Always one of the most divisive issues, streaming (placing players of a similar ability together in teams) is something we fully support at Langton Green at the right age. Somewhere around U10-U11 football seems to be the best time to start to do this and as someone who ended up managing the “middle” team of 3 in my age group I am a firm believer in it having worked brilliantly for the players I now have.

If you don’t stream as an age group, you may have the following potential issues:

  • Stronger players aren't challenged by playing against players of a similar (or better) ability level and end up being the superstar week after week, playing at a level that's too easy for them.
  • Weaker players rely on their more able team mates to do everything whilst they get less of the ball and so don't develop. They may enjoy playing in a winning team, but ask yourself how much the player who stands at the back whilst their superstar team mate scores 5 goals a game is actually developing as a player?
  • Frustration, loss of confidence, players blaming others who consistently struggle to contribute at the level you're playing at.
  • Leagues being unable to place your teams in the appropriate divisions as they can't have you all in the same division and some divisions will be harder than others. Better to have stronger teams in stronger divisions and weaker teams in weaker divisions.
  • Your best players potentially leaving to join a club that has streamed so they can play at a higher level, with and against better players.

Helping People Understand the Benefits

In many cases, the children will not be happy about the idea that they're moving teams, especially if their stronger team mates are leaving to join a stronger team or they are one of the children moving from the "best" team to a weaker team. They probably won't understand why they can't just carry on as things are and concepts like "player development" aren't going to mean much to many 10 year olds. Some of the key things to consider when streaming, that you can reference with parents when broaching the subject:

  • The right level of challenge - playing with and against players of a similar ability level to you allows you to improve in a way that you won't if you're either way out of your depth or waltzing through every game scoring 10 goals a match.
  • Equal game time - this may well have been the case previously, if your philosophy was such that you rotated fairly, but the reality is that a lot of the "weaker" players may well have found themselves subbed off more than the stronger ones. Much easier for a coach, especially once football becomes competitive, to stick to equal game time if the players are all of a reasonably similar level and the team is playing at the right level.
  • Confidence - playing with and against similar ability players means the child who struggled to get in the game when they were one of the weaker players in their previous team will find themselves contributing far more. Suddenly becoming the top scorer, player of the match, best defender on the pitch etc. can do wonderful things for their confidence.
  • Making new friends - actually, for their long term social development, being used to making new friends rather than staying in their "safe" group of friends can be a great skill to acquire. When the children move to secondary school, having a wider group of friends through having played football with lots of different people is a huge advantage in terms of fitting in.

Another point to watch out for that is often not considered... everyone thinks the biggest problem will be for the players moving to the "weaker" streamed teams, but the player who was the superstar in their old team, who then joins a team full of other superstars might find their confidence suffering just as much. Watch out for this and look to give that player challenges and praise that helps them make the transition and still feel good about their contribution.

Having said the above, the biggest hurdle to streaming effectively is usually the coaches and the parents, not the kids. General experience is that after a few weeks of being disappointed that they’re not playing with the same team, the kids are enjoying themselves more playing at a level more suited to their current ability level. It’s the adults who are still moaning about it!

Getting a Balance

Whilst there are a lot of very good arguments for streaming and continuing to tweak the make up of each team as players develop at different rates, there are a couple of points to make with regard to not over-streaming too frequently and in some cases, not streaming at all...

  • Firstly, it's very hard to build a team spirit and sense of identity as a team if the players are constantly changing. Once streaming has happened initially, small tweaks when players are blatantly too strong / struggling or unhappy for some other reason are all that should be required or you run the risk of constantly undermining the work of the coaches.
  • Second (and this only works in one direction), some very good players just don't want to be streamed. Don't force them. Explain the benefits to them and their parents, but it may be that they just love playing with their 3 best mates and want to stay with them. So let them. Football should be primarily enjoyable and it isn't everyone's ambition to push themselves as far as they can by playing at a higher level.
  • There may be family reasons why certain players can't be streamed. Twins where one player is much stronger than the other for example may simply mean both have to be in the same team as they can't both get to games otherwise.

Getting Parents Onside

Each parent can make a huge difference to their own child in terms of making the whole idea palatable to their kids. If the parents are onside with you and delivering all the positive messages about why their child is moving teams, the children are much more likely to be okay with it. Explaining to the parents that this is going to be happening, getting their views on how best to approach it and being clear that you want their help in terms of helping the children to view it positively is seriously worth doing. If they're just "told" and feel no thought is being given to how their children might feel about this or told what the positives will be, then you may find some of them getting quite upset by the idea.

Getting Coaches Agreeing!

The other difficult aspect to this is going to be the coaches. If you're the coach of the new streamed strongest team, chances are you're very happy. But if you're going to be losing the best 3 players in your existing team and it's been decided you're coaching the "weakest" of the new streamed teams, you may have worries about how your new team will fair and how you'll enjoy coaching them.

One thing I would say is that being involved in a “weaker” team doesn’t necessarily equate to a lack of enjoyment or success in the future. When our age group were U12s, after streaming had happened, our “C” team made it to the cup final of the Crowborough League cup and the following season, our “B” team won the A division of the Crowborough League, going unbeaten all season. And we still had an “A” team playing at the highest grassroots level available in the Kent Youth League and finishing upper-table and a "D" team playing in the B division of the Crowborough league and finishing in the top half of the table too.

How you decide who is coaching which team is often a difficult thing to navigate. Usually it would come down to coaches' children and which team suited them. But it may also come down to the skills of the individual coaches - some people are very good at (and enjoy) developing "weaker" players, whilst others find they struggle with that.

So, communication between the coaches and an approach that really looks at what is best for the children is an absolute must. There are plenty of folks who have been through it before who can offer advice and would be happy to do so.

Thinking Ahead

In terms of preparing players (and parents) for streaming, there are a couple of things you can do if you think ahead a bit...

  • Train together as an age group sometimes - this will get the players used to coaches and players from the other teams and give them a chance to make friends with them. If it comes to then moving teams, having a couple of friends on the team already or at least being familiar with the other players, will make a big difference.
  • Swapping players for occasional matches - at the younger age groups, where you are allowed to swap players week to week in matches, maybe have a policy where if one team is a bit short one week, they can borrow from another side. Again, the players will start to get used to other players from other teams.
  • Dual registration - in the older age groups, players can be dual registered if you play in different leagues (not different divisions in the same league, but entirely different leagues). This allows you to dual register several players between teams. They have a "main" team, but are available to play for the other team when they're short and their main team is oversubscribed or don't have a match. We always try to think about which players might be in a position to step up (or need to step down) at the end of the next season and dual register those players accordingly. It gives the coaches a chance to see those players at a different level (and see if they can cope if it's a step up) and help the kids get used to any potential new teammates, without even knowing what we're doing.
The more opportunities you can take to get your players comfortable with the other players in their age group, the easier it will be to stream. Whilst there are clear advantages to creating a tight-knit group, if you're too insular as a team, you will find streaming much more difficult.

A Final Point...

Remember, when considering the make up of the streamed teams, the "best" individuals don't always make the best team (having 8 skilful attacking players who shirk a tackle in the same team isn't going to work*)… and of course those who shone at age 10 aren’t always the same ones who shine at age 13, so the whole thing needs constant review and flexibility to be effective.

*re: positions... those of us who've been through the age groups have seen enough kids swearing blind (actually, normally it was their parents swearing blind) that they're centre forwards at age 10, yet ending up being fantastic central defenders, to prove that this can change enormously.

A Final, Final Point...

You can’t keep everyone happy. It’s impossible. What’s best for the majority has to be what you go with.