An articulate piece from Elias Burke for the Athletic UK. Here Elias portrays potential difficulties faced by released academy footballers. With input from a former player, Liverpool FC’s head of player care, and ourselves. Here’s a snippet, with a link to the full story below.
Each year, hundreds of young football players are offered a full-time scholarship by a professional club; 85% of these will not receive a professional contract. By the age of 21, many of these players are without a club at any level.
For these young players, it is very likely that football will have been their life for as long as they could remember. Many highly touted prospects are attached to a professional club before they hit double figures, and the status that comes with being an academy player will form an essential part of their identity. Leaving a situation that you have been in for over a decade is hard enough in any circumstance, but when you have given your whole childhood to your dream – for it to end often without notice – the next steps for a young person can be daunting.
Louis Langdown, alongside his business partner Adam Wilde, both 42, founded the Football Family in 2017 with the help of Southampton FC players Jack Stephens and Sam McQueen. The mission of the non-profit organisation is to provide pathways to ensure young, recently released players – who have spent their childhood involved with professional academies – land on their feet after receiving the life-altering news.
Langdown – who is also assistant manager at Weymouth FC in the National League – highlights the worrying signs from scholars at professional clubs that raised his initial concerns.“We had a couple of players who were in their second year of YTS (Youth Training Scheme now better known as a scholarship). We were getting players on loan from pro clubs, Bournemouth, Southampton, Aldershot. We noticed they were energetic and charismatic. Then it would flip, their mood would become less confident, less talkative, less committed perhaps? Their performances would dip on the pitch. That all came around decision time.Louis Langdown during his time as fitness coach at Crystal Palace (Photo by Olly Greenwood – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)
“You’ve got a bit of hope as an 18-year-old. When you go out on loan to non-league teams, there’s hope there that you’re going to get taken on – there’s a need for you to kick on. People are taking notice of your performances, there’s feedback all the time.
“When the decision comes around in March, April time and it’s firmed up that you’re possibly not going to be (continuing the scholarship at a professional club), things change, and then it’s a case of ‘how do we manage this’.”
One of the biggest issues for young players after being associated with academy football for much of their adolescence is the loss of identity. When the existence of a young person has often been predicated on how well they play football, being told they are no longer good enough in the eyes of the coaches who have helped develop a young player into an adult can be utterly devastating.
“They are a little bit lost and devoid of direction,” Langdown comments. “When you consider everything has been done for them up until the age of 18 – they know their itinerary for the day from the moment they wake up – when that’s removed, it becomes very difficult.
“They are in their own headspace and they lose that direction. For me, it’s about finding direction. What can we get that takes some time and challenge them? That’s really the key problem.
“Another thing they say all the time is that they are no longer ‘the footballer’, they no longer belong to something. It’s about finding where they do belong and giving them something different to connect to.”
Please follow the link for the rest of the story….
There is a new ‘player’ in the support and development of the modern footballer, welcome to the team ‘Player Care’. Among the now ingrained and accepted players like technical coaches, sport scientists, analysts, nutritionists, conditioning coaches, physiotherapists, and educational & welfare officers, we find player care staff building its reputation, and their relevance.
I interviewed Hugo Scheckter, former Head of Player Care at West Ham United and posed three generic questions; what is player care? what does it look like in practice? and what player care might look like in the future?
“For me, player care is prevention, it is a blanket of human interaction and ideas to stem the negative affects of a ‘result’ driven business”.
This is probably the best description I’ve come across. I’m often asked what player care is and what it involves. I have done it a disservice in truth, but I’ve maintained its purpose is to reduce the stressors of normal life and promote mental wellbeing. In any year, one in four people across the UK will be affected by mental illness. Common mental disorders being depression and anxiety which can have a debilitating impact on the sufferer. Player-specific factors may precipitate or exacerbate anxiety disorders, including pressures to perform and public scrutiny, career uncertainty or dissatisfaction, and injury.
The human interaction Hugo refers to is the gateway to identifying potential stressors and reducing their significance. This is something that in a high-performance environment that can often go unnoticed. On any given day at the club, its staff, and the playing squad follow a detailed itinerary of start and finish times. Frankly, ‘organised chaos’ would better suit as a description of most training grounds. As a coach you can become consumed by the clock, and your session detail for a group of up to 25 players and miss the subtle signs an individual player may exhibit when in trouble.
