Young soccer stars give it their best shot

With plenty of clubs to choose from, the soccer stars of the future are spoiled for choice, write Tara Jenkins and Karen Pittar

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2012, 1:52pm

Judging by the growth of soccer schools and children's leagues in recent years, youngsters in Hong Kong are getting a real kick out of the beautiful game.

Children can now sign up for a plethora of coaching schemes, ranging from Hong Kong Football Club's volunteer-run junior programme to those affiliated with international clubs. The Hong Kong Junior Football League, a long-time fixture on children's sporting calendars, is now supplemented by the Development League and the Community League, as well as soccer sevens competitions.

"The power of sport and football is very strong," says Dave Stewart, football programme development manager of ChelseaFC Soccer School, which is linked to the Premier League club in London.

"Some children want to play to chase their dream of becoming a professional footballer ... Footballers have to work extremely hard every day, be dedicated to their training, and live a certain lifestyle to stay in peak physical condition. Hopefully, this hard work can inspire children to work hard in life, regardless of what it is they want to achieve."

For other children, soccer is a way to make friends and stay active.

"At the core of all these different reasons, though, is the same goal - to have fun and enjoy playing the game," says Stewart.

Girls' teams are gaining strength in junior soccer, and high-profile athletes like Carli Lloyd, the US midfielder who scored the two goals in this year's Olympic final, will undoubtedly help pave the way for a new generation of female players.

In fact, "girls' football is probably one of the fastest growing areas of the youth football scene in Hong Kong," says Chris Plowman, chairman of HKFC Junior Soccer. "Just this season there is a new all-girls league being set up, and at HKFC Junior Soccer we are starting two all-girls squads at Under 12 and Under 14 levels."

According to Paul Smith, director of Asia Pacific Soccer Schools, this is a worldwide trend, and Fifa, the sport's governing body, has made girls' soccer a major focus of its work. Although still in its infancy, Smith has seen big improvements in the girls' game over the past couple of years: his colleagues coach a group of more than 60 girls at the Kowloon Cricket Club, and there are many good programmes set up by clubs and schools.

Carolyn Champion's 12-year-old-daughter Avery, for example, has been active in organised soccer for four years. Her family, who are from Ontario, Canada, started Avery on soccer when they arrived in Hong Kong seven years ago because the sport is so accessible here.

"We are historically not a soccer family; it isn't really popular at home and we wouldn't have played if we were in Canada," Champion says. "But it was offered at school on Saturdays at the Stanley Ho Sports Centre. We had moved to Pok Fu Lam, which meant it was just down the road; we would drive past and see kids playing on the pitch and decided to give it a go."

Avery quickly took to it: she is now in a competitive programme playing for Hong Kong International School's Under 13 squad as well as AC Milan.

Soccer is particularly suited to the mix of global nomads in Hong Kong, Champion says.

"Hong Kong is such a transient city, it's important to find a sport that is international, [especially] if you are a family that moves a lot. Football is played all over the world, so moving from Korea to Britain to Canada, you'll always be able to find programmes for young kids."

With so many classes available, it can be hard to figure out which is the right one for your child.

Anita Cowley, whose 10-year-old son Max has been playing competitively for three years, suggests checking with other parents whose children are enrolled in various clubs, since they will have first-hand experience. Most will offer trial sessions, so it's a good idea to get your child to try it out and watch how the training is run before making any decisions.

"You want a club that is well run, has good coaches and a good training programme to help develop your child as they get older, and give them the opportunity to play in tournaments," Cowley says.

Each programme adopts a slightly different approach, but all agree that for most young children, football is primarily about fitness, building skills and motivation. Still, with some offering classes to toddlers as young as two or three, training seems to be something of a misnomer.

Philippe Bru, managing director of AC Milan Soccer Schools, reckons it's not too young to begin at age two.

"We have a tots session for younger children, and between the ages of three and five, we can see students really benefit from having a coach and taking part in structured football classes. We also have a manual for each group age, [so] a five-year-old is going to a different session to a 10-year-old and so on."

At HKFC, the Junior Soccer programme starts at the Under 6 category for players aged five.

"Playing younger than this age certainly does no harm, but we believe that this is the optimum age where players can receive and understand simple instructions from coaches," says Plowman. "Our approach is for players at the youngest levels to learn to train; then as they develop, learn to play; and finally, at the older age groups, learn to compete."

And with young people increasingly living their lives online, soccer is an excellent way to encourage regular exercise.

Of course, soccer isn't just about being able to kick a ball, Plowman says. It also teaches a broad range of abilities - good balance, effective running, eye to ball co-ordination - all of which come in useful in other sports. And as a team game, it teaches interpersonal skills and the advantages of working together.

Smith agrees. "It gets children mixing outside their normal school groups. It hopefully introduces them to fair play and self-discipline."

As a parent, Champion appreciates the incentive for youngsters to get active. "It appeals to so many different children, from all walks of life … Kids can start at an early age and get that fitness up from when they are young."

Talented youngsters in Hong Kong will get a boost this year as local first division champions Kitchee have joined with the Hong Kong Football Association to open a soccer academy for secondary school students, to groom future stars. Kitchee has been running a programme for young children, initially with Barcelona's soccer school, for the past three years.

Bru says soccer schools should motivate students but the impetus must also come from parent and child, as regular training is vital. Youngsters playing in competition have to train at least twice a week, and work on their specific skills.

Asia Pacific Soccer Schools organises young recruits in a pyramid structure. The school is associated with the Asia Pacific Football Academy, so top talents may be offered residential courses at its New Zealand campus, Smith says. This can tap into a network of clubs in the international leagues, such as the English Premier League and Spain's La Liga. In the US, he adds, universities remain the main pathway into the professional game in the country, through Major League Soccer.

As Plowman sees it, talent is in the genes. "It's impossible to train talent into a player. Talented players [often] have parents or grandparents who played a high level in the sport. That said, without proper coaching and guidance, talent alone will not enable to the player to reach their optimum performance level."

Then again, the primary aim of the HKFC junior programme, he says, isn't so much to identify and groom players for the professional game as to enable youngsters to reach their full potential in the sport, whatever level that is.

However, the most promising players are selected at trials for their youth development programme, under which they may advance to senior competitive squads at HKFC. The club also aims to groom talent for national squads, Plowman says, adding that five players have been selected to represent Hong Kong at various age groups.

Youth soccer is very competitive but that's a good thing, Cowley says. "Not all children get selected, so this does make it competitive and makes them work hard ... The children enjoy the tournaments - it shows them if they work hard and improve then they can win their games, and it teaches them how to lose graciously. It's also an opportunity for parents to watch them play at their best."

Champion has high hopes for her daughter. "Soccer for girls is not as competitive as we would like [here] - they simply don't have the pool of children to choose from. We are considering schools overseas for Avery because we want more competition for her.

"When we do return to Canada we will hopefully have her play at a much higher level."

But how do parents know if their child is ready for structured lessons? Plowman cites HKFC Junior Soccer's code of conduct: not to force an unwilling child to participate.

"Our philosophy is that it is the child who should decide if he or she wants to learn to play the game. At the youngest levels, some gentle encouragement to join is fine.

"Structured coaching should not take the place of informal play, whether it's soccer or another activity. Playing with dad, mum or siblings, on the beach, in the garden or wherever, is just as important."