, as there are in England. This is not suprising to me anymore, the football I was seeing did not cater for the needs of children, and of course when children became independent thinkers and responsible for their own weekend time, of course they would say - "no, I'm not doing that anymore". 

What is the role of the coach in children's football? What would happen if there were no coaches? These questions fascinated me, and they still do. Auckland football relied heavily on parent volunteer coaches to run teams, and this posed a challenge: Very few of these adults had the teaching skills, subject knowledge or game understand to teach the children. My ideas formulated over the seasons to think the best role for the non-expert adult is that of an organiser rather than a coach or teacher. I saw many examples where well-meaning adults actually had a detrimental effect on the children's learning and enjoyment, and would have been better to leave the children to their own play and natural learning. The minimum role of the adult in football might be to get everyone in the same place at the same time, make sure some minimal equipment is present (i.e. a ball), and ensure everyone is safe and included. When adults try to do more than this, some have a positive effect and some have a negative one. During my years in New Zealand I formulated more of an idea of what negative-effect - 'anti-coaching' - looked like. Everytime I see children queued up in sport to take turns at doing something - when there is enough space or equipment to have a turn more often - I think, "this is an adult's idea". Children, those natural learning machines, would not come up with something like that.

In New Zealand, I developed the part of my coaching philosophy about Inclusion. I loved that at Three Kings United, all children were able to play football and join a team. For some age groups we had tens of teams, ranging from the high-ability to the complete beginner. The intention was that each child and each team was catered for in a division of similar ability teams from other clubs. Although this didn't always work well in Auckland, the idea behind it had a permanent effect on me: Football for everyone, at their level of ability and commitment. I firmly believe this to be right, in fact of all the things I believe this is probably the strongest value I hold.

*          *         *

It was coaching in the rain, wind and mud in wintery Auckland that made me question what conditions we choose to teach and learn football in. I came to the view that children's football needs to be indoors if possible. Skills and best learnt on a good surface, with no wind. Walls prevent footballs going too far and increase learning time by keeping the ball in play or near a sideline ready to re-enter play. On return from New Zealand to London in 2007, I already had a very good picture in my head of what Ministry of Football would look like and feel like, and it was definitely an indoor experience. 

The above interview with My Fastest Mile describes some of my values, views and experiences in more detail.

A professional club

In 2007 I started working at Watford FC, running sessions for 5-11 year olds at their pre-Academy and coaching teams at their Girls' Centre of Excellence. After years of doing things how I wanted to do them, I found it very challenging to have to coach on other people's programmes. It was a real eye-opener to see how things worked at what was then a Premier League club. There were several things that I fundamentally disagreed with at Watford, and it seems to me that most of these things are common in most professional club football academies:

  • There is too much adult pressure in academy football. I recall at Watford that at some Academy sessions and games there were as many adults watching as their were children playing. Despite the rhetoric about 'pressure-free environments' that many clubs spout, it is the job of each watching adult to watch with a critical eye. Scouts are there to see what level the children are at, and assess them in their heads against potential new recruits; heads of performance, recruitment, heads of stage, head of academy all watch to see how new children are coping, looking for evidence of whether they made the right decision to bring them in or keep them on; coaches watch to see who to play in the big game on the weekend; most importantly mum or dad watch from the sidelines, so engrossed in how well the child is doing that they haven't stopped banging on about "first touch" and "play safe" throughout the entire car journey from school. It is fine to say that the children are 'free to learn from mistakes', but I think this is contrary to what the children feel. The environment is far removed from the one in which they fell in love with football; don't get me wrong the child wants to be there - desperately, so desperately that they can almost feel the consequence of every mistake they make - but the joy of playing footy with their friends is a distant memory. Playing football has been replaced with performing football, at age 10. Academy football is high-pressure, adult-driven football. A few children cope, the vast majority don't. Thosethat cope continue, those that don't get cut. Very few children actually thrive.
  • Academy structures do not take into account the real and rapid changes in learning needs of children. Briefly: Selection to Academies happens too early; too few children are coached by the best coaches in the best environments; it's too difficult for children to move up and down groups and squads, and this happens too infrequently. Selection and recruitment decisions focus on short-term success factors, mainly effectiveness in games - rather than long-term potential. Grouping children by age does not allow all children to be in the very best environment for their particular needs at a particular time.
  • Recruitment seems to trump development. Most clubs seem to spend more time worrying about who is going to steal their players, or trying to steal other club's players - rather than focus on doing the absolute best with the children they have. Clubs pride themselves in their "best" players, without giving enough consideration to what made them that good in the first place. Where do the best children come from, and how do they get to be that good? There is so much to be learnt about real development of brilliant footballers, yet so little time at academies is spent researching this, experimenting, collaborating and finding better ways of doing things.

