Education and Football Academies

Education within football needs to be reassessed. There are many issues surrounding it that are discussed on a regular basis but, more often than not, these are only concerned with the game itself. What age should children start playing competitive matches? How can we encourage greater participation? Why aren’t we producing as much home-grown talent as Germany or Spain?

These kinds of questions, while relevant to the national game, focus solely upon football. As a nation, we need to put more emphasis on the educational needs of academy scholars that commit such a large portion of their childhoods to the sport.

The problem is that the vast majority of academy players will never make it as professionals. In fact, the Professional Footballers’ Association found that only around 40% of those offered academy scholarships ended up being given full contracts at the age of eighteen. Even worse, by the age of twenty-one, only around 20% of former academy scholars were found to be making a living from football; the others were either playing at amateur or semi-pro level, or had given up on the game entirely.

So what of the 80% of academy prospects that never make the grade? The FA, as well as individual academies, need to ensure that this vast majority are given guidance about the options available to them. It’s important that they’re made aware that playing football is not the be all and end all in life.

Unfortunately though, that kind of view is becoming more and more prevalent in the modern game. As the amount of money in the sport continues to rise and the country’s job market remains sparse, many view football as the best chance of a career they have, which is a dangerous outlook to adopt.

Indeed, overly obsessing about the sport can lead to disillusionment and loss of interest. Dr Andrew Hill of Leeds University has conducted research into burnout in youth footballers, which shows that many young players fall out of love with the game due to the pressure placed upon them by parents, team mates, coaches and themselves. Academy football’s obsession with producing the best of the best only adds to this stress and increases the burden upon youngsters.

While disillusionment due to pressure is a deterrent for many children, it isn’t the only thing that can force young players out of the game; injuries are a significant issue and often overlooked, especially in lower age groups. Dr Neeru Jayanthi, who specialises in sports injury, has recently presented research that links focused, intense training in young athletes to severe overuse injuries. He discovered that spending more time participating in organised sport considerably increased the risk of obtaining a serious injury and, as a result of his findings, advised against specialising in any given sport before late adolescence. Given this recommendation, the fact that most academies have an under-9 team is extremely worrying; allowing children to regularly compete at such a young age will inevitably end with many of them having to quit football before realising their potential.

It isn’t just football-related injuries that can ruin players though; freak accidents can curtail careers just as quickly and these really can happen to anyone. Sean Highdale, who captained Liverpool’s under-18 academy side and also played for England at under-16 level, was involved in a car crash in 2008 that put a stop to an exceptionally promising career. Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Jack Wilshire and Paul Ince all gave evidence about his potential in his recent legal case and, although he won a significant compensation package, it will never truly make up for the fact that such a talented youngster will never play football again.

All of these pitfalls illustrate just how important it is for young players to have a back-up plan in place and, quite simply, this must be vehemently encouraged by academies. Of course they want to produce the best possible crop of youth but, especially when they take on players at such a young age, they have a responsibility to educate them as effectively as possible about options other than playing football.

While these can include many vocations away from the game, there are also a substantial number of paths within football that those who don’t make the cut as players can look to pursue.

One option is coaching and this is definitely something academies and authorities should encourage from as young an age as possible. After all, a long and successful playing career is not always a prerequisite for a great coach. Foreign managers like José Mourinho, Carlos Alberto Parreira and André Villas-Boas have all forged incredibly successful careers without ever having played football professionally.

Another possibility that football authorities in particular will be interested in endorsing is officiating. Sam Allardyce’s suggestion that football academy drop-outs should be entered into a refereeing school was a superb one, emphasising the need for more qualified officials with first-hand experience of playing football.

Add the more standard careers of many aspiring footballers, in sports science and physiotherapy, to this growing list and it becomes clear that there are many areas of the sport for academy players to move into, should they fail to make the grade playing at the highest level.

These options are out there for young players, so it’s absolutely vital that academies and governing bodies do everything possible to communicate them effectively. They need to do as much as they can to encourage academy prospects to think about alternative careers and consider their whole future – not just football.

Contact Daniel Yeo

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