There comes an age when everyone looks younger, but football players really are getting younger - thanks to new classes turning tots into fledgling stars. Jayne Dawson reports.
Football star are getting younger - and in Leeds toddlers are being taught how to take their very first steps into the beautiful game thanks to a sporty new council programme.
The recently-launched Striker 4 Tots classes are teaching budding Beckhams aged just two to four some of the basic, fundamental skills that could start them on the path to playing football at any level.
Working with qualified coaches, the children learn to improve their agility, balance and coordination through games and activities as well as developing their football skills with and without a ball.
Currently running at seven of Leeds City Council’s leisure centres, the classes have already proved popular with around 70 youngsters and there are hopes the extend the programme to other centres.
Phil Riley, Leeds City Council’s Striker 9 manager, who launched Striker 4 Tots in September 2013, said: “Football is bigger than ever now and there are so many ways that people can get involved in the game at different ages and levels of ability. “But there wasn’t much out there at all for very young children to learn the absolute basics so I decided to put something together.
“We have a maximum of 12 children in each class and there are lots of colours, games and activities- it’s really about introducing them to some of the ideas rather than actually playing football.
“We’re really hoping it will help them into other football projects, but I genuinely think this is the best first step into football for a young child.”
It’s not just the youngsters who reap the benefits of the course though, with parents also asked to come along and get involved in the sessions.
Every child who takes part is given a reward chart, with stickers that can be taken home and filled in by mum and dad each time they pass one of the 28 different skills, allowing children to see exactly how well they’re doing.
So far feedback from parents has been overwhelmingly positive, and it is hoped the programme will encourage even more children to take the next step, by enrolling in the council’s original Striker 9 classes.
Launched in 1999, the Striker 9 courses are now running at 14 leisure centres, with an estimated 450 children aged five to 14 taking part.
With each letter of the word Striker representing a different football skill, children progress through six different levels before going for their bronze, silver and gold awards.
New participants can also get a portfolio, where they can keep certificates and medals and track their progress through the different skills and levels.
And as well as learning to improve their individual skills, the young footballers are taught how to play as part of a team, how to be healthier and more active alongside some basic fitness and nutrition.
And with the behaviour of some professional players often coming under the spotlight, the Striker 9 participants are also be tutored in good conduct on and off the pitch.
Phil, who is a former academy coach at Bradford City and who worked with ex-Leeds United star Fabian Delph at the Valley Parade outfit’s centre of excellence, said: “I think one of the best things about Striker 9 is that it’s not so much about the kids competing against each other, the only person they’re really competing against is themselves and they can see in their log if they’re getting better and what they might need to work on.
“It’s not just about the football though - we’re teaching them how to conduct themselves properly, both in and out of football, and how important it is to be part of a team. “It’s also something that gets them out from in front of the Playstation and helps them to stay fit and healthy which can only be good.”
Striker 9 runs four, ten week courses throughout the year. So successful has the programme proved that other local authorities are now using the Leeds model to run their own children’s training classes under the Striker 9 brand.
The model is also being used in America at branches of the YMCA.
One player who came through the Striker 9 programme is student Sarah Lawn, 19, who now plays for Leeds United Ladies first team as both left wing and defender.
She said: “I used to love playing football in the playground so I asked my mum if she could find me a team. It gave me a lot of skills and much more confidence. I think the tots classes are a really good idea.”
Paul Norris is head coach for the scheme and teaches more than 100 children per week. He was a footballer, playing for Farsley Celtic and as a semi-professional for Guiseley, before swapping to coaching for Leeds City Council Leisure Services. He said: “These classes will help youngsters with all sorts of skills, from hand-eye coordination, to socialising with other children. We don’t expect them all to end up playing professional football, they can take what they learn in any direction.”
Praising the programme, Councillor Lucinda Yeadon, Leeds City Council’s executive member for leisure and skills, said: “Striker 9 has been operating for 15 years now and in that time it’s given thousands of young people in Leeds the chance to take their first step into football at sessions that are fun and friendly.
“The young people who attend may develop a love of football that lasts all the way through their lives, or they may just come along and make some new friends while having a bit of a kickabout.
“But the important thing is that the facilities and opportunities are there for them to stay active and healthy while trying something new.”
Cllr Yeadon added: “The new Striker 4 Tots classes for are really taking off too and it’s great to see that so many young children and their parents are enjoying learning some basic football skills together.
“Hopefully this will encourage a whole new generation to take up sports and we might even see some of the stars of the future coming through the ranks.”
For more information on Striker 4 Tots and Striker 9, visit www.leeds.gov.uk
STRIKER 4 TOTS FACTFILE
Each letter of Striker stands for a different football skill. They are Shooting; Turning; Running with the ball; In and out dribbling; Keep ups/control; ‘Ed the ball and Right and left foot passing.
Striker 4 Tots has four levels, with children working through 28 different skills.
Striker 9 is the largest football training programme for young people in Leeds.
Every new person enrolling in the Striker 9 course gets a free custom-designed football.