A Good Heart

Derry punk band, The Undertones, provided the anthemic “Teenage Kicks” as a run out tune for Hibs’ “Golden Generation” under Tony Mowbray, but a number one single, by their erstwhile front man, Feargal Sharkey, provides an even better fit for an examination of the Academy of today.

“A Good Heart”, the song’s title,  is a phrase which encapsulates the needs of a modern day football academy – and it works on different levels.

Locationwise, an academy needs to be the good heart of a club’s philosophy: especially its approaches to talent identification, development and support.

A good heart will be as strong as possible to support the physical and mental demands placed on an elite sportsperson.

As the supposed root of human emotion, the good heart is crucial in providing the passion and engagement with the club’s history, community, culture, style, and support, as well as that love of football which drives on young academy players towards the professional game

And a good heart is necessary to help develop and shape good people in all areas of the club’s operation – because good people bring trust, honesty, and inspiration, and serve as persuasive role models.

If young players are in good heart – in a comfortable place in themselves, then they are more open to coaching and development, better able to progress – physically, mentally and technically, and better fitted to displaying confidence as individuals in meeting the many challenges they will face,  allied to having the necessary team awareness as part of a squad.

All progress needs a strong jumping off point, and being in good heart can provide that.

All fine words – but how do they translate into practice?

Nobody expects, realistically, to turn out a first team comprising only Academy players – that’s neither feasible nor desirable. However, a senior squad with a core of Academy graduates – at Hibs, think Stevenson, Hanlon,  Porteous – is well placed to embody the club’s philosophy and ethos – explaining the club to newcomers and youngsters alike, carrying the onfield torch for past heroes and current staff, providing mentoring and role modelling to the current academy aspirants.

Just as the central spine of a team is crucial to onfield success, so an Academy-nurtured understanding of what the club is about contributes crucially to the team’s overall spirit and resilience.

Physically, we know the heart is the muscle that needs to be strong and well prepared to bear the load of effort and athleticism, and it needs to be well monitored and cared for by a staff with the fitness and effectiveness of the players at the forefront of their focus. A good heart comes from careful and informed treatment and expertly managed exercise, where the needs of the individual are paramount in shaping the overall team.

But while the heart’s role in physical strength is based on science, our human belief in the heart as the metaphorical seat of our emotions has also a role to play in the football academy.

Young footballers are not machines – though they may be monitored and checked on a daily basis. They cope with all the normal challenges of adolescence in addition to the pressures of trying to make it as elite sportsmen. For this reason, they need to be surrounded by good hearted staff who care for them as people, as much as seeing them as talent to be further developed. Any adult who works  with young people has to be aware that they have a duty of care – whether legally  or morally imposed.

There are many who would suggest that football and winning matches must trump over all in an Academy, and that the high stakes being played for in the top level  game these days mean that the pressure is on everyone involved to “deliver”.

Luckily more are now realising the value of emotional intelligence, empathy, and  positive interaction. This means that the recruitment of Academy staff needs to go  far beyond technical or even coaching expertise. We all know WHAT we want to achieve at an Academy, but successful staff also focus  on HOW it is achieved.

Academy staff are not just teaching skills or fitness or nutrition or game awareness, they are working with young people at the most formative stage of their lives, young people who may be footballers for ten or fifteen years, but who will also have lives to lead beyond that, and alongside that.  Their development has to be personal as well as professional, emotional as well as technical. Good hearted people, folk who genuinely care about their players, are best placed to provide this kind of positive development. They need to do more than pass on skills, they need to give of themselves.

The players need to feel that care, need to trust the staff and feel valued by them – as individuals, not just as positions in a team plan. The good news is that players who are helped into this “good place” by staff, and who feel confident in themselves as people, are best positioned to make good progress on the field, as well as off it. They are better able to take on board coaching and other information, more prepared to take the risks and meet the challenges which will drive their development to full potential.

If they can approach the training centre or game day in good heart, they will have fewer distractions, a calmer approach, and the best chance of performing to their top ability – which fulfills the Academy aim.

Progress needs a firm jumping off point, just as a good heartbeat augurs well for general fitness and mental alertness. For this reason, young players need to be offered a vision – not just in a philosophical sense, but in a practical sense also, answering their concerns about progress. What is the route they will take? What role models can they follow? Is there a loan plan for them? How will they be monitored and supported? Are there dual career opportunities – in trade apprenticeships, college or degree courses, coaching and  sports science qualifications. What role is there for parents and family? The Academy carries a precious cargo and needs to be fit for purpose, and the road ahead needs to be well signposted.

And at the root of all of this is the need for a good heart – in the club and in the Academy.

Because an Academy is not just about football, it is about people.

People with good hearts.

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