From the moment my child signed with a professional football academy I have often pondered on the question 'why did it become so important to me that my child be at an elite club?'. Now the obvious answer is because my child had consistently expressed to me their desire to be a professional footballer however I started to question my own motives which uncovered my reasonings may stretch further than simply that of supporting my child.
The following blog asks some uncomfortable questions of our own parenting decisions around academy football and whether we are pushing our own dreams onto our children. I encourage all parents to reflect on their own reasonings and actions after reading this article.
Now as I have already mentioned my child had told me they dreamt of becoming a professional footballer. It was evident that my child had a particular talent so I sourced extra training and equipment for them to work towards fulfilling this dream. This is the first decision I look back on and question my actions. Why? because my child also exceeds in mathematics but if they had said they dreamt of becoming an Astronomer would I have signed them up as members of The Royal Astronomical Society or purchased every book on the subject? I believe the answer to that would be highly unlikely, therefore why should football be any different?
Like many I was a child who loved football from the moment a ball was placed at my feet. As I grew up I would spend hours on end playing in either the street or park with whoever wanted to join me. I would eagerly anticipate the weekends to play in games or watch the televised match. Football was everything and here lies the problem. I believe many of us parents are blinkered in nostalgia, the sentiment of what it once felt to wish to be a professional player and therefore jump at the very chance should our own child show promise in the game.
Like most parents, a regular topic of conversation with my child is their future career path. Now I am certainly not a parent who puts football before all else, I believe all area's should be balanced such as education, home-life etc. There is a sentence which appears to regularly be thrown into our conversations and that is 'make a career doing what you love'. Now your child may currently love playing football but a career in the sport is a far different prospect. A top flight footballer is constantly under the spotlight, their diets watched in minute detail, their personal lives scrutinized, their match performances evaluated and that's before we get into the toxic world of social media. Our young academy players are yet to truly understand what a career in the game looks like. Do we as parents somehow counter balance the difficult scenarios a professional footballer faces with the thought our child may travel the world or never have to worry about money again? Going back to the example of dreaming of becoming an Astronomer, as a parent would you push this particular career path if an Astromers life was so publicly and privately scrutinized, again probably not. However what if that job paid millions of pounds every year does it change your opinion? For some maybe but in many cases it probably not. So again why do we view a career as a footballer so differently?
Now lets briefly cover the percentage chance of having a top flight career. Less the 0.5% of academy players joining the system at 9 years old go on to have a career in football. Given the amount of time academy football consumes, the juggling of family life, the expense in fuel and the fact its an emotion rollercoaster, why do we persevere? Would we again encourage pursuing any other potential career path based on those small odds against the huge commitment required at their tender age? Would it not be better to leave them in grassroots, then invest time and resources into an alternate avenue for your child with more realistic prospects?
I think for many, whether they would like to admit it or not, this desire for our children to be signed by a professional academy partly satisfies the need for our own offspring to be 'recognised' as standing out above the rest. There were numerous times when my own child was yet to be signed and parents of academy players would almost condescendingly say 'you have to work hard to get into an academy' as if my own child wasn't working hard enough or they their child was somehow superior. We all want our kids to be seen as exceptional and signing for a professional academy is an early way to fulfil scratching that itch. Look I was no different, when my child was offered an academy place one of my many thoughts was how my child must have been better than the other failed trialists. How somehow my gene pool must be superior. Absolutely ridiculous but yet I thought it!
I know many reading this article so far may feel I am going slightly over the top but when you actually reflect on some of our individual behaviours I believe there is certainly a element of truth in what I have said so far.
Lets cover a couple more areas, firstly that of pre-academy parents. For those who are not aware the pre-academy phase is generally from the ages of 6-9 before professional clubs are able to sign these players. Now there are many parents of pre-academy players who are taking their children to 3 or 4 different professional clubs which means training 4 times a week at 7 years old, why? Its clear many are hedging their bets because they, the parent, want nothing more than their child at an academy. We as parents make the choices for our children at this age and can chose what information we share with them regarding the number of interested clubs. You could quite easily chose to take them to one pre-academy session and let them enjoy their grassroots football because if they are good enough these young players will eventually be found. I myself was once caught up in a fear of my child not being asked again by a club if I held them back but at 7 years old there is so much time for their football journey to evolve. So are we pushing our own agenda?
Many parents I have met through this academy journey either have their own businesses or work within the corporate world which requires a certain level of reason, calmness and control, however once these individuals step through those academy gates those particular skillsets appear to simply vanish. I have seen highly respected, senior corporate professionals turn into a quivering wreck whilst their child was on a 6 week trail; pacing up and down, asking why the scout hasn't been in contact, trying to read into the underlying messages of any dialogue they do have with the club etc. So why is our child being successful so important to us, even at such a young age? Yes we want our child to be happy and not feel disappointed if unsuccessful but is there something more? Is it also about our own pride? Do we wish for their success because of a notion it reflects well on us?
The final area I wish to touch upon is the world of social media, the insta-parents! Now we all have no doubt seen countless Instagram accounts of children as young as 3 years old, in which videos of them training, playing etc are uploaded. Now I have absolutely no objection to this should parents simply wish to have a place to store videos and keep a record of their child's journey, in a way its a modern photo album. I start to question the intention of these accounts when the bio states 'baller', 'the next Messi' or worse still 'following my dream'. How can being a professional footballer be the dream of a 3 year old, when 10 minutes prior to posting the latest training video they were running about dreaming of being Spiderman?! Its also the language used in the messages which are written as if the child themselves drafted the text, its all a little strange in my opinion. Then to round things off its the tagging in of professional clubs, brands etc. Yes you may wish for your supported club to like a message to show your child but is there more to it? Are you looking for a viral post, a sponsorship deal or a scout to get in contact?
Now I know there are some who will not like this article at all as it appears I am simply parent bashing but that's not the intention. I will be honest and confess that I myself have fallen foul to some of the above actions. Ultimately how we all chose to act and behave as a parent is an individual choice which I whole heartedly respect. The purpose of this article is to simply highlight some of the areas that many are too uncomfortable to raise and encourage all parents to just take a moment to consider the purpose of their actions. Ultimately if we chose not to reflect on our actions and direct our children down a certain path then it poses the question; Whose dream really is it?