Grassroots football: Are the rules really fit for purpose?

Cones and training bibs lie against a fence.
Cones and training bibs lie against a fence. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

The Football Association’s grassroots strategy for 2020-2024 highlights interesting objectives for the development and progression of the game. These bold targets commit to some exciting plans to develop and encourage participation for all players.

The Football Association guidelines

One key factor states “The FA also leads on national discipline, safeguarding and anti-discrimination initiatives to ensure grassroots football is safe and inclusive for all.” (The FA 2021, p10).

Aside from the elite game at WSL and FAWC level, league committees grapple with fair interpretation and application of regulations. The easiest response is to stick rigidly to the rules devised. Certainly, this would seem to be the fairest way forward. One club is not penalised over another.

However, there is no indication on how league rules are developed. It is very difficult to find any information about how league committees themselves are formed and run. How does someone become a league committee member?

The grassroots application of FA regulations

The FA provides key documents to guide the governance process. However, individual leagues either interpret the information differently or have devised their own additional reactive and potentially punishing rules for their area.

Understandably, the regulations do have some merit in players getting consistent match play. However, the leagues seem determined to penalise and punish clubs and players for any infringements.

This strict attitude will contribute to creating a rather negative environment within the league. Also, the club philosophies around discipline to train then play, become futile. Are you available on Sunday? Then you are playing. If only to avoid the penalties imposed for calling off a game.

In the sports science literature, avoidance motivation creates a negative psychological framework. The need to avoid failure can have an intense and positive short-term impact on a situation. Longer term, it is unsustainable, causing the environment to quickly become riddled with pressure, mistrust and anxiety.

(Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

Understanding league penalty decisions

It’s easy to criticise when you are on the receiving end of this punishment. But a good coach or club wants to understand the inherent reasons for the decision. It’s entirely frustrating when league communication only repeats and reinforces the original message.

Each league reply to coach queries is perceived to be identical, but set in ever bigger font from a series of league committee members.

There is no discussion of underlying values behind the ruling. Only a cold statement that reminds clubs that if they can field seven players, they must complete a fixture.

Imagine you’re a player on a team who one week can only field seven players. Get ready to enjoy your game. I would like to think I would play extra hard in that situation. I am sure I would get very frustrated, very quickly. Not only that, the likelihood of injury increases.

The level of training for grassroots clubs does not always prepare players adequately for competitive match performance or expectations. As a voluntary grassroots player, I might not have attended all training sessions. Therefore, my super hard work rate in this situation makes me more susceptible to hurting myself.

Rationalising the rules

Such prescriptive, rigid league rules might serve to prevent clubs from postponing fixtures at will. Perhaps star players are unavailable for a fixture, or too many players have other priorities over football every Sunday lunchtime. Understandably, this would cause a log jam towards the end of the season, even extending it, if that were allowed.

Opposition would be frustrated and possibly resistant to reschedule. Disappointingly, league title contests might well be thwarted.

(Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Serious grassroots clubs

The modern game in grassroots clubs relies on building a solid foundation for performance development and progression. Some clubs receive backing and funding from those passionate about the game. These clubs could not survive without it.

The cost of training and match day facilities alone are exceptionally high for such an inclusive game. Financial and managerial investment in football at this level is high risk with little, if any, immediate gain. Everything hinges on the future progression and the current volunteer work force.

Attracting committed amateur players who buy in to the club’s philosophy is a challenge in itself.

Match day income for these forward-thinking clubs is vital. Running a tuck shop, selling merchandise, and charging for spectators is sorely missed, even for one postponed fixture. Calling off a game means sponsors and club partners miss out on exposure and engagement opportunities.

The pressure is definitely on the serious clubs to honour fixtures if they are to grow sustainably. Additional damage from the league, in terms of fines and point deductions, are really unhelpful at this level. The club decisions already have a potentially massive impact on their future operations.

Draconian league rules serve only to punish well-meaning, serious grassroots clubs

The FA’s Inspire Positive Change 2020-2024 strategy for women’s and girls’ football sets out eight key objectives for a sustainable, long-term future for the game. If participation and long-term sustainable growth are to be achieved, the rules across the leagues should be reflect and enable this, rather than punish clubs.

What if you were in a relegation or promotion fight, where the stakes are relatively high?

(Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Over the seasons, significant time and finance have been invested in the club to reach that stage. Then, points are deducted for putting player welfare as your club’s priority. Future management decisions are likely to be more reflective of the economics of such a club, rather than player centred.

In turn, this could mean more grassroots football games could be 7v11. A rather negative impact on players’ well-being, enjoyment and growth of the game.

Who are the decision makers behind the leagues? Where is the flexibility, understanding, and negotiation needed to sustain sport at this level? Apparently, grassroots football is vital for the health of the game. Therefore, we need to consider whether the grassroots league rules really are fit for purpose.

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