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Jul 2013
11:30 Comments (31)
What is the age to start playing football?

Youth Football

Rafa Benítez

There are many schools of thought about when to start playing sports. We have summarized all of these diverse ideas into two very concrete ones. Some authors talk about initiating sports participation during early childhood and others claim that the right time is around 10 years of age.

Although these two schools of thought seem to differ significantly, a deeper analysis would conclude that the differences are only in terminology. The authors that are pro childhood initiation into sports are referring to a general preparation towards a future sports activity; those that favour sports initiation at around 10 years of age are referring to concrete and specific work in any given sport. Therefore, the former authors are not necessarily against working on general conditioning before the child is ten.


Jose Maria Cagigal, in the prologue to the Spanish edition of Sports from Childhood (1) by Liselott Diem, says: “A human being will eventually be what his or her childhood has been.”
According to him, a human being, a person, is formed during early childhood, therefore their development during the first few years of life is very important. This concept is also valid in sport since he considers this motor development as enrichment of the person rather than as a physical and technical adaptation to a sport.

Movement is fundamental in the first three years of life. Because of his movement the child develops his ability to observe and create as well as developing his coordination skills, and subsequently, his sense of balance, space and time.

From 3 to 6 years of age a sport requires the following didactic steps, according to Liselott Diem:

1. Appropriate stimulation and setting.
2. Problem solving using trial and error.
3. Repeating, comparing and judging the results: Comprehension phase.
4. Individual variation of the basic forms: “Creative” phase.
5. Increasing difficulty of the exercises where the individual tries to repeat his own achievements and those of his peers: Recognising real aspiration.

Liselott Diem proposes a great variety of stimuli and exercises in order to improve physical skills.

The best age to acquire physical skills is from 6 to 10, according to these authors. The development of such skills is accomplished through the practice of the different sports.

Sports and games are also another way to develop motor skills. At this age the emphasis is on reacting correctly and consciously applying the proper techniques.


To recognize the optimum age to start participation in football, we need to identify some of the peculiarities of each age group (2):


The 7-year-old child may have periods in which he or she does a particular activity: Then he or she may drop it for another activity. When he or she is asked to do something the child gets tired of it quickly.


The child’s disposition towards learning new techniques is greater than at 7. Both boys and girls enjoy playing football. Their interests and attention span switch quickly between different things. Playing without supervision frequently ends in arguments.


The 9 year old likes to challenge him or herself. If something pleases the 9-year-old he or she will practice until they master the activity. The child is a very curious learner and likes to show off what he or she has learned.


The 10 year old derives pleasure from simple physical activity. They like to belong to clubs and associations. It is the age of mastering manual skills.

The 9-10 year old is interested in efficient movements and tries to accomplish particular performance levels. Numerous psychologists have agreed that the ideal age to begin motor learning should be the one in which there is no ‘crisis’ in both the physiological and psychological development.

Nicole Comuci (3) considers the age of 10 as the ideal age because at 10 the child has finished a growing phase. This period corresponds to the muscle formation that follows typical bone growth during puberty.

Considering the above observations, it is obvious that the appropriate age of football initiation varies between 9 and 10 because the child possesses many of the skills that allow him or her to master football skills easily.

But if I teach a child to play at the age of 7 and I work with him from then, wouldn't he be a better player at 12 than a child who started at 10?

In order to answer this question we should refer to the field research carried out by Susenberry (4). He concluded that the time employed in mastering a particular skill or technique can be lost if it is carried out at an inappropriate age. (He formed 4 groups of children: two 3 to 4 years olds groups and two 5 to 6 year olds groups). One 3 to 4 year olds group and one 5 to 6 year old group practiced throwing balls; the other two groups did not practice. After a period of time he noticed that the difference between the two groups of 3-4 year olds was not appreciable; however the difference between the two 5-6 year old groups was visible. This shows that it would be better to work on this skill at the 5-6 year old age group than before that age; the work done before then would not be beneficial.
The research also shows that initiation to football involves some requirements regarding pitch and goal dimensions, ball size and equipment etc which should be adapted to the age and physical constitution of the child. If we were to begin at age 7, these requirements should be considered because not to would create a multitude of bad habits and technical defects due to the child’s lack of physiological adaptation to the equipment. For example, if the ball is heavy, when he or she kicks it he or she will do it with the toe of the boot, otherwise it would not be an effective kick. Such a defective kick can become a habit and interfere with the proper kicking skill later on.

Felipe Gayoso (5) recommends the following when initiating a child to soccer:

Physical conditioning: coordination, time and space awareness and body shape.

Technical skills: (global method) trapping the ball, half-trapping with the sole and inside of the foot, cushioning of the ball with the inside and outside of the foot, dribbling with the inside and outside of the foot, kicking with the inside and the instep of the foot, heading.

A way for children to learn without getting bored is through games. A 5-a-side football game is an ideal game in the initiation stage.


The definitive conclusion is that we should encourage from birth anything that involves movement in order to prepare the child for later specific football skills at the age of 9 or 10.

