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Football in Japan (by Jon Day)

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Fun with a Football for Parents and Kids

As children’s toys go, they don’t come simpler or cheaper than a football, but the amount of pleasure this spherical object can bring to a child’s life and the future potential that often stems from this enjoyment, is simply priceless. Living in high-rise Tokyo, where even the most affluent of expat residences don’t always have adequate sized gardens, and with the local parks sometimes being a car, train or bus journey away, you’d be forgiven for not devoting every weekend to your child’s football edification.

However, you’d be surprised how rewarding spending an afternoon in the park with your children, a football and a makeshift goal can be (2 liter PET bottles partially filled with water are great). Add to that a picnic and plenty of smiles and you have the perfect ingredients for a fun-filled day, for all the family.

On average - depending on a child’s physical and motor skills - 31/2 years old is the age that child development experts and youth development officers at professional football clubs, cite as being appropriate for introducing basic, fundamental football skills. But parents fear not, these basic skills don’t and shouldn’t amount to toddlers performing feats of physical or acrobatic wonder or any overly technical potentially dangerous aspects of the game, like heading the ball, tackling, or shooting from range.

For this age group parents should focus on simple exercises that work towards enhancing a child’s spatial awareness and foot - eye coordination. Praise should be emphatically given when tasks are performed well and positive encouragement and guidance provided when things don’t go quite right - but remember the foundation for success and progressive development comes from the child having fun and, equally as importantly, receiving positive reinforcement from their parents.

One natural tendency that all young children have when around balls generally, is to pick them up and in football, particularly when the ball is rolling directly towards them, use their hands to control the ball before kicking it. Those that understand the game will be quick to point out that, in some instances, picking up the ball is not a bad thing. In fact, there’s a dedicated position for players to do just that - it’s called a goalkeeper. However, it’s difficult (although not impossible) for children in the 31/2- 41/2 year old age range to distinguish between different footballing roles - thus it’s best to stick to the fundamental rule of “no hands!” at least for the timebBeing.

Simple drills to improve a child’s foot - eye coordination and introduce the elementary stages of football cognition, can be coached by parents even if the parent themselves have only a rudimentary knowledge of football and the techniques and skills involved. Always lead by example and during any demonstrations show your child how much fun you’re having.

The following exercise is a tried and tested drill used by Leigh Manson, the Academy Director and Head Coach of The British Football Academy in Tokyo. Start by putting the football at your child’s strongest foot. Standing approximately 3-meters away and facing your child say the words, “ready, kick!” Regardless of the direction the ball goes in, move your body square on, to intercept the ball and by putting the sole of your shoe on the top of the ball, bring the ball to a stop - at the same time announce, “and…stop!” Once this has been demonstrated, simply reverse the roles. Pass the ball very slowly to your child, following the “ready kick!” command and as the ball is in motion, instruct “and…stop!” Expect your child to instinctively try and stop the ball with their hands, but with praise being the reward for using their feet, they’ll soon get the idea.

Be sure to encourage your child to use both feet, not only to control the ball, but also to pass it, as this will be a fantastic grounding for enhancing bipedal development and general balance and dexterity. For older children the ball can be passed more firmly and the child can be encouraged to control and pass the ball with the inside of the foot, rather than the sole. As an extension to this exercise have your child pass the ball through your legs. Spread your legs as wide as possible and with each pass that goes through the “goal” bring your legs closer together to make the process more challenging. If the child starts this drill with the ball 10-meters away, dribbling skills, encouraging the child not to kick the ball too far in front of them, as they rush towards the “goal” can be introduced. From 2 or 3-meters away the command “and…kick” should encourage the final “shot at goal” between your legs. These simple activities are great for parents’ fitness too, as balls constantly have to be retrieved!

For parents looking for regular football coaching for their kids, there are a number of reputable football schools operating in the Tokyo and Yokohama areas, catering to a wide age and ability range of multinational young boys and girls. These schools can also act as a fantastic social hub for parents and children.

Here are a couple of football clubs for children in Tokyo

British Football Academy Tokyo




Jonathan Day has lived in Japan for 7-years and is a prominent freelance journalist and qualified football coach.