In recent years youth football/soccer has grown tremendously in England. The game has always been popular but with the growth of sports channels and the internet the following of the Premiership League and the enthusiasm for the game has gone to another level.
Every local park has children as young as five dribbling through cones, a few years after these children are moving into playing in mini/local leagues. Football interest developed into neighborhood teams and now football academies have blossomed all over England. These academies are looking for talented players to continue developing the game as well as making the academies attractive to the next generation of footballers.
All Professional clubs run youth academies and are also seeking the best of the best to groom for first team or the professional level. Due to the footballers salaries and fame attached to being a professional footballer, the competition is fierce. Professional club academies attract large numbers of young kids from various backgrounds with a variety of personal player developmental needs.
Through my years of coaching football and mentoring young athletes I’ve encountered academy players missing a developmental component. Most recently I’ve had an opportunity to get to know a young footballer who was willing to share his thoughts on what it’s like to play football at the academy level in the United Kingdom. The name of the player has been withheld because we want to make sure he is not judged by his comments regarding the UK youth football academy sector and the area of Personal Player Development. This young man is 13 years of age.
Mr. Gentle: When it comes to football what is your ultimate goal and what steps are you taking to reach it?
Academy Footballer: My goal is to make it as a professional footballer, in order to reach this goal I will work hard, focus and try my best to play well.
Mr. Gentle: How do players join a football academy?
Academy Footballer: Most players get spotted by a scout when they are playing for a well known local team or in borough competitions. Many local coaches also work for or have contacts in academies. If you play for a team that’s unknown I’m not sure if there’s any way of being spotted.
Mr. Gentle: What have you realized since you have been in the academy?
Academy Footballer: You realize that you’re not playing for each other you’re playing for yourself, because when you get offered a contract it’s for you not for the other person… just my name.
Mr. Gentle: How tough is the competition between players?
Academy Footballer: It’s a very big thing, if you’re not doing well you’ll be let go and around my age it’s harder to get into an academy than it was a few years ago. Academy teams already feel like they’ve seen the best players. If you started playing for an academy at a young age (8 or 9 years of age) you will have developed a lot quicker than someone who is joining at a later age.
Mr. Gentle: What support do academy Footballers receive from the club or organization?
Academy Footballer: They pay for your expenses and if you’re having issues in school they’ll visit the school to speak with the Head Teacher. You really don’t receive any support regarding social media use or relationship development.
Mr. Gentle: Do you think players need support in other areas off the pitch?
Academy Footballer: Yes, encouragement and motivation. Particularly in my age group because one or two will make it and the rest will probably be released. I feel a great deal of pressure to get it right every game so I can make my family proud. A lot of academy players focused on nothing but football without consideration of other possible career options.
Mr. Gentle: Do you have a backup plan and how important is having one?
Academy Footballer: Yes. I think all Footballers should have a backup plan because it’s very hard to make it as a Professional Footballer. I think 10% of elite academy players make it in the whole country, the rest get released, but that number could be lower. If they have a backup plan they can go with that… but if they’re fortunate enough a lower league team may want to sign them.
It seems from this interview England football needs to start looking at a different approach to educating young footballers. Personal Player Development is clearly an area all sport sectors in the UK need to address from three perspectives. Personal Player Development training for helping professionals working within sport, implementation of programs and an awareness campaign of the issues and challenges athletes experience.
Interview submitted by Anthony Gentle