The football career pathway is tough and highly competitive. It’s also very short.
The Premier League and Football League say between 60% and 65% of the 700 or so scholars taken on each year are rejected at 18. Half of those who do win a full-time contract will not be playing at a professional level by 21, according to the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA). Even successful professional footballers often retire at an age when the careers of those in business are usually just starting to take off.
Former Crystal Palace midfielder Gavin Heeroo knows only too well how quickly the outlook can change. After being released in 2004, he developed a gambling addiction. “I think there’s a lack of support [for young players],” he says. “Organisations need to be more accountable. I always strongly believed that if football didn’t work out, I could do anything I put my mind to. Other kids might not be so lucky.”
Gavin conquered his betting habit with the help of the Sporting Chance clinic and now runs his own business. But what can the football industry as a whole do differently to better support players during and after their football career?
By drawing parallels with other industries and their HR, recruitment, training and development and career transition practices, football clubs and academies can examine and implement best practice to provide better structures and support.
1 The recruitment process
The heavily regulated recruitment industry in the UK means that the recruitment process for businesses is required to be robust and fair. Candidates are given multiple opportunities to show employers what they can do.
Recruitment for a business vacancy will normally begin with a publicly advertised description of the job role including the person specification and job description. This will be posted through numerous channels, allowing as many people as possible access to the opportunity. Candidates will be given a reasonable time in which to put together their application, and all applications should be considered on equal grounds, regardless of the background and demographic of the candidates.
The interview process may involve various stages, during which candidates are allowed time to demonstrate a range of skills required by the job. These may include a face-to-face interview, a written task, a presentation, and skills assessment at an assessment centre. Feedback is usually given and candidates can reapply for the same or similar roles.
In contrast, the football academy recruitment process varies widely between clubs.
While specific criteria may be set out (for example the “SUPS” speed, understanding, personality and skills assessment format used by Arsenal Football Club and others), the criteria are limited to a physical rather than psychological assessment. And a football club’s talent identification programme assessment is often done by one scout watching one match, so the analysis is subjective.
Incorporating more rigorous individual skills testing, such as sprint tests for speed and psychometric testing for personality, will give football academies a more comprehensive understanding of a young player’s potential.
And by working more closely with schools and grassroots clubs (as colleges do with local businesses), football academies can put more structured and inclusive talent identification and talent development processes in place.
2 Relationships with decision makers
Professional football clubs depend on the views and opinions of their employed scouts and coaches for identifying talented players. One single relationship can therefore make or break a career. For young players, this can be particularly brutal.
Young footballers often only have a few seconds to impress a scout, often during a match in which they may or may not be positioned best to showcase their skills. This method of recruitment places a lot of pressure on children, who will no doubt be very aware that this may be their one opportunity to secure their future.
Former Bolton captain Kevin Davies, whose son is in the club’s academy, recalls watching a match where he had seen under-10 players “reduced to tears” by the pressure. “Kids need to be kids,” he says. “If they are good enough and have the right attitude, they will get there in the end.”
In business you would typically have multiple opportunities to impress a potential employer and develop relationships with colleagues and managers. The decision making process is usually more open, with decisions being made according to mutually understood business objectives or job specification criteria.
Increasing openness about decision-making processes gives football clubs an opportunity to develop trust, establish better relationships and help young players understand exactly what is required of them. Communication skills training for football clubs is a key step to achieving this.
3 Talent management and career development
League Football Education (LFE) was set up by The Football League and The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) to provide training opportunities for young players, such as the Apprenticeship in Sporting Excellence (ASE).
The PFA also runs education and qualification courses. As Pat Lally, PFA Director of Education, explains: “Football is a short career and you will probably have to earn your living in another industry, so it makes sense to prepare now.”
But the football club training and development schemes provided often focus on giving young players the knowledge and skills they need for a career in football, rather than preparing them for their life and career after football.
The Newleaf Post Football Career Programme is much more comprehensive. Having worked across many industries including manufacturing, local authority and multinational FMCG companies, we have developed a programme more closely aligned with the career transition training and redundancy support packages available to employees through large businesses.
On average, people in business will have four careers and many different jobs. Good employers recognise that to attract the best talent, they need to offer training and development opportunities that challenge employees beyond the core skills required for their job and help them to develop transferrable skills and qualifications for their future career path too.
“Any coach will tell you that practice is a good thing,” says Kevin Davies, “but specialising in one sport can lead to boredom, psychological damage or injury.”
Football clubs have a duty of care to ensure they look after their young players during and after their career. As less than 1% of young players spotted by scouts will go on to live their football dream, this support should extend to developing the skills, experience and qualifications they will need for a career change when they retire from football.
4 Support networks
In business there is a network of people who can support employees, from HR, L&D (learning and development) and occupational health officers to your line manager and peers. Companies are duty bound to offer employees support, and the Equality Act 2010 protects people from discrimination, for example on the grounds of mental ill health.
One in four footballers suffer depression yet the sport has in the past not had robust mechanisms in place to deal with this. Where support does exist, footballers can be reluctant to access it for fear of it being viewed as a sign of weakness.
In business, mental health support services and attitudes to seeking support for mental health problems have greatly improved in recent years, and awareness of employers’ legal responsibilities is increasing, thanks to campaigns like ‘Time to change’.
But despite many high profile sportspeople speaking out recently about their own mental health problems, football has a way to go yet in catching up with business on this issue.
5 Communication skills training for football club managers, and aftercare support for ex football players
The autonomy that businesspeople experience in their career differs greatly from the level of control that football clubs have over the lives of young players. When a player is released from their old club, they can experience a complete loss of identity and feelings resembling bereavement.
Coaches and managers often haven’t had any communications skills training or support to handle delivering bad news, and the impact of the resulting life change can be devastating for footballers.
In contrast to the security of comprehensive redundancy financial packages and career transition training and support that ex employees in business often receive, many ex pro footballers are simply cut adrift.
Craving the adrenaline rush of the game and a need to win, many ex pro footballers turn to alcohol, gambling and drugs – and 40% of pro footballers go bankrupt within five years of leaving the game.
By bringing in effective communication skills training for football managers and implementing career transition processes and redundancy support for footballers, football clubs can help prevent so many young ex players slipping through the net.
Newleaf has created a comprehensive programme to manage aftercare of players released from football clubs and put control back in their hands to build a successful life and career after football.
Can you add any lessons that football can learn from business? Please share your experiences in the comments box below.