Youth football academies: When footballers don’t ‘make it’ who picks up the pieces?
For many, the struggle is real, resulting in a long-term loss of confidence and not feeling good enough
Channel 4’s programme, Football Dreams: The Academy, which follows the journeys of youth players at Crystal Palace FC shows the dedication of the club to develop their future teams, and shares the dreams of many young players hoping to reach the first team in the future.
In one episode, one player notably said: “If I’m not a footballer, I don’t know what I’m going to be.” The stark reality is less than 0.5%* will ever make a living from the game.
In Premier League academies alone there are around 3,500 boys*; the youngest are nine years old, although pre-academy training can start even younger. The Premier League Rules of Development states each club is allowed to register 250 youngsters in their academy. There are between 10,000 and 12,000* boys in football's youth development system.
Can you imagine being ‘spotted’ at the age of nine, making it through the pressure of youth academies, dedicating much of your life to practising, thinking you were ever closer to your dream of becoming a footballer coming true, and then getting dropped as old as 21? This could be through injury or because there are others who are simply better footballers.
Even if players have a back-up plan, the pain felt can have a lasting effect, especially if they’re ill-equipped to deal with the heartbreak emotionally. After years of being judged, years of scrutiny, years of striving and competing, it can all take its toll.
For many, the struggle is real, resulting in a long-term loss of confidence and not feeling good enough, loneliness, anxiety, stress, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, or at worst, completing suicide.
The football clubs and parents have a shared responsibility and a duty of care for youth players. The Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) System that governs football academies and the PFA (Professional Footballers’ Association) should also have involvement and a responsibility in developing the whole player as a person.
Many parents don’t even know where to start when it comes to managing expectations, or dealing with emotions through the process. Parents often don’t know how to manage their own feelings, and can get caught up in the whole dream, leaving them just as disappointed when it doesn’t go to plan.
Although there are no ‘quick fixes,’ there are elements the clubs could put in place to support the players from the very beginning, for example:
Helping the players find their own identity outside of being a footballer, and an understanding that they’re not always the centre of attention, as this can have a negative effect if they’re dropped.
Parents can consciously or unconsciously burden children with a lot of pressure to be a professional footballer. After all, the financial rewards can be huge. However, working directly with parents to help them understand the likelihood of their son or daughter ‘making it’ and giving them tools to support the players at home.
Creating a nurturing environment where telling players to ‘man up,’ ’grow up’ etc, is eliminated, and an understanding that a hug is sometimes needed, or allowing a player to be heard (sometimes real life, such as a bereavement is going on in the background) becomes the norm.
Teaching older players how to write CVs, apply for jobs, get other training…
Building sustainable mental wellness alongside sustainable physical wellness
Promoting a growth mindset mentally where failure and success outside of the football pitch are normalised and supported by all involved in the development of the young players and support of the older players
Having trained emotional support mentors who aren’t just part of a box-ticking exercise, who genuinely care, can make a huge difference for the future outcomes of these players.
It’s reassuring to know that Crystal Palace announced they would offer three years of aftercare for released players between the ages of 18-23, although it would be great to see this extended to younger players, too, even if it’s for a shorter time frame.
The Premier League and English Football League clubs will also soon be required to commit to support for released academy players, too.
*Sources: Sky News, and Michael Calvin: "No Hunger in Paradise: The Players. The Journey. The Dream."
Paul Butler is a student coach and works with teenagers and young adults. He is a grief specialist and currently works with released academy football players to help them deal with their losses. He is available for training, workshops and one-to-one work. Find out more about Paul here.