It takes a trained eye and an understanding of your players character and ‘normal’ disposition to pick up on behavioural changes. Can you read their body language? Do you know your athlete well enough?
“We had a player whose mother moved with him and she didn’t speak English. He would be constantly coming in frustrated to training. Observing a change in mood prompted a discussion. We found out he was having to drive her around, translate for her and when he arrived home after a game or training, she would ask him to do things with her that she was unable to do alone. This had gone on for about a month, so we found a local taxi driver from the same area of their home country who could drive her around and translate and help her out. We put him on a monthly contract and the player was suddenly happier and his performances on the pitch improved too”.
For me, it’s not the scale of the problem that matters, but the ability to recognise there may be an issue, present a resolution and map the outcome. A mother gained her independence and support in a new country and culture, and the players mental wellbeing improved. Great result. Mental wellbeing can be defined as when an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to contribute to his or her community. I think that happened here.
“I’d like to see some regulation or code of conduct in place to try and make sure the provisions given to all players are as equal as possible”.
This now makes sense. Hugo has left his role at WHUFC to head up a consultancy-based company on Player Care, player well-being and team operations. As far as I’m aware, this is the first of its kind, and as such The Player Care Group represents innovation. The step away from club attachment might be to realise the very vision of equality among footballers in the level of service and approach each club provide in their player care strategy. When you’re employed by a club your priority is of course to that group of players and staff, the very essence of competition does not lend itself well to cooperation. As an independent he can offer examples of good practice and effective procedure to promote fairness, equality, and ‘prevention’.
“I think clubs are coming around to player care being a differential maker, where the difference in the happiness and player retention from clubs with good player care to those without is clearly shown. It’s a cheap way of clubs making a difference as the clubs don’t pay for the expenses – the only real cost is the employment costs of the people involved”.
What we do know anecdotally and through the voices of players is this; when they are HAPPY, they play their BEST football. Evidence enough?!
Football is a results’ driven business with a vast array of metrics used to benchmark performance. Subsequently, we know what is below and above benchmark for technical, tactical, and physical behaviours. Thus, the impact of technical coaches can be found in deviations in passing stats and attacking actions. Conditioning coaches can point to an increased number of match day sprints, an impressive standing jump height or a reduced body fat percentage as a means of validating their input and knowledge. When a penalty kick is saved Analysts will replay their video collections on penalty takers and with justification celebrate in the success of the goalkeepers save.
Player care is the new kid on the block. It needs time to develop, to find its feet and establish empirical evidence as to its impact on player performance. But it will! Today’s Footballers are a constant ‘live’ experiment. Advances in technology and specialist staff can gather the most detailed activity profile of the player and translate their state of readiness both physically and mentally. In a sport awash with finances at the top end, and staff determined to present meaningful recommendations in the support of player development and the football environment, our ability to link player care provision to increased performance levels will arrive. Look out for, and look after the human.
Check out Hugo’s website https://www.playercaregroup.co.uk/
Keywords; Player Care, Mental Health, Wellbeing, Football, Performance
In a series entitled ‘inside the academy’ this blog reflects on the experience and insight gained from visiting professional football clubs and discussing pastoral care for players past, and present.
Liverpool FC are the first to feature. Accepting an invitation from Michael Edwards (Sporting Director), the gates to their new purpose built training facility in Kirkby opened, and a seat n the luxurious boardroom awaits. The two-day trip happily coincides with the visit of KRC Genk for a double header, result! The U19’s fell to their first UEFA Youth League defeat of the season after Genk scored a stoppage-time winner claiming a 1-0 win at the academy. Only for the senior side to avenge that loss with a convincing 2-1 win at Anfield only a few hours later. Honours even.
In truth, this was a fact finding mission with the focus on pastoral care, and the aim of sharing good practice. Firstly, it is worth saying that the experience we receive from club to club varies greatly. You simply cannot second guess what might happen when you enter a training ground as an ‘unknown’.
If you’ve never had the privilege to step foot beyond the imposing iron gates of any Category 1 training ground, allow me to paint the picture. On arrival most share a striking resemblance to that of a military base, or the institutions designed to house