The key to unlocking the full footballing potential of a child involves regular, high-quality coaching sessions within an environment conducive to learning. Touch, control and technique are all mastered at a relatively early age, so concentration and dedication are prerequisites to successful player development. Unfortunately, concentration and dedication are not always attributes associated with youngsters.

Keeping the attention of children during football coaching sessions is not always easy, but there are five relatively simple things you can do to help.

1. Provide a supportive environment

One of the most effective way to teach children is to allow them a little room in which to make their own mistakes – and then learn from them. This means that a supportive, understanding and patient coaching environment is essential.

Undue pressure, stress and bullying are always counter-productive, so you should do everything in your power to ensure that children aren’t afraid to make mistakes. Every club should have a code of ethics in relation to a supportive and constructive environment, which should include specific measures to tackle pushy or abusive parents, the behaviour of coaches and how the mental welfare of children is managed.

2. Place more emphasis on learning rather than winning

Too many of our children fall out of love with football at an early age because of the pressure they feel to win. Moreover, the weight of expectation, along with shouldering the burden of disappointment, can stop children from achieving their true potential.

While winning will always be the most important part of the game for professionals, losing can be just as important to a young, developing player. Falling short can be used as a point of reference for further learning, and it can also be used for motivation if managed correctly by a good coach.

Football HAS to be fun and enjoyable if kids are to be expected to commit their free time to developing their skills. Pressure from coaches, teammates and parents to win can impact on this enjoyment – a situation that can be detrimental to learning.

The continental approach to football coaching involves using competitive action for developmental purposes. While winning is important, it takes second place to player development. Make learning your priority, and you’ll produce well-rounded young players with a full set of technical skills.

3. Treat coaching sessions as ‘playtime’

Mention hard work, dedication and discipline to children, and you’re likely to scare them off football for good. However, treat coaching as ‘playtime’, and you’re far more likely to hold the attention of youngsters for longer.

Of course, this doesn’t mean letting kids do what they want during coaching sessions, but it does mean coming up with fun ways to get your message across. If you’re focusing on technical skills, hold ‘keep-ups’ competitions, ‘crossbar challenges’ and freestyle events. While an element of formal coaching will always be necessary, you can punctuate your training sessions with fun games and activities.

4. Cater for players of all abilities

While it is only natural to get excited about the technically gifted youngsters under your supervision, it is important not to forget about those who need a little extra help with their passing, touch and control.

It will often be necessary to split your teams into groups based on developmental needs. A budding young Paul Gascoigne wouldn’t have gotten much enjoyment or developmental instruction had he been forced to take part in technical sessions with Gary Mabbutt! Similarly, Gary Mabbutt wouldn’t have been able to develop his own technical skills sufficiently if he’d been forced to train at Gazza’s level.

5. Deliver positive feedback and constructive criticism

The football journey to technical excellence can be an emotional one for children, so it’s important that you communicate your ideas and requirements with a level of compassion and understanding.

There will inevitably be times when you need to raise negative issues with a player. But instead of focusing on the negative aspect, try to deliver your criticism in a positive light:

“If you improve your first touch, you’ll give yourself more time on the ball to make the right decisions.”

Or to a goalkeeper: “If you stay on your feet for as long as possible, you’ll force the striker to make a decision.”

These are positive ways of highlighting deficiencies in a player’s game.

Similarly, it is vital that you give your players a very public pat on the back for a job well done. Children can be motivated quite easily if you recognise their efforts in public view of their teammates.

Whatever steps you take to keep children engaged during football sessions, you’re likely to succeed if your approach involves keeping things fun, reasonably light-hearted and respectful.