Bonding with the ball

Tom Byer

In 2014, Mr. Gao, general manager of Beijing Guoan, the professional Chinese football team, visited me in Tokyo where I live. Mr. Gao, along with several assistants attended a football event I was doing in Yokohama for approximately 800 kids. I remember Mr. Gao’s expression when he saw that there were 800 kids, and only my assistant and me to conduct the event.

The assistant helping me with the event was Asako Takakura, the current Japanese women’s national team head coach, who will manage the women’s team in the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup in France this summer.

Mr. Gao had read an article written by a well-known Chinese journalist, Ma Dexing, which dressed me up with a picture and a caption, “The Godfather of Japanese Football.” I had received a call asking me if I would do an interview with Ma who was in Tokyo writing a story about Japanese football. I agreed to do the interview which lasted nearly an hour. Ma spent three days with me and we discussed many things regarding Japanese football development. The article sparked Mr. Gao’s interest in my work in Japan. This encounter led me to signing on with Beijing Guoan to develop a grassroots program modelled after some of the work I had done in Japan.

In 2015, there was much talk in China about the government planning to create a policy making football compulsory in schools. There was a plan to designate nearly 20,000 schools as football schools. Today, there are 50,000 football schools throughout China. Here is the story on how Beijing got a leg up before the nationwide policy was implemented.

Beijing Guoan was contacted by the Beijing Bureau of Education and asked if they could create a pilot program for five elementary schools. The program started in September 2015 but after a few months, Mr. Gao was not happy with the way things were going and brought me in to devise a strategy for a longer term. The plan was to work at these five designated schools and train both physical education teachers and external coaches who were linked to the professional team. I was to create a model, which would be scalable for the rest of Beijing and perhaps the rest of China. The kids that we worked with, starting from age six had never played football.

I’ve taught football to thousands of kids. It’s hard to keep track of them all. But I frequently record the sessions I supervise on video and review them afterward.

One of these sessions was part of a pilot program I had created for the Beijing Bureau of Education. We focused on kids learning the core skills needed to build a foundation for technical competency. We also had to educate the parents on what the program entailed and the goals we had set. Parents are also an intricate part of kids learning technical skills.

But it wasn’t just about learning the skills. It was about taking kids who were not athletic and had little or no experience of football or, indeed, any other sport. In other words, we had a blank slate.

So, what can be done with such kids?
One thing that cannot be done is throw them on a football pitch and play a game to see how good they are. That’s a recipe for instant failure. It’s also a recipe for crushing a child’s confidence not only as an athlete, but also as a person. Football is a competitive game, but at this age and at this level, we’re not interested in the competitive side of football; we’re interested in the potential of individual children to acquire fundamental skills and to gain confidence so that they are able to eventually participate in games and have a positive experience.

How do we do this?
Well, you encourage children – and they don’t have to have any athletic history or even be athletically inclined – to master simple skills. Basically, you teach them how to control the ball. Each has his/her own ball and they are encouraged to bond with the ball so they learn to master it. It’s a self-motivating exercise whereby the children are given simple, achievable tasks that help to improve self-esteem, and this gives them something to hold on to early in their learning to spur them on and improve further.

On this particular day, I was supervising a group of children on a school sports ground. There was nothing remarkable about the group or the session and I wasn’t focusing on any particular aspect but, as usual, I was recording the session so I could review it later.

I noticed one kid in this group. He was easy to spot because he was the biggest kid in the class. He was quite tall but also heavy and he had poor coordination. He didn’t look like a ‘footballer,’ but he fitted the profile of a child I could help.

We’re not looking to finesse the high achievers in our football classes; we’re looking to transform the low achievers into high achievers. In order to increase individual technical ability, the key is to concentrate on making the worst players better and expanding the pool of technically competent players. You do this by showing the low achievers a pathway to competence and raising their level so that they become active and positive participants able to compete with the ‘high achievers.’

One important aspect of what I’m doing is working with kids who have never touched a football before. This is a rarity in sports coaching where usually the good kids get all the attention and the low achievers are largely ignored.

When I first saw ‘Little Chen,’ he wasn’t a high achiever. Most people wouldn’t have expected him to achieve anything at all. In China’s one-child world, kids are precious. For the parents, studying is important; sports is a distraction and is regarded as dangerous.

Little Chen was noticed because he wasn’t interested in participating. He sat on the sidelines. You could see a fear of failure, humiliation even, in his eyes. He didn’t believe.

It took some time, but eventually he grabbed a ball and joined in. The ball was at his feet and I’m not sure if he could see, feel, or sense it, but he was taking the first step. The requirement was to dribble up the pitch as fast as possible using both feet, turn and come back again. He tried. He was committed to the task, but the task wasn’t easy. It was outside his realm of experience.

Why? Because Little Chen, who was around seven years old, had never done anything like this before. He had difficulty controlling his ball, his body language was wrong, as he chased his ball, his running was laboured, and you could see his confidence was deflated. I hoped he would make progress but it was hard to have much confidence.

I visited his school on a monthly basis and tried to encourage him. The key was to give him simple tasks with the ball that I knew he could master. I went back to the school several months later. The school had selected some kids to demonstrate what they’d been learning and practicing. Little Chen was one of them.

