Strong Children v Broken Men

Dani Garavelli’s excellent Guardian/Nutmeg   piece, on the strange 2020 introduction to the game for young professional footballers gave me pause for reflection.

She points out that the normal expectations for the transition from school pupil to professional sportsman have been met with difficulty, if at all. The steady, confidence building routines of training centre timetables, game preparation, playing matches, and debriefing, have all been disrupted, to a greater or lesser extent.

Even youngsters graduating to first team substitutes’ bench, or appearances for the team itself, have done so in the strange atmosphere of empty stadia, with no crowd noise to pump the adrenaline or drown out the nerves.

For those charged with guiding young players’ development, familiar approaches have not always been possible. Social distancing can lead to emotional distancing. The instinct for how comfortably a player is adapting to his new environment can be dulled, the opportunities for one to one support are lessened.

My own role as Education and Welfare Officer for the Hibernian Development Squad has always centred on giving young players a sense of perspective. In signing their first contract, they are not becoming professional footballers as much as being given the opportunity to carve out such a career for themselves.

We know that not all Development Squad players will make the first team – but many, should they wish it, will go on to have the possibility of a career in football – full time or part time, at various levels.

At the same time, as well as adapting to full time employment, in a pressured environment, with constant monitoring and competition, they are, like all 16-21 year olds, negotiating the often tricky emotional path from teenager to young adult. If football is all they have in their lives, they are putting themselves under enormous additional pressure.

As a teacher, my role is not concerned with football’s technical skills, but rather supporting the young players into a place where they can better access those skills by seeing their football as part of their wider life. In this way, they can  appreciate that  working on their general emotional intelligence, their life choices, and their own mental wellbeing, as it is for anyone of their age, provides the best foundation for the development of their football abilities, as well as their social and life skills.

A young person who, for whatever reason,  is struggling psychologically, will find it difficult to focus on developing new skills or honing existing talent, or even taking on board new instructions and information. At a transitional stage in their life, they need to have a firm perspective on what is important and how they can best manage the changes they are experiencing.

We have heard far too many footballers, some of huge talent, describing their personal decline by saying that they only feel ‘comfortable’, or ‘happy’, or ‘themselves’,  when they are on the football pitch. The other parts of their lives, particularly in retirement, is challenging and meaningless. And it’s not just in Scotland, nor in football, that elite sports people find coping with life away from performance is a serious problem.

In general, those with a balanced view of the world around  them tend to  succeed and make better progress in each area of their life. So, even if we see a football club, in a ruthless sense, as being there merely to provide on field success, there is a reason to safeguard the mental wellbeing of their players – especially those starting out on their career

But for a young footballer, perhaps one whose every thought since he was a child has been focused on ‘making it’ in the professional game, how do you provide that balanced view – especially when a first contract has just been signed?

Coaches will keep young man grounded – and the best of them will get to know that each player  has an individual learning style and responds to varying training approaches. The best of young players will also learn from what they see around them – the deportment of   senior players and coaching staff, the values and expectations of the club, the level of openness and honesty that they encounter.

However, this may lie in the realms of hope and  fate, and surely young people deserve something more structured in their development.

The reality lies in the need for a football club and its academy to be a place of learning, and this in itself requires hard work and clear club guidance.

For perhaps a majority of youngsters, signing that first contract is as much an ‘escape’ from school as an entry to the world of football. The temptation is to wave goodbye to what they think of as a “world of learning”. Distracted by football, or with learning styles not fitted to the school system, they may have found their experiences as pupils were challenging or irrelevant, something to be put behind them.

In this area, perhaps the English system of football ‘scholars’ – sharing football and school time from early teens, faces more challenge than our approach in Scotland where we offer ‘continuing learning’ after school, while letting a youngster remain in their own school setting until sixteen or eighteen.

Part of the task of the club education department, then,  is to point out that “learning” never ends, that there are many different modes and stages of acquiring knowledge, and that a dislike for the school learning experience should not necessarily presage a rejection of future models and opportunities. In all walks of life, we need to keep learning if we are  to progress and develop, and this is surely particularly crucial to a teenager transitioning into young adult and professional footballer.

It is incumbent on the club to provide a continuing learning model which the players find accessible, relevant, and useful. Like all effective education, it needs to be based on a needs analysis: what do these young people need at this moment in time to support their successful development in all areas of their lives?

This is where club guidance and values are paramount. On starting to work at Hibernian, it was made very clear by Chief  Executive, Leeann Dempster, and Head of Football Operations, George Craig, that no player leaving the Hibs Development Squad – whether to first team, at Hibs or elsewhere, to part time or lower-league football, or, indeed,  if leaving the game altogether, should feel that their time  at the club had been ‘wasted’. They should have experienced a measurable progression and development in football and also in their maturing from adolescent to young man.

So the education programme is about what they need to know, and to reflect on how that knowledge can help them – as individuals and as members of  a  team.

Like all young footballers at elite academies they study an SFA/SPFL- backed  two year Modern Apprenticeship in Sporting Excellence – which gives them the tools to self assess and monitor their progress. This continues structured learning and provides a recognised academic qualification. A First Aid in Sports Injuries qualification is also included.

Outside of that, the programme is a varied and as eclectic as the development needs of a group of young adult elite sportsmen. The development squad will receive an in-house Hibernian Academy Diploma after a series of lectures and workshops from staff members of all departments at the Training Centre. They will learn from Sports Science, Nutrition, Performance Analysis, Sports Psychology, Administration, Talent identification and Communications departments. Each department will explain what they do, why they do it, how they do it, how the youngsters will access their support, and how it will impact on the player’s development. This gives the young player an understanding of the club’s infrastructure and  expectations, and lets each department reflect on their own input and approaches – teaching as learning, you might say.

However, variety and perspective are central to this education model, so visiting speakers – from different sports and disciplines are a regular component of the programme. In the past five years, the development squad have benefited from visits and discussions with staff and players from Cricket Scotland and Scottish Table Tennis international teams, from Scotland Rugby captain Stuart Hogg, from Ireland’s GAA,  and  hands on support from Andy Murray, whose agency manages a number of our young players.  

As part of an ongoing commitment to reflecting on women’s sport, Maureen McGonigle, Shelley Kerr,  and Eilish McColgan have all discussed their experiences with the young players. In terms of men’s issues – a fairly potent area for development in football – successful workshops with Graham Goulden, formerly of the Violence Reduction Unit, have proved thought provoking, as have sessions on racism  and  addictive behaviours. “Managing finance” also opened more than a few eyes within the squad.

There were opportunities for more “off the wall” moments. Allied to nutrition support were cookery lessons; balance and spacial awareness were boosted by dance workshops; and a visit from a Naval Jet pilot training officer provided riveting insight into ‘Thinking Correctly Under Pressure”!

The most popular and perhaps most effective inputs in the programme, however, have been the “Question and Answer” sessions with senior staff and players. Part of an ongoing ‘mentoring’ programme, this has been an opportunity for young players to hear about the various paths followed by successful players or coaches in their careers, and, crucially, none of them have reported entirely smooth sailing. The chance to learn from the combined wisdom of characters such as Alan Stubbs, Neil Lennon, Grant Holt, Marvin Barclay, Daryl Horgan, Darren McGregor and Lewis Stevenson has been a relevant and powerful eye opener to many of our young players over the past few years – a crucial part of the continuing learning experience.

Crucially, in partnership with Napier University, we have now added to the learning experience by offering the opportunity at sixteen for young footballers to embark on a university course which will lead to a degree in Sport and Business. Clearly it is not for everyone, but it effectively removes the binary choice at school leaving age: ‘Sport or Degree?’ It is also invaluable to the process that the young players also see senior players and staff following degree courses as a parallel to their careers, rather than something to be accessed in retirement.

It is understandable that young and talented footballers may see signing their first professional contract as an end in itself – but, really, such a moment is only the opening of a door.

Rather than pushing them over then threshold, clubs have a responsibility to guide these players into the space beyond and equip them to deal with what they find there.

As Frederick Douglass memorably said: “It is easier to make strong children than to repair broken men.”

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