Playing youth sports can be one of the best experiences of a child’s life. Football is the biggest and most popular sport in Britain – but what’s the best age to get started?
I’ve always been a massive sports fan, and have played football almost my entire life. In the garden at home as a toddler, in the playground at nursery, for my primary school and high school teams, for the town I grew up in, for my university, and for the past 12 years as part of a fantastic local men’s amateur team (and more recently in the veterans’ league, but I don’t like to talk about that).
Playing football has given me some of the happiest and most memorable times of my life, created friendships that have lasted decades, and instilled in me a work ethic, competitiveness and sense of teamwork that translates into almost everything I do in my day-to-day life. But more than anything, it’s just brilliant fun.
Plant the seed early
My son was just a few days old when he wore his first football colours (a Burnley FC baby grow, thanks to pushy Uncle Pete) and I’ve been singing footy songs and bouncing balls around him every day of his life. Pushy parent? Probably. But knowing what great experiences football has given me over the past 30+ years, I just want to make sure Sonny doesn’t miss out.
As soon as he could walk he was trying to kick a ball, and it snowballed pretty quickly from there. Now we play in the garden whenever the weather lets us (we’ve got a couple of foam indoor balls for rainy day emergencies), we sit on the sofa together watching live footy on TV, and Sonny regularly asks me if he can watch videos of his hero Mo Salah scoring goals on YouTube. He’s only just turned 3 years old, but the passion already seems to be burning.
Learn the basics at home
I’ve taught him how to kick and head a ball, tackle like a madman, dribble down the garden, smash shots into his mini goal, celebrate like a Premier League superstar, and he even came with me to watch Liverpool’s Champions League winner’s parade with 750,000 screaming fans! But what he really wanted was to start playing with other kids.
I checked out a few national companies who run sessions for toddlers locally, but what they all wanted was an up-front commitment of around 10 weeks and a lump-sum payment in advance. Because we’re massively disorganised and never know what we’re doing from one weekend to the next, that seemed a bad idea. Plus, what if Sonny hated it the first time and didn’t want to go back?
Find a good local club
So I contacted our local semi pro club, St Ives Town, and found out that they run a fantastic session on Saturday mornings for 3-6 year olds. No long-term commitment or course to book on to – just £3 a session and turn up when you want. The following weekend Sonny was down there in his full Liverpool kit, big smile on his face charging around the pitch with some of his little mates from nursery and around 20 other kids.
The sessions are run by qualified FA coaches who make every session fun and exciting for these starry-eyed young kids who already look like they’re dreaming of being pro footballers. It’s a big ask for them to concentrate for a full hour, but he’s come away from every session eager to go back the following week and hopefully that’s a sign of things to come.
Don’t push them too hard
I’m not (quite) one of those crazy dads who’s going to push his kid towards becoming a professional footballer. More than anything I just want him to find a hobby he loves, whether that’s football, tennis, horse riding, dancing, chess – anything.
Starting them early seems to have worked well for us so far, and I love that he’s started his first proper sessions with our local club. Grassroots football is a wonderful thing in England and we’re lucky to have so many clubs run by so many dedicated and passionate volunteers. Long may it continue!!!
The Outdoor Dad Verdict – What’s the best age for children to play football?
At home, get them started as soon as they’re confident on their feet with a small, lightweight ball. If they’re enjoying it and want to start playing with other kids, in my experience three years old is a great age to start taking them to organised coaching sessions.