Little Chen held the ball with his foot as he waited his turn. Then he set off with the ball, moved it from foot to foot and – I’m not kidding – almost danced down the pitch before turning and dancing back the other way. He’s still a big kid, but in his mind he’s an athlete. His self-belief screams at you from the video screen. You can see that he wants to say, ‘I can play football.’

I took him aside later and told him if we were picking a team for a game, I’d select him. He just beamed with pride. His mother was on the verge of tears. She said she hadn’t seen her son smile like that for a long time.

The reality is that in schools in most countries around the world, Little Chen wouldn’t get a look-in, wouldn’t get encouragement and wouldn’t get to see, let alone realize, his potential. He’d be lucky to get a game of any kind either inside or outside school. In my football schools, Little Chen is the star.

Coaches, physical education teachers and parents should understand the power and influence that playing sports can have on a child’s development. In physical education classes too, teachers only get the kids to play games without getting them to master the basic skills to enjoy playing. We need to be aware of this and although I realize sometimes classes can be very big, kids need to learn the basics before being thrown into a full pressure game.

Also, the role that parents play is crucial when it comes to playing sports.

My book, Football starts at home, with the foreword and afterword written by Dr. John Ratey, Associate Professor at Harvard Medical School and renowned neuropsychiatrist, talks to parents in a simple and straightforward way. After collaborating with Dr. Ratey these past few years, I have gained incredible insight into the important role parents play regarding their child’s development in sports and education. Today, most of my work centres around the connection between the child and the parent. The experiment I did with my two boys from the time they started walking has proved to me the influence parents have. Placing tiny balls around my home and encouraging my kids to pull the ball back rather than kick aimlessly turned out to be a game changer. The home acts as a safe, protective environment away from outside ridicule. Parents need to understand a child’s need for parental approval. When a child learns in an emotionally charged environment, that’s when deep learning and long-term memory develops. Coaches are, of course, important but the role that parents play, especially early in life seems to make the big difference whether a child excels at sports or not.

There are many ways to promote sports. I believe that sport starts at home first and is reinforced at school. Culture is a massive influencer as well. A strategy in the absence of culture doesn’t get you very far. I believe this is the reason that out of 211 FIFA Member Associations, only eight have ever won a World Cup. There is no special sauce for developing players in these countries other than that there is a culture in place, which is conducive to developing players. Kids in Brazil don’t fall in love with football. They fall in love with the ball! That leads to falling in love with the game! As the saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. I think whoever said that was on to something!

Some exercises with the ball

The challenge for physical education teachers cannot be understated. In China, the classes are very large in size with many students and often there is only one teacher. Our approach is to get kids working on their own – one child, one ball. This is also challenging because many schools may not have one ball per child. If not, try to have small groups of two to three kids.

Mastering the ball is the key. There are many exercises that kids can do by themselves with a ball. What you’re trying to facilitate is a relationship between the child and the ball. Children have a natural instinct to kick randomly at a ball, but the trick here is to help them control the ball. This can be done by discouraging kicking and encouraging the kids to pull the ball back with the soles of their feet. Think of the two feet as teammates. When one foot moves, the other follows. You can start by having the ball in front of the player and he/she pulls it back with the sole of their right foot and then gently pushes the ball forward with the instep of the same foot. Instep would be where the laces are on the shoe. They alternate pulling/pushing the ball with the right and left foot. It’s all about repetition and mastering certain skills. There are a few things children can do to develop new neural pathways for the brain using their feet. Manipulating the ball is one of them! Many exercises are built around using both feet equally.

Another exercise is to place the ball between your legs. Open up your stance and place the ball at the inside of the right foot. Then, place your left foot on top of the ball and drag it over to the left side. Next you do the same with your right foot by dragging the ball back to the right side. So you’re alternatively gliding the ball between both the legs. This helps in coordination, body balance, and synchronization, using both feet. This is all while you are standing in one place and not moving around.

The next step would be to do the same exercise as above but this time you are moving around. Every time you take a step, you touch the ball and move forward, going in any direction.

Another exercise will be to stand with your legs spread apart and placing the ball in front of the right or left foot. If the ball is on the right foot you have to reach it with your left foot and pull the ball back with the sole of your foot and then push it out with the inside of the same foot. You have to alternate your feet and you will be moving the ball back and forth in a V formation. If you are practicing on a dirt field, you could even mark the ground in front of you with a big V and work within that.

The next progression would be to doing this same exercise while moving forward. Every time you step forward, you pull the ball back with one foot and move in the same direction when you push the ball forward.

The last exercise would be toe tapping. While jogging in place, you tap the ball between your right and left foot many times. At first it will be challenging for kids but they will get used to it. This can also be done on the move while moving forward.

You can divide the class into rows with five or six kids in each row and control 20-30 kids like this. You can mark the field out with cones and divide the kids into half so they are touching the ball maximum time with not much waiting in between. Repetition is key for these exercises to master the ball.

I would suggest playing small games of 1v1 or 2v2, 3v3 or 4v4. Smaller the group, the better. Kids like to do two things. They like to have the ball at their feet and they like to score goals. So give it to them and you will be surprised how much fun they have. The biggest challenge is managing many kids in a small space in the allotted time you have during PE class!

The author is former AFC Technical Consultant and Chinese School Football Program Technical Advisor. He can be reached at

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