To be a professional football player is a common dream among kids who practise the sport. Football is so popular worldwide that the level of pressure associated with a future professional career is huge. We can find football everywhere, its popularity is such that it can be classified as the most used ice breaker, alongside weather, between two strangers.
Football has become a very powerful industry where extremely high amounts of money are moved continuously, increasing the financial strength of all players in the market. Over the last decade, players’ wages and power inside the clubs has reached an incredible level affecting other “adjacent” areas, such as image rights, sponsorship deals, just to mention a few.
All these aspects contribute to increase young athletes’ expectations about a future as a professional player. Relatives, friends and all the people surrounding the youngsters play an equally important role in the snowball effect that leads to over expectations about one’s true chances to get to the professional level. The very same people, who should help young players to keep focused on the pitch and train hard to improve every day, are often the ones responsible for creating an exaggerated amount of pressure around the kids.
The probability of any given young player reaching professional football is as small as a drop in the ocean. Therefore, it is extremely important during the journey to professional football to have a plan B where one considers the possibility of not getting there. The lack of an alternative option is the main cause for the struggle in which we find many ex-football players recently.
Football players’ careers are quite short, and the level of commitment and sacrifice associated to high level performance are tremendous. The physical and mental fatigue of playing professionally leaves athletes without much time to prepare their life after their “active” career has come to an end.
If this is true for adults, you can imagine how crucial it is when we talk about youngsters who have their entire life ahead of them. Clubs and academies should have a more active role in this particular topic, alerting athletes and their relatives about the importance of continuing studying and having an alternative plan in case they are not good enough to play professional football.
Developing skills and abilities outside the pitch should also be the responsibility of football mentors, either clubs or academies, as a guarantee for the athlete’s future. It must be part of the social and pedagogical curriculum of football education in order to ensure that the youngsters are well prepared for life in case they don´t succeed.
Football, as a collective sport, provides every practitioner a great number of tools which can be useful in their future life outside sport, such as teamwork, fair play, resilience, commitment or courage. It is clubs and academies’ responsibility to explain to youngsters how such learnings can be applied in life and not only in sport.
It might seem that I am criticising clubs and academies. I can assure you I am not. It is well recognized that both have made significant improvements in this area, developing several social programmes to help kids continue their school path. I have witnessed that, and would even risk to say, despite having no data to support my feeling, that the school drop out of high-level sports practitioners has already decreased.
University scholarships for high-level sports athletes were also good news, increasing the number of young footballers reaching that educational level. Unfortunately, this number is quite small still, in particular in Europe.
These facts leads us to consider that this might be beyond football; in fact this might be a problem with the education system itself. The American model of high school and college sports is clearly more effective than the European model. And the truth is that the number of young European footballers applying for American scholarship programmes is increasing every year.
To come to the point: the most effective change to make is clearly one in the education system, which needs to work on sports inclusion. It is also clear that such a big change is extremely challenging as increasing the level of education of professional athletes requires a very close collaboration between clubs, academies, high schools and universities – that is aligning four different factors with different priorities in one single vision.
I trust this will happen. I just hope it happens fast!
Club Service & Partnerships Manager @Sakproject
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