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Beyond the pitch: How FIFA is influencing youngsters away from the TV

Let's get sweaties.

Being six years old is fantastic.

There are no worries about the electricity bill rising, wondering how politics on both sides of the Atlantic could impact any future career path and no thought goes towards ensuring you've got milk in the fridge for the morning coffee.

My own six-year-old worries about two things: being on his best behaviour so he can play FIFA at home and replicating that behaviour at school so he can play football after he's put the controller down.

At such a young age, children tend to be focused exclusively on the ball rather than thinking about off-the-ball movements and tactics too much, mostly due to their spacial awareness not being fully developed until a much later age. However, I started to notice a change with my own son which coincided with his new found love of playing FIFA.

He started to mark his opponents at corners with a jockeying movement which isn't naturally taught at that age. He made darting runs through the opposition defence looking for the ball and tried to put through-balls into his teammates in a way that he shouldn't yet know.

I started to wonder if he was receiving extra coaching at his school, as his reading of the game was starting to go beyond what he should know for his age. So, I did what any Dad would do if they believed their son was doing something they weren't aware of and asked him where he picked it up. His response was just one word:


It wasn't the answer I expected, but after pondering how a video game I've played for as long as I can remember is now teaching my son new ways to play the real-life game, it started to make sense.

Jake (left) and Lee (right) hold numerous coaching badges and also have the odd game of FIFA.

I had the opportunity to discuss FIFA's influence on children and met up with Fulham FC Academy Coach and Co-Founder of EPC Lee Simpson and his compatriot Jake Keohane, who has now left the London club. Both help to train children from the Under 7 age group through to Under 21s and hold numerous FA coaching badges, and Lee also holds a UEFA B Coaching licence.

We met at Bracknell Town FC, a football club that they work closely with, and while it may not be the glitz and glamour of the professional game, the newly laid artificial pitch that we stood next to was filled with children playing football, with the majority undoubtedly familiar with FIFA.

"It's another way to interact with the game of football. They can watch Chelsea vs Arsenal but after five minutes get bored and want to do something else," says Jake, who has been coaching for almost a decade. "With FIFA, they're physically involved with the game and moving the players and trying things that they wish they could do."

"It's easy for kids to pick up things on a game as they're not thinking about controlling the ball, so they can watch that man run in, they can watch the movement inside the box, they can watch them jump up for a header or they can see the defenders jockeying - and little children especially, notice little details."

In fact, using FIFA as a way of learning is already being actively encouraged at clubs like Fulham, with the long-standing franchise becoming a key part of some of the club's development programmes. "In general it can only be positive," says Lee, who coaches a range of age groups at different skill levels. "It can improve tactical understanding. For example, in Ultimate Team you can see the chemistry of the team, and as a coach, if the balance of my team isn't right then that's an issue, it's something we encourage at Fulham so they can understand football from a tactical sense; it can be a really great learning tool, it doesn't have to be a negative."

Hand and arm movement at set-pieces on FIFA are little things that children are picking up on and taking into real-life training and matches.

"A lot of what we do at Fulham is based on tactical awareness, responsibility, understanding of positions and roles. On the game now you can play in only one position, so if you're not in the right position you won't get the ball or you'll get a bad rating, so you have to think about where you need to be. As much as it's not realistic, you are learning through thinking and it's another tool we can use."

"The small details [in FIFA] help children to link together things they do in the game and things they see in real life."

One of the advantages of playing FIFA is that no matter what age you are, you can play football in a way that you wouldn't be able to normally. The subtle and unique animations that players have, like Ronaldo's running style or Messi's ability to jink through a sea of players, only adds to learning how the best are able to do what they do and FIFA gives players the freedom to explore these movements.

Even a game of FIFA between Kilmarnock and Ross County will feature basic animations that, in the real game, are vital to being able to defend, mark or cross correctly. These subtleties are at the point where it's so natural, that for children it can offer a look into the real-world game that they can interact with.

Lee explained that for FIFA's younger players, it's seen as an opportunity by coaches to allow them to not only make mistakes, but also to learn from them.

"In FIFA, if a child is playing as a defender and he's trying to turn in his own box, then gets tackled and allows them to score, he'll realise that he probably shouldn't do that and he should've passed. Kids will make lots of mistakes, but through repetition they'll finally realise. I think failure is part of learning and FIFA can help with that repetition when they take it to the pitch."

"If a child tries something on the pitch and tells me he saw it on FIFA I'd be giving him a high-five saying 'that's brilliant'. The more they do on FIFA - within reason - the more they can attempt in real life."

Unique skills and tricks that kids try on the game are being replicated and encouraged by qualified coaches.

It's not just FIFA's ability to recreate real life scenarios and tricks that children can then copy that is influencing the youth of today. It has developed terminology and language that is also being utilised by coaches on the training field. One such term, 'sweaty goal', describes a one on one situation with the goalkeeper where instead of shooting, you pass to a player to the side of you, bypassing the goalkeeper and presenting the player you've passed to with an open goal.

"The term 'sweaty goal' has come from FIFA and it's a term that we use with the kids in every session." Lee explains. "We'll ask them if they can create opportunities or chances to 'get sweaties' and that terminology came from FIFA. That's language that has been adapted through the game and is now being used on the pitch."

Jake added "It's a quicker way to get the kids to understand some of the instructions we tell them."

FIFA's influence in our culture has grown significantly over the past few decades, to the point where even if you didn't know the first thing about picking up a PlayStation or Xbox controller, you've still heard of FIFA.

As gamers, we can complain about review scores, the fact that the overall gameplay is faster, slower or harder than the previous years iteration, but for the youngsters who have the opportunity to play FIFA, they're only focused on the aspect of actually playing and not its nuanced balance changes.

At six-years-old I'm not expecting my son to be the next Rio Ferdinand quite yet, but the positive impact that FIFA has had on him is encouraging and at odds with the stories about video games having a bad influence on the development of youngsters.

Sure, football and video games aren't the most important things in the world, but if in some small way they're encouraging kids to try things they normally wouldn't and helping them to express and develop themselves, then surely that's a good thing. Especially, if they can use that confidence and expression in other areas of life as they continue to grow and continue to find their feet in this world of ours.

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Craig Shields