Any parent likes to see his kids excel at anything, but it is an added source of pride and joy if that something happens to tap into their own passion. So it is that for any football loving parent there are few feats that can match having their kid being taken on by an academy.
Yet, whilst the pride at this achievement remains, eventually other not so positive emotions start coming into play. Often academies work on the basis that their sole focus is to improve the kids entrusted to them. The parents - and their problems - end up being practically ignored. It is a rather unfortunate situation since children feed off their parents' emotions and their development can be stunted if they are anxious by what their football career is doing to those around them.
The stress kicks in pretty early on. As soon as any child is taken on by an academy, he is told that the chances of making it to the very top are remote. This is done to temper expectations but, invariably, the initial effect is minimal. Only when they are in the system and start seeing other kids being released does it start hitting home.
And that leads to one of the most prominent stress factors among parents. Whilst being taken on by an academy can be a huge boost to a child's confidence, the opposite applies to them being released. There is the risk that their lives start being defined by their affiliation to a club with the obvious repercussions - both immediate and for later in life - if this link is severed. The big fear is that of ending up with someone who is bitter, unable to move one and who spends his time thinking of what might have been.
It is difficult, if at all possible, to prepare a child for the devastating blow they would feel if told of not being kept. Which is why most parents simply hope that they never have to go through that experience. No matter how much they try to push it to the back of their mind, however, that fear remains and the more they progress the greater the build up of anxiety.
Communication? What Communication?
Making matters worse is the lack of communication that often is forthcoming from those running the academies. The parents don't know whether their child is doing well enough to be kept on or not. They have limited information and occasionally this is misleading; being led to believe that their kid will be retained only to then find out that he isn't.
Coaches know what kind of impact a negative piece of news can have on a young person's life which makes it understandable that they try to avoid giving it until they must. Yet all this does not foster a healthy environment much less diminish the stress on the parents.
Even when the issue of whether a player will be kept on is addressed, the set-up can display a lack of understanding. Traditionally, especially in the older age-groups, towards the end of season players are called in to the academy directors' office where they are told whether they're being kept on or not.
It is a stressful moment that is not made easier by the knowledge that your team-mates are outside the same office waiting to learn their own fate. The last thing that any player who has just been told that he won't be kept on wants is to go out and face his friends.
That lack of communication is present in other areas. There are few people involved in football who do not feel that reducing pitch size for the youngest ages hasn't been of a benefit for their technique. Equally, few dispute the validity of not putting too much pressure on winning to allow the children to develop their spirit of play.
Few, that is, other than some parents who can get frustrated by the lack of desire to win (and win at all costs) displayed by coaches. They feel that this is putting their child at a disadvantage, especially if the coaches opt to change around the position of the players. It is a move aimed at giving the child a better understanding of other roles but that can be difficult to appreciate for a parent who is only seeing his son struggle to make an impact.
The Matchday Experience
All of this, understandably, makes the games that the kids do get to play high pressure affairs for the parents who see them as being pivotal for their future. Much of the tension revolves around the possibility of their child playing badly or committing a serious error. Yet there isn't just that. They know that a defeat or a bad performance will result in a moody child for hours if not days.
Football Taking Over
Even though they don't resent it, slowly their child's career ends up eating away at the parents' free time. Training three or more times a week along with the games means a lot of travelling.
This not only means an added expense either in fuel or in transport - which not everyone is comfortable in (or capable of) paying - but it also means a lot of time spent in the car as well as late nights before arriving back home. For some it even means using up their time off work.
All that pales into insignificance when compared to the demand on a parent's time does to their relationship with any other children there might be in the family. With so much energy spent on ferrying one kid around, there is bound to be jealousy and recriminations.
Football: A Parent Trap
Getting to the top in football, like in any other sport, will always be a tough ask and the vast majority of those who take up the sport won't make it. Anyone who enters the system knows that. Similarly, if they want to succeed in developing players, academies have to make tough decisions and that is something that everyone can understand.
Yet the fact remains that for a parent there is nothing more precious than their children and that is something that anyone involved in youth football - particularly at academy level - should keep in mind. Understanding the anxieties and difficulties those parents face over their children, and looking to minimise that stress, might not lead directly to the development of better player but it will certainly make the lives of those involved significantly easier.
This article is based on the work carried out by Chris Harwood from the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University, along with Ashleigh Drew and Camilla J Knight. They conducted a series of focus groups with parents whose children are at different stages in the academy process with their findings were published in a paper titled "Parental stressors in professional youth football academies: a qualitative investigation of specialising stage parents". Blueprint for Football would like to thank Chris Harwood for granting us access to this paper.
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