FEATURE19 September 2012

Play on


Brian Tarran hears how The Football Association turned to research in a bid to halt a decline in the number of teenagers playing organised football.


It’s the world’s most popular sport. In England alone, a nation of 53m people, nearly 7m play some form of football each month, including nearly 4m children. And yet the game has something of a retention problem.

Between the ages of 14 and 16, a significant number of people stop playing football. And not just football: most team sports see a drop-off in numbers once players hit this point in their lives. Last year, The Football Association (the FA), the body responsible for governing the game in England, decided to do something about it.

The FA’s research and insight manager David Hollinshead says the organisation has long recognised the challenge posed by the youth drop-off, but concerns were heightened with the publication of new data showing a 1.5% decline in FA-affiliated youth teams over a two-year period. “One of the FA’s main goals is to create football for everyone, and so retention is key,” says Hollinshead. He and colleagues suspected a number of reasons lay behind the drop-off rates in this age group, including the pressure of upcoming exams and other non-sporting activities competing for attention.

Working with Vauxhall, the lead sponsor of the England teams and the FA’s youth partner, the decision was taken to commission research to understand more about why young people were leaving the game and to devise ways to re-engage them.

HPI Research was hired to do the work last August. The first stage of the research involved speaking to a selection of coaches and parents, Hollinshead says. “We were quite keen to get their opinions first and then the young people’s to see any differences in perceptions. It could be that players would give one explanation but when you speak to the parents and the coaches, their sense of what’s going on might be quite different.”

It turned out, though, that the reasons cited were fairly consistent across the three groups of respondents. There were the education pressures and the broadening of choices already identified by Hollinshead, while HPI owner David Iddiols highlights an “anti-authority” sentiment in a number of young people. “That rejection of authority was actually quite strong, this idea that ‘I’m a 14- or 15-year-old lad, I’ll do what I want and I don’t want a coach telling me what to do’ – that’s probably increased over the years,” says Iddiols, who is chairman of Hanwell Town Football Club in Ealing.

Hollinshead also notes that the mid-teens are a time when playing football can become a more serious pursuit for some people. “When you start playing football it’s all quite enjoyable and a lot of fun,” he says. “It’s about playing with your mates. But what happens when you get older is that the better players go off and play with other better players and you’re left behind with the players who aren’t as good. These people, they miss their mates – and for the better players, playing is not just for fun anymore. They’re competing.”

Terms of engagement

Following the initial research with parents and coaches, HPI convened seven ‘buddy groups’ with five boys in each. Groups were recruited across the three school years and by varying levels of involvement in club football. “We deliberately mixed it up so we had players who would definitely continue to play football, then there were the ‘teeterers’ – as the FA calls them – people who currently play but are considering their options – and then those who have actually lapsed,” says Iddiols.

While the groups mainly focused on the reasons players leave the game, a third round of work using HPI’s own co-creation approach, called Co-Search, tasked a group of 14- to 16-year-olds to come up with ideas for new formats that would appeal to their peers. They did this first by attending a group session before being sent away to thrash out different concepts with their friends and bring their ideas back to share with HPI and the FA.

“There was a range of ideas that came back,” says Iddiols, “but the huge majority of Co-Searchers suggested some version of five-a-side. We were surprised by the consistency of the response.”

HPI took its findings to the FA and to Vauxhall, who set about crafting a concept based on the research to present to young players. The idea they came up with is called Football Mash Up. Billed as “Your mates. Your coach. Your terms”, the intention was to create a game that would appeal to lapsed players “to get them to want to play organised football again and – most importantly – enjoy football,” says Hollinshead. “We also wanted to provide an environment for players and teeterers alike to play a more relaxed and sociable form of the game.”

Through the research, Iddiols says, it was clear that young people “love the fun and sociability of five-a-side” though access to decent five-a-side pitches was an issue. “The pitches they talked about playing on are not the ones in the schoolyard,” says Hollinshead. “They wanted to play on decent astroturf, 3G and 4G surfaces, but it’s quite expensive to hire these pitches.”

The FA set about trying to gain access to these grounds during downtime periods, typically the two-hour windows after local schools stop using them and before adult teams arrive to play. So far, 40 centres have started running the Football Mash Up sessions.

The real ticket

Mash Ups run over a ten-week period, with participants paying £2 per session upfront. Each lasts an hour – 15 minutes of which involves coaching by an FA-qualified coach while the remaining 45 minutes are given over to players to do what they want with. “Most of the sessions tend to run five-a-side games, as you’d expect,” says Hollinshead, “but if they don’t want to do that – if they want to do their own thing – that’s up to them. It’s their time. It’s their pitch. They can use it however they want.”

The balance the FA has struck with Football Mash Up is between giving young people the freedom to do what they want with their friends while also having some semblance of structure around the experience. Despite the anti-authority sentiment expressed through the research, Iddiols says, most participants were clear that they didn’t just want to be “kicking a ball around”. A degree of organisation was valued, he says, making the marriage of five-a-side and an FA-qualified coach “the real ticket in terms of winning them over”.

With the first run of Football Mash Up events coming to an end following their launch in May, the FA, Vauxhall and HPI are about to embark on another round of research to test how well the concept has gone down with a small group of participants. A bigger wave of surveys will follow in October. “We want to make sure we’re on track with this and that the kids intend on playing it for many, many weeks to come,” says Hollinshead. “We don’t want Football Mash Up to be a short-term solution. We want kids to keep coming through and we want to keep growing the programme.”

Ultimately, the success of the Football Mash Up scheme will be judged on whether the FA’s internal data starts to move in the right direction – and it may take months or even years for that to filter through. But at this early stage Hollinshead sounds confident that the research has led them to the right place. “We consulted with the boys all along the journey and we’ve got to something which we believe is going to work, that the boys seem comfortable with and that Vauxhall are happy to support. Hopefully all that’s left to do is some fine-tuning.”

Name of the game

As part of the Co-Search project, young people were asked to suggest names for the new football format. “They came out with things like Bolt Ball and Just Done It and Welcome to the Dome,” says HPI’s David Iddiols. “It was clear they wanted something quite snappy and energetic, although their suggestions weren’t quite right.”

And so it fell to David Hollinshead and colleagues at The FA to brainstorm the name. “We literally stuck a piece of paper on the wall and if you walked past it and had an idea, you would write it down,” he says. “That’s where Football Mash Up came from.”

Mash Up quickly emerged as a favourite, though there was some concern that the term might be misconstrued or not properly understood.

So the name was tested through surveys, with Kick On offered as an alternative. “Mash Up won hands-down,” says Iddiols. “It was unanimous. The kids understood it straight away as a musical term, where two different songs or styles of music are fused together. They got it very, very quickly.”