Maurizio Sarri: 'What is football without fun?'

"Fun is at the heart of playing sport."

It's a statement which may be blindingly obvious, but it can be cast aside in the pursuit of winning.

The statement was from a tweet from sports psychologist Dan Abrahams, who emphasizes the importance of fun being integral in sport and that fun can come in all different forms.

England's dynamic coach Gareth Southgate, who has seen the Three Lions climb to No.4 in the FIFA world rankings also recently emphasized "fun" in the English's FA's ‘We Only Do Positive' grassroots handbook.

"Our environment is quite relaxed and they can have fun while they are playing football," said Southgate when he was quizzed by school children how he kept the England players relaxed at the World Cup.

It may sound a simple theory, but it's a factor which can be swept aside, especially with all the coaching aids, methods, podcasts, online tutorials and advice that is accessible today

Maurizio Sarri

Former Chelsea boss Maurizio Sarri, unlike his predecessor Antonio Conte, was also a big advocate of the element of fun underpinning his practice sessions.

Sarri spent 12 months in London with Chelsea before returning to his homeland for Juventus this summer but the Italian managed a third-place finish in the Premier League and guided the Blues to Europa League glory.

His ways though were markedly different from Conte, who wasn't too keen on players enjoying his training during his time at Stamford Bridge.

The Italian said: “I think that usually when you work you don’t smile.

“Especially if you work hard. It’s very difficult to smile."

England's DNA coaching strategy which has already heralded success through the England youth age groups adheres to a four-corner model with fun at the heart of the 'Social' aspect.

The FA's four corner model.

England players of the future are expected to display outstanding characteristics from the four corner player development model.

So Behaviour, Reflection, Teamwork, Relationships, Accountability, Responsibility and Independence all fall under the Social corner which all lead to components of enjoyment and fun.

As Abrahams detailed earlier, fun for players can take different forms, and when considering young players, then learning can prove to be just as enjoyable as developing relationships (e.g. playing with their friends) or simply being given the licence to keep score in a game-related practice (ownership).

The FA’s former talent identification manager, Nick Levett, in 2016 gathered results from a survey given to more than 55 groups of English children of both sexes, aged 8-12, who played for professional and grassroots clubs.

The top three statements given from the youngsters were: “Trying my hardest is more important than winning” (this statement was in first place by a significant distance), "I like playing because it’s fun” and “I like playing with my friends”.

In another piece of research based on a poll of 10,000 children aged between 10 and 14, Levett revealed that over 80% of them would prefer to play in a team that loses than be a substitute for a winning team.

The FA's head of grassroots delivery Les Howie believes that England's strategy has development and nurturing at the hub as they try and embrace today's young players.

"This is about having more young people play. It’s about having coaches who develop their skills, focus on development over winning – particularly at the younger ages – and who help develop the game understanding of children and encourage them to be inquisitive, creative and exciting with the ball,” said Howie.

I need to have fun, but I think also what is football without fun?
— Maurizio Sarri

He has also made it clear that what has gone on in coaching previously was "not all rubbish" but believes soccer coaching, like education must evolve.

“It means just as education evolves, football evolves,” explains Howie. “We have to keep in front of that and look at modern ways. We have new opportunities now. Ten years ago, we didn’t have the iPad, YouTube, Captured. We have to reflect that modern coach as well.”

What's evident is that fun remains a key element in football and just as crucial at elite level as it is at grassroots level and on reflection of the FA's four-corner model it may well help coaches keep that at the forefront of their minds.