(1) Liselott Diem: Deporte desde la infancia Ed. Miñon . Collection Kine.
(2) Sacado de: El niño de 7 y 8 años, el niño de 9 y 10 de Arnold Gesell y otros. Ed. Paidos.
(3) Comuci, Nicola. Italia. Enseñanza de base a los niños entre los 10 y 14 años. N., 2 de la revista: El Entrenador español de Fútbol. Octubre, 1979.
(4) Sacado de libro: La habilidad en el deporte, de Barbara Knapp. Ed. Miñon. Collection Kine.
(5) Felipe Gayoso. Iniciación al fútbol (8-14). Tesina fin de carrera INEF de Madrid.

31 Comments Send us your opinions
15/09/11 at 01:07:36 #11
Marko B
I certainly think the younger the better. Being Australian I come from a culture where sports and athletic involvement from a very young age is extremely common. The result of this is that as far as coordination and athletic ability are concerned there is a great pool of talent to choose from. The result of this is that we produce a great deal of young athletes who are able to pick up sports as they develop.
I don’t think the same can be said for football though. Many children do play football at some level at around the ages of 10 or so, and many continue to play on after this. The level they continue to play at does seem to be dependent on their involvement from the ages of 5-10 years of age. Whilst the great majority who do play seem to be able to pick up the skills and have the inherent athletic ability, the difference seems to be that those who do pick up the game later seem to lack the awareness and mentality. It seems to put them behind those who are equals in other attributes
17/09/11 at 00:44:46 #12
I don't think its possible to conclude that younger is better without taking into account the nature of the playing. I think with young kids the 'playing' of the sport should be the key - it should be an extension of play time.

By injecting serious competition at a very young age you may alienate certain children. I've read horror stories of over-zealous parents pushing children too hard and referees handling under-8s like they were playing a premiership game!

While studies like those you quote are a useful guideline surely each child will respond differently and must be considered individually? Also, rates of physical and mental maturity in children are really varied!


To enjoy the activity, whatever activity, is the key. You have to allow children to express themselves practising any sport. If they practise different sports they will choose the best for them because they will enjoy. Nobody wants to do badly, so they will repeat what they do well. if it is football, fine. I agree, the parents can't put pressure on them until they decide what they want to do. After this decision, do it well or just enjoy and don't try to be professional.
28/09/11 at 11:14:56 #13
Rafa you talk about Cagigal and Diem in your preamble and it seems to me that the principle of 'socialising' kids to the appropriate stimulation and setting could include not only motor skills but also the competitive environment. The mental aspect: being able to handle the idea of an opposition strikes me as being important. I'm not sure that it 'should' be taught when so young and we know that famous academies like Ajax and La Masia say they don't like competitive games until U-12/U-13. That may work for elite kids in an elite environment but many kids (perhaps especially in our Irish/UK context) may well lose interest without the competitive dimension - particularly at the bottom of the pyramid at local/junior level where people like me coach. What age do you think that kids should start being socialised into the competitive arena? Or do you think that that is a completely mental aspect rather than physiological and that it can wait until later? (PS Love the blog!!)
20/10/11 at 11:01:02 #14
Mahathir Rahman
children learn by playing.


Of course, but they have to be teached as well.

30/10/11 at 23:27:12 #15
Lee Mooney
Capability is the product of the quality and quantity of practice. There needs to be a minimum level of both elements.

Books by Daniel Coyle and Malcolm Gladwell refer to the 10,000 hour rule. They state that world-class performance is the product of 10,00 hours of structured, progressive practice.

Let's make some assumptions:

- there's a process for delivering world-class players
- the process delivers world-class performers aged 21
- practice is not effective for the under 5's

That a lot of time: 12 hours per week every week from the age of 5 to the age of 21 on a structured developmental programme. How many people really get that opportunity?

At 10 years old you're already 3,125 hours behind the child that started a 5 years old. Putting their arrival at the 'finished' state back to the age of 26 (just a few years before a player's value starts to turn down).


Hello Lee, it is a very interesting comment. Could be that 'the 10,000 hour rule' is referring sport activity and not just football?
14/11/11 at 21:22:19 #16
Lee Mooney
I've been interested in this topic for a while. The core idea: an 'assessment centre' style model which relies on data and guided home learning (imagine an 'Open Football University').

Players could submit to regular objective testing. There would need to be a clear incentive (like a level of attainment that gets players access to trials etc). The individual is free to adapt and develop their own methods within a clear framework.

Academies aren't massively accessible, particulalry to low-income families. Structured, progressive learning is also in short supply.
25/03/12 at 12:15:14 #17
Lee Mooney
Hi Rafa, the rule refers to the time tequired, with the right process, to achieve a world-class skill level in anything from playing an instrument to playing tennis.

The two books I've found that outline the central principles well are 'The Talent Code' by Daniel Coyle and 'Drive' by Daniel Pink.

My own model for youth development draws heavily on the prunciples in these books, and from the closest real example of all the forces at work that I know of: Cuban boxing.
02/11/12 at 00:16:29 #18
Rafa is amazing
I think you're right, starting at grassroots level is a great way of raising aspiring young footballers.
03/08/13 at 14:30:10 #19
Great piece. I heavily believe environment is important to a human and so completely agree with you that to become a successful sports person it needs to start from birth. Being 'inherently good' at a sport is nonsense. No one is born with the ability to play amazing football, it's all environmental.
05/08/13 at 13:18:29 #20
thedarknight of the kop
this was a really good piece !
i think the different stages to the age is spot on.
my son is 9 years old and is exacatly how stated for his age...
thank you