Play on: how video games change the way we train youth football

Yesterday’s young people will vividly remember playing football on the street: concreted knees, picked up the ball to get out of the way of oncoming traffic, ran home in the break for dinner. But football and the environment it is played in are different for today’s kids.

The majority of the next generation of professional footballers hone their talents at grassroots clubs against a backdrop of chatter about Pokemon GO, Fifa Ultimate Team and Fortnite dance celebrations. For young people, video games aren’t just a hobby but a part of life. With that in mind, perhaps encouraging children to engage in sport using terminology and processes they’re already familiar with may be a good way to improve both participation levels and sporting excellence.

The idea that games should be seen and used as a complement rather than a barrier to sport is one that Surrey FA tutor Amy Price has developed on her coaching journey. After two years spent seeing how games might positively influence young footballers as part of her master’s degree, Price has honed a process she calls “the video game approach to coaching”, which adapts fundamental aspects of game design and incorporates them into football training, allowing children to develop and grow in an environment attuned to their existing knowledge.

Price’s approach includes mission-based learning, superpowers, level-ups and even saving progress, drawing from experiences she had while playing on the Sega Mega Drive with her brothers.

“I always wanted Sonic’s fast feet ability so I could sprint through a level as quickly as possible,” she says. “In a coaching scenario, superpowers can make sessions more effective for kids. In an exercise, we could have an invincibility superpower – for example: upon receiving the ball you can’t be tackled for five seconds. These superpowers are temporary and, when they get them, the children have to use the time they have wisely and work out how it will help them overcome the problem they’re facing in the session.”

You can’t display input buttons during a football coaching session or turn the difficulty down to help less developed players find an equal footing. Instead, Price focuses on the type of rewards that popular games provide, as well as some unique ideas and learning tools derived from them.

“Kids are motivated by instant gratification, which is usually the result of masked learning, and it’s something video games do well,” she says. “The idea is that when someone plays a video game, they don’t think they’re learning – but ultimately they are, otherwise they wouldn’t want to continue playing. Video games offer players the chance to understand a problem and find a solution – especially modern games, where there usually isn’t only one answer. They give players a sense of ownership and empowerment, and in coaching, we’ve gone from being coach-centred to being more player-centred.”

This is a fundamental change to how young players are coached, encouraging them to find solutions for themselves rather than follow a coach’s instructions. “As in video games, we want choices and decisions in football to be directed by the player,” explains Price, “which gets them to think in more detail and depth around the problem, rather than simply being presented with answers.

“As coaches or teachers, we’re trained to spot mistakes or identify who needs help or is forging ahead – the best problem-solvers are the ones who are able to realise that they’re finding something hard or easy, and they need help,” explains Price. “It’s like a pause button – we want players to use the pause button to give them a chance to reassess what they’re doing during an exercise.”

Price’s approach is prompting other coaches to think about how to teach footballing principles to children. A game such as Fortnite may seem a million miles away from the World Cup pitch, but in certain respects they’re not so different: both require calmness under pressure, fast reactions and on-the-spot problem solving.

So many moments in the world’s most popular sport are defined by split-second decisions and individual brilliance. Video games can help the next generation of footballers fine-tune their brain without even realising it. In Fortnite, a decision taken during the heat of battle may mean virtual life or death; on the football pitch, a well-tuned mind could be the difference between jubilation or despair.