FIELD research study findings

How the findings may impact modern day football

By Les Howie - FA Head of Grassroots Coaching

Les Howie - FA Head of Grassroots Coaching

When I first read the headlines from the FIELD study’s findings I was initially concerned – who wouldn’t be as a parent and a football coach? The former players analysed in the FIELD study range from people born between 1900 and 1976 – the latter covering the period of when I first started playing and coaching some 40 years ago. 

The game has moved on, but despite this, we can’t – and won’t – take these results lightly. We now need to get to the bottom of any possible links between football and degenerative neurological disease, which is something we're committed to doing.

Like many of my generation I would play football in the street until the sun went down. Impromptu games between street teams where it really was jumpers for goalposts. The ball we played with then was either a cheap plastic ball, a hard plastic replica, or if you were lucky a real leather football. Back in those days, the old-fashioned leather balls had thick laces and they used to get wet and heavy. Thankfully the times, and designs of the footballs over the years, have evolved.

This was a time when everyone, regardless of age, played 11-a-side football. Imagine a child under ten on a full-size pitch defending full-size goals. The very nature of the game encouraged players to kick the ball long and in the air. If we fast-forward to the late 90s, society had changed, and many places no longer had street football. The back lanes I played football in as a kid now have cars parked there and the fields that we used now have houses. So, for many, the emphasis is now placed on more organised football.

One of my first jobs upon joining The FA was to develop and promote Mini Soccer – to get children under ten playing on smaller pitches, with smaller goals and with appropriate-sized balls, encouraging possession-based football and moving away from the long-ball game. This meant fewer players on each team, putting the emphasis on players to have greater involvement in the games, while using smaller footballs that were more appropriate for the age group. 

The introduction of Mini Soccer was just one of several recommendations in The FA Charter for Quality. Importantly, it raised the standards and quality of play and those benefits can still be seen today, some 20 years later.

In 1998, when we surveyed the game before the introduction of Mini Soccer, less than 1% of youth teams had a qualified coach. Today, The FA trains over 27,000 coaches every season across Level 1, Level 2 and UEFA B, and now over 90% of youth teams have a qualified coach. This has been a remarkable change to modernise the grassroots game and one that means more children are given qualified coaching to improve their technical and tactical abilities.

At the elite level of the game, the England technical teams reinforce the clear message for coaches and players on how the game should be developed and played. For today’s young player there is a far greater emphasis on retaining possession and not just booting it forward in the air for the tallest teammate on the pitch. The desire for young people to play football differently has also moved on. Players are now exposed to a variety of tactics and playing styles from a young age and they're regularly exposed to the modern stars in the game, not only from England but from around the world. They want to play like Manchester City or Barcelona or Liverpool – they want to stay on the ball and be technically creative.

As a coach with nearly 40 years’ experience I often reflect on how my practice has changed over the years, as I’ve grown older, more experienced and developed as a person and coach. I firmly believe we have never played the game in a more progressive or safer way.

The game has developed in other ways, too. There's now a far greater amount of knowledge and awareness about keeping players safe. We have the First Aid for Football course, which is compulsory for every new coach to do as part of their Level 1 coaching course and must renew every three years, and there's clear guidance for managing head injuries in the game. 

Head injuries are rare occurrences on a football pitch, however they need to be managed appropriately when they do happen, regardless of the level of the game. To support with this, The FA worked with medical experts to create comprehensive information on concussion management, with its Concussion Guidelines. 

There is far greater awareness these days around how to recognise and deal with head injuries and our message is clear – we don’t take risks with head injuries; we should always be vigilant; we must follow FA Concussion Guidelines, and  ‘If In Doubt, Sit Them Out’.

Heading is another important part of the rules of the game that often comes under the spotlight, and we believe it's important that heading the ball is coached correctly. We have clear coaching guidance which state that coaches should follow The FA’s recommendations. This way young players can gradually grow into understanding the best technique to heading the ball correctly.

This FIELD study is welcomed by us here at The FA and we're committed to continuing to review and improve the way we coach the game, with a progressive mindset and with player welfare always at its heart. It’s essential that the game continues to take a lead in making the game as safe as possible and we'll certainly play our part in that. 

We also know there's an element of risk when you play any sport, but we need to balance this against the large number of benefits that our great game provides. Sport gets people physically active; it helps to improve overall fitness; it builds confidence in young people, it creates opportunities to make friends, and it helps to develop social, communication and leadership skills. These are all crucial skills that help you grow as a person, regardless of your age or ability.

This weekend hundreds of thousands of young people will play our national game – a game that's centuries old but one that continues to develop and grow so that it remains relevant to the next generation.

Our job as coaches, parents and leaders in football is to ensure the game is as safe, fun and inclusive as it can be. Here at The FA, we'll continue to investigate these findings as a priority and ensure football remains safe for all involved.