Football is a simple game and nowhere more so than at youth level, where children instinctively connect the dots and know to put the round thing into the net – or between the jumpers. In coaching, we tend to worry too much about how successful teams of yesteryear were formed rather than looking forward and taking advantage of modern methods and tools.
Youngsters don’t live in the same world Kenny Dalglish or Denis Law grew up in. City streets are no longer littered with footballs – at least in Scotland –but while children are now restricted in ways their fathers and grandfathers weren’t offline, they have greater freedom of expression and exploration online.
Playing video games such as Fifa can help players pick up the intricacies of the sport at a young age. By the time they are six years old, a lot of children are already aware of 4-4-2, 3-5-2, wingers, defensive midfielders and the key attributes that make the best players the best.
Fifa is influencing how modern coaches train players. Its features and terminology allow coaches to explain exercises and build rapport with young players. Sweaty finishes (when a player is one-on-one with a keeper and then passes the ball sideways to a team-mate who can score into an empty net) is a phrase that originally came from Fifa. In youth football development sessions, “sweaties” is now a familiar shout but term wouldn’t exist without if not for video games.
Fifa shows young players the technical, tactical and analytical side of football in a way that wasn’t possible a generation ago. For example, the Ultimate Team mode requires you to put together a team based on a random selection of players you receive from packs – it’s the modern-day equivalent of Panini stickers. Although it’s not just a case of picking a formation and players. Your team’s rank will significantly improve if the balance (or “chemistry” as it is called in the game) is correct. This feature of Fifa encourages gamers to put players in their correct positions, take note of which foot they kick with, who they might play better alongside and take advantage of a player’s specific attributes, whether it be blistering pace or a high level of tackling.
Fifa is drip-feeding the more thoughtful parts of the game to youngsters, whose football brains are becoming more advanced than those of previous generations. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who “could go 10 hours at a stretch” on the PlayStation while growing up, says he “often spot solutions in the games that I then parlayed into real life.” Alex Iwobi says his experience of playing the game has helped him assess opponents: “I look at his name and then try to remember how good he was on Fifa.”
The influence of video games can also be seen in other sports. Young Formula 1 driver Max Verstappen honed his skills on computer games. He says that racing on simulated versions of F1 tracks influenced a number of his successful overtaking manoeuvres – most famously at the Belgian Grand Prix in 2015, when he used a move he had perfected in a sim racing programme to overtake Felipe Nasr around the outside of a high-speed corner.
Stevie Grieve, who has worked within youth football all over the world, thinks coaches should take advantage of Fifa as a tool rather than bemoan the fact that kids play it. “When I first moved to India four years ago all the kids played Fifa,” he says. “I remember trying to explain to them that in build up you use safe passes but in the final third we maybe use more risky passes. We’re trying to use the scenarios and words they’re already familiar with through Fifa to give them a more thoughtful understanding of the game.
“I found that it actually helped them very quickly, going from having zero understanding of anything to do with structure and tactics to getting it fairly quickly. If we’re going to use computer games as learning tools it should be about teaching them how to play football better and giving them some tactical ideas.”
The FA recently changed its way of thinking, revamping its entire set-up and installing an “English DNA” in how they want the game to be played at all ages. This philosophy is now being taught in their coaching qualifications. At Level 2, coaches are expected to take heed of the players’ social environment away from the football pitch, which includes video games such as Fifa.
Playing Fifa is being encouraged as something that can improve footballers. Of course, it’s not the main focus, but it’s easier to coach children with words, phrases and scenarios they already know and Fifa can be a useful translator. It is the most successful sports video game franchise in history and at coaching sessions it’s probably easier to count the number of boys and girls who have not played the game.
Marion Waddell, who works as part of the SFA’s development team, says this approach has not quite caught on in Scotland. “Whilst we don’t actively promote or use video games on our courses, we are very aware that a number of coaches are now talking to young players using terms associated with these games.”
Grieve thinks this reluctance to embrace new ideas is a mistake. “In Scotland we are sceptical of anything new. If you speak to anybody of the generation who are maybe 35 or 40 onwards, their retort would be: ‘Well, nobody else is doing it’. We’re never at the front of the pack, never dragging anything forward or doing anything different to anyone else. As a result, when somebody else does it well, we go: ‘Oh, let’s go and speak to them about how they did it.’”
Coaches should be innovative in their methods and use concepts familiar to children. If that means allowing the next generation to play a bit more Fifa to learn the advantages of pressing or positioning, so be it. Take those ideas on to the training pitch and use them productively. The children are already playing these games, so we should embrace their knowledge and use it to make them better players.