When you consider the huge amount of time, money, effort, skill and resource that goes into running professional club academies, and then you compare that to the amount of top-quality footballers that the academy system produces, I think it is fair to say that the system is failing. Very few children make it through the academy system and into first team football. Often the potential - perhaps demonstrated by creativity or flair - that young children demontrate in order to catch the eye of a scout in the first place is one of the first things to be sacrificed in the urgency of the club to produce players who can perform in games. In addition, those children who are harder to control, who don't take instruction well or who 'do their own thing' very rarely make it through the system (they are released as they don't conform to our cultural view of an obedient, good learner), which is a shame as they are the ones who are most likely to end up with new and different answers. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but solving some of the issues above may help.

Working at Watford helped me to realise that working at a professional club is not the gold-at-the-end-the-rainbow that youth football coaches sometimes think of it as. Many coaches have the dream of working at an Academy, but in my experience this is not the end of a journey, rather it is the beginning of a journey that questions why you coach in the first place. For me, I realised that my coaching environment needs to be more inclusive and I need more control over what that looks like.

I had a big culture shock when I started working at Watford Girls' Centre of Excellence. When compared to New Zealand, there were so many girls with good technical ability. I recalled in Auckland, it was sometimes a struggle to get a representative Auckland squad of 16 technically-competent girls together, there simply weren't that many very-able children to choose from. In England, there are hundreds more children who can control and move with a ball. However, there was another glaring difference between the girls in Auckland and those at Watford: The Auckland girls were more focused, more driven, better motivated, and were taken more seriously as young learners and young footballers. I think there were a couple of main reasons for this:

  • New Zealand is smaller, and children can see a clear pathway for themselves in a sport. A girl who had made an Auckland rep team for example, could see the next step to a national talent centre. Girls in Auckland would know other older or higher-ability girls who had made it to national level in football or another sport. This 'vision' of a future in the sport, and a clear, trodden pathway, means children are more focused and more driven to continue. In terms of being a committed and mature learner, there is no substitute for being able to 'see' your future. 
  • The culture of sport in New Zealand takes girls more seriously. In England we could learn a lot from countries where expectations of girls in sport are as high as expectations of boys. Things weren't perfect in New Zealand, and girls' and women's sport was certainly second to boys' and men's, but a girl who showed an interest in a sport was taken seriously, usually had an opportunity to play, and was expected to practice, to focus and to learn.

Having lived and worked in New Zealand and England, I feel it is a huge shame the way our culture treats girls in sport. Most of us in England don't notice it, we are our culture after all, it is hard to recognize ourselves sometimes.   

Ministry of Football

Ministry of Football officially began in Muswell Hill, London on 23rd September 2007. It had taken two months of hard work to organise the programme, to find the right venue, and to market the idea across local schools. I had designed and ordered coaches jerseys, got a great selection of music together, and spent ages haggling with local suppliers to get discounted footballs, bibs and cones. I had planned and rehearsed sessions of small-sided games for all ages and abilities. I had wondered long and hard how many hours to book the sports hall for and eventually decided on two hours - that way if I did get more than 24 children, I could divide them across both hours. So ... imagine my disappointment when only two children turned up on that first weekend.

Although I can now see that my expectations were naïve and unrealistic, I remember how frustrated I was during the first few weeks of the programme. I had hoped for at least 12 children. I knew I had a product that was worthy of a bigger audience, but I just couldn’t find a way of reaching the parents.

With hindsight this was a period of great learning. I had to learn how to market the Ministry of Football brand, and to be cost-effective and creative with advertising. And I also learnt one of the key lessons of all: To do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got. I may have only had two children attend, but the important thing was that they both came back the following week.

And after two weeks, one of the children brought a friend with him, making three. (I was over the moon - suddenly we could do 2v1s!) Over the next few weeks a parent saw one of my flyers in the dentist waiting room, and I met two others outside their children’s primary school. By the end of the first term I had five. By the end of the second term I had twelve... And by September 2010, after three years of endless work and commitment, I reached the magic 100 mark.

Running my own business has been fantastic. I love choosing who I get to work with, so that every week I get to work with people I like and whose company I enjoy, people who challenge me and inspire me.

Consultant statistician

For my first 11 years back in London, I made a living as a consultant statistician and data manager.  I have a degree in Population Studies, and a love of numbers. I'm told I have a gift for being able to understand the numbers well, and also - importantly - to communicate this understanding to others in an inspiring, straightforward and easy way.

I usually worked with large organisations to help them make sense of the information they have and help them work out what measures and figures to use in order to make business decisions. It is always interesting to go to a new place and get a feel for the culture of the organisation and the way numbers and data are used and valued within it.

I found that in every organisation and every role I was in, I was able to learn more about how to better direct and manage the Ministry of Football programme. Here, briefly, are some examples of the things I took and implemented:

  • At the Care Quality Commission, the senior leaders at the top of the organisation videod their meetings and sent a link to all employees. I liked this level of transparency, and thought it helped create a culture where people were more trusting of leadership. They also used members of the public as part of their hospital inspections teams. This got me thinking about how the leadership and decision-making processes for MoF could be more transparent and involve a wider range of people. There has been at least one MoF parent at every coaches meeting since.
  • At the Medical Research Council, I was part of a small team which developed a system for assessing and analysing the impact of large, grant-funded, research projects. We discussed in much detail the difference between outputs, outcomes and impacts, and how the real impact of an intervention may not be realised until many years later. This got me thinking about how we might begin to measure the success of MoF in terms of outputs (e.g. number of children being coached), outcomes (e.g. beginner child gains enough confidence and to join a team or play with friends in the playground), and impact (e.g. child loves to play and move and becomes an adult who plays and moves regularly). 
  • At Barclays Bank, I was struck by the workforce's ability to collectively solve problems quickly. Relevant people would very quickly get on a phonecall together and the problem would be discussed with urgency, and actions taken to solve these problems arranged and acted on in a very decisive way. In terms of managing a business, in dealing with conflict for example, this gave me experience, confidence and skills to be direct and to expect more of others.

Parenthood 

In 2011 I became a parent, and in 2014 my second child was born. The parenting experience has helped me understand the pressures, stresses, frustrations and dilemmas that parents face. I remember when my boy was nearly a year old and he wasn't crawling yet but many of our friends' kids of the same age were. I recall how I wanted to help him do it, and spent time physically lifting him into a crawling position to try to get him there more quickly. It seemed natural to me to want to help him. But I have since learnt to calm down, and that things take longer for some children than others. Of course, I have known this for many years in a football development context, but being a parent brings a whole new and very real set of challenges (some things I thought I knew have had to be re-learnt all over again). I have learnt that parenting decisions are far from simple or straightforward - as they might look from the outside. Not only is every child an individual, but every child's relationship with their parents is unique also. In terms of football coaching, this has challenged me to be more open-minded to certain parenting styles that used to frustrate me. I have learnt that there is no such thing as perfect parenting, some days it is simply a matter of survival. I am still a beginner parent. I have lots to learn. 

More than ever, being a parent has meant a resurfacing of all my frustration around schooling. My brilliant, curious, chaotic 3-year old - and all his brilliant, curious, chaotic peers - will start formal schooling in a couple of years time. I worry that they will school him out of his desire to learn and supress that natural desire to be wonderful and mad. As the saying goes, 'we spend the first 3 years teaching them to stand up and walk and talk, and the next 15 years (at school) teaching them to sit down and shut up'. I'm more sure than ever that the school system we send our children through needs to change dramatically in order to give children the freedom, choice, movement and opportunity to lead that they need to grow in diverse and unenvisaged ways. 

Working in school PE

In 2014 I met with a group of headteachers from the Future Zone education network in Islington. This lead to a role directing their PE Network, a group of PE subject leads from (what was then) 12 primary schools. At the beginning of this role, it was decided that I would spend one week in each of the schools, as a fly on the wall, watching all the PE that happened, in order to get an idea of where the schools were currently and provide an audit of provision from which we could plan improvements. I was very fortunate to spend 11 weeks (one school dropped out due to an Ofsted inspection) in 11 different schools, observing everything I could and being as nosey as I dared. I watched all the PE, but I also watched all the playtimes, the lunchtimes, the pre-school clubs, after-school clubs. I went on swimming trips, I went along to competitions, I watched healthy lifestyle lunchtime interventions. I was in staff meetings, I sat for long periods listening and observing in the staffrooms, I surveyed the children's views, I talked to teachers, senior leaders, meal supervisors, private coaches. I filled four notebooks full with scribbled notes, and my main conclusions were these: 

  • PE is drastically short of engagement, challenge, movement, choice and decision-making. Schools don't value PE. It is terribly underloved by adults, and yet - despite this - it is loved by most children.
  • Many children can't do the basic things you'd expect them to be able to do, like throwing and catching, and some children have already decided - by the end of primary school, often years before that - that they don't like sport, games and physical activity.
  • The pedagogies that class teachers use in the classroom to get children working at a level where their engagement in the activity reduces the likelihood of poor behaviour (e.g. working in small groups, giving ownership to children, allowing them time to experiment, differentiating an activity) are usually completely absent in a PE lesson.

I lost track of the number of times I felt genuinely sorry for the children - mostly boys - who would continually get in trouble and frustrate the teacher, usually only because they want to move and play and/or do it their own way. I knew I had a massive task to change things, but I was more motivated than ever as I realised the power of the subject to make a difference.

The work continues... I now work for the Football Association as Regional PE and Coaching in Education Co-ordinator in London. I feel happy to be working in an area where I can have an impact at community level, while working closely with individuals.

Mark Carter, February 2015 (then updated August 2018)