Why it's best to manage expectation of Pro Academies head on
Being a professional footballer appeals to many youngsters AND their families. Glamour shown through the media is a sideshow. What's gone before all that are experiences of selection, rejection and dedication. There's no hiding from the numbers who actually make it to the top. So, how do you get the balance right between having aspirations and keeping it real?
Children as young as 4 years old can be involved in the academy system in the UK. The majority of them are not just doing so for the benefits of physical activity - it's to try to become a football star. Over recent years, with more investment, growth and professionalisation of the academies, critics have concerns about the young players who fall through the system, not achieving what they had hoped and sacrificed so much for.
ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK: One way in and two ways out. Academy football should be an adventure with no end.
Unfortunately we can't control the thoughts of an individual parent. If they want to think of their child as the next Messi at 7 there's nothing we can do about that. We can try our best to advise that maybe you are applying a little bit too much pressure at the moment.
It's a fact that the success-rate of football academies is very low, based on the number of people who enter them. Only a few will make it from the academy to scholar. Fewer even will make it from there to pro and less still will stay in the top flight game 3 years after doing a 1st-year pro. Looking at the ones who go all the way through to Premier League football in one journey is minute. Some will go on to have steady careers lower down the leagues. Most in the academy system, however, will eventually get released by the club or leave themselves.
For any chance of being a pro footballer, young players need a clear focus from an early age. Plus their support base [family] has to sacrifice so much. However, it's essential for the adults in a young footballers life to hold onto the fact that ability, focus and a good attitude are not guarantees to make it. But, they are must-haves. There's no rule that an academy player will be signed at a club, even if they've been there from say aged 6 to 16 years old. If the situation does arise that a young player gets signed to a pro academy, it should be treated as an opportunity for free training. The chance of being signed as a full-time player should be seen as a bonus.
The first thing I’d do at an academy is sit the parents down of each squad and say: the chances of making professional football are not high.
Sports psychologist Richard Dean believes that telling the academy players and their parents about the realistic pathways of playing for an academy is a must. The parents know that their children are good young players [at that moment] - hence being accepted into an academy; however, it's too easy for them to think they've made it.
Being upfront of the realistic outcomes for most academy players can possibly prevent a downfall into a disappointment when a player is released from an academy. It should be a case of reassessing and moving on - not shattered dreams. Academy players, nonetheless, should believe in the small, but existing chances of being a footballer though, because it DOES happen. Even for players who get released and play for smaller clubs.
To make sure players understand the reality of the academy system, but also do not give up on themselves, is the responsibility of adults. Bigger and wealthier academies provide access to support systems, including psychologists and professionally trained counsellors. Foundation phase or development coaches should be more in tune with a young player's psychological makeup and wellbeing.
Like it or not, lower down the scale this role generally falls on to parents. Whilst it's the coaches remit to make sure the player believes in themselves on the pitch, parents must provide emotional support. Some parents we've come across even privately hire counsellors or psychologists.
Understandably, the priority for the players at an academy is to play and train as much as possible to improve themselves in pursuit of their ultimate goal - the Premier League. Nonetheless, facing the harsh reality of the academy success rates, parents and also academy staff should encourage the children to have a plan B for their life.
Try and be someone who’s engaged in the process of life outside football as well.
As cliche as it sounds - anything can happen. Even the best, most promising player can fall victim to a serious injury, that puts an end on their career, at all times. More realistically, though, most young players will be released or transfer into lower- and non-league football, which will not set them up for life.
PROOF: Dreams can come true. Young players should believe but also be aware.
Doing well in school, continue to get an education at a college or university afterwards and finding something of interest outside of playing football is an important step of a young footballer’s development too. Maturing and growing as a social human being is just as important as football, to set them up for after the system when they have to build a life for themselves.
It may sound like it, but it is not all doom and gloom! Hard work pays off, even if it is not the top-tier of football that the players end up playing for. The experiences they gain within the academy system can also be transferred into every-day world skills, which will help them navigate their life after the football academy. It is essential for parents to support their children in any way possible; this includes providing good education and alternative future plans.