Every year, hundreds of young boys travel to football clubs in the U.K — known as soccer to those in the US — to pursue their dream of making it as a professional football player. The thought of pulling on a jersey in some of the world’s best-known football clubs has a motivational force that is so strong, feelings of joy, happiness, and excitement, would be hard to measure. These feelings not only materialise in the player but also manifest in the parents, who are so elevated that they will probably use their month’s worth of free phone calls and text messages to tell their whole network of friends, family, and work colleagues. However, the dreams of fame, fortune, and status are not always within reach, and this is one of those times.
Upon return from Millwall FC in the late summer of 1993 to go to a Rave in Belfast (I’m not kidding), my life spiralled into a vicious cycle of risk-taking behaviours supplemented with drugs and alcohol. When I left Belfast for trials with numerous clubs, I had no formal education, so when I returned, one of the choices would have been college. But I didn’t want to do the work; all I wanted to do was go out with friends and party. These choices would have a massive impact on my life. Why? In 1995, not 2 years after returning, and completely disillusioned with football, I was in Hydebank Young Offenders Centre in Belfast. Life with a different set of Rules was just beginning!!
The ten areas I have set out below are based on my experiences during the late ’80s to early ’90s with 3 different clubs: Southampton FC, Leicester City FC, and Millwall FC and what support parents need to provide to their child before traveling to the club. Additionally, it also includes the support required if they return, having not made the grade — the real importance.
1. The Power of Social Skills
When they leave home to travel, live, and associate with other aspiring football players in a new environment, they must possess social skills to help them integrate. You need to recognise how they behave in different situations, how they communicate, do they mix well, even in family situations? Are they easily distracted with games, phones, and T.V.? To assist them you need to review all these skills before they leave to give them a proper start at settling in new surroundings.
2. The Power of Education
It is essential that whatever club your child joins that they continue with their education as Plan B. I cannot stress this enough. In developing a Plan B, they will have other areas to pursue if they don’t make the grade. Or if they do make the grade, they will have a solid base to start afresh when their career ends. Make sure you reinforce this message to your child and ask what education services are provided at the club. Do not view educational achievement with an attitude of, they’re not smart enough, football will be their saviour. This was the road to my ruin in my story.
3. The Power of Attitude
Once you get the call or the visit from the scout to inform you that they want to take your child across for trials, you need to be mindful of your child’s attitudes to their existing life. The feelings of confidence, passion, and motivation will be nothing like you have ever witnessed. However, you need to guard against their overconfidence, or where their attitude can be harmful to someone else or their situation. Remember how they think and feel drives their behaviour. If they jump into new accommodation giving it the Big I Am, they will swiftly get dropped down to earth with a bump.
4. The Power of Hope and Aspirations
You need to manage your expectations and theirs. The research on young footballers from Northern Ireland traveling to the U.K. and not making the grade is between 86–94%; that’s a lot of dreams crushed. We all have dreams, but supporting your child with realities before they leave is crucial. You can manage this based on how you communicate with your child, as you know what emotions they display when you talk to them. Giving support is of huge importance, but you need to be real.
5. The Power of Rejection
There are a host of reasons your child can return: homesick, failure to integrate, coaches don’t like their style of play, not the right size, build, or technical skills — the list is endless. However, if they return home, you need to recognise the negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions that will dominate their thinking. It’s a well-known fact that issues of mental health materialise once they get back home, as they deal with not only having their dreams crushed but how they communicate that to their family, friends, and wider social network. They will have 1000’s of thoughts at once, which can overwhelm them. It is up to you to support, praise, and keep them focussed on their next step.
Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit at home and think about it. Go and get busy”.
— Daymond John
6. The Power of Routine
One of the most important when your child returns. They will be returning from an environment when they had to get up, train, and eat lunch daily to a schedule. The last thing you need to facilitate is a break from routine on return. I know this can be difficult, but if you let their thoughts drive their actions, they will not want to go outside. Assist them in identifying what they want to do, speak to local football clubs, the governing body welfare officers, and identify college courses related to their interests.
7. The Power of the Environment
There should be no difference, nor should any be tolerated, about the home life or community your child is returning to. If you help reinforce the thoughts of’ you tried your best, or no one from this area gets anywhere bull shit, you will reinforce doubt, and negative feelings in your child. If your child wants to take action to change their situation, you need to support that every step of the way. Depending on what age they return, they should have their whole life ready to pursue.
8. The Power of Doing Fuck All
Avoid at all costs. It’s all too easy to let them get into a cycle of self-pity, anger, resentment, judgment, and low self-worth. This is a cop-out and is harmful to them bouncing back into reality. You mustn’t let alternatives replace the highs they felt when they were playing (drink, drugs, and risk-taking behaviours) as this can lead to a breakdown in relationships for everyone. (See final remarks at end of post) Its human nature that they will need a blow out, or let of some steam. However, this should be done in a short time period.
9. The Power of Starting Again
If your child is uninterested in getting back into football upon their return, then help them identify what other options are available. The love for football may or may not return as they deal with their emotions. They may return to their local team, just for the social aspect of playing the game with friends. Talk to them about what interests them as a possible career path, and work with them through research on google, phone calls to local colleges or agencies to identify next steps.
10. The Power of Mentors
Talk to people at their former club, to identify if there’s someone that could help guide them either in their career or returning to the game. You can contact local organisations in business or sport who may also recommend someone. Is there someone in the family that could assist? The mentor must fit their needs at that time, and guide them in making choices that will benefit them.
The real story is being
knocked to your knees and then coming back. That’s real glory. That’s the essence of it.
— Vince Lombardi
On reflection of these ten areas of support. I hope that you, reader — parents of young males who are about to enter academy structures — have grasped the importance of each area. It has taken nearly 30 years to sit down, reflect, and start putting my experiences on paper. The pitfalls when your hopes and aspirations end up in the toilet can be harmful. It should be noted that mine was a choice, your sons may not be. It may be taken by the club, coach, manager, or even you.
. . .
Let’s go back to the beginning. When I returned from Millwall FC I was sitting in a prison cell within two years. Amazing when you look at players I played youth football with; Mark Kennedy (Liverpool and Man City) Julian Joachim (Leicester City, Aston Villa) and Ben Thatcher (Millwall, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City) Me? I had left football in the rear-view mirror, and went to prison. For the next nine months, I was wearing a number, not the kind you wear on your football jersey, though. No, there were no fans chanting my name in here. If there was, it was Lights Out. There’s an irony in that somewhere. It was only when left alone with my thoughts in the 10×6 cell that I started to realise the actions I needed to take, to get my life on track.
The prison provided a range of courses in sports coaching, exercise, and personal development and I consumed every one of them (Fill Your Boots or Playing The System). When I left the prison I was more qualified than when I went in — a bonus. However I didn’t stop there: I went on to achieve a BSc (Hons) degree at Ulster University in Sports, Exercise, and Leisure, after returning to Education for five years. Not bad for someone who left school with no qualifications. So you can start over, even under the most extreme circumstances. Yes, I did start playing football again. Road Runner Out!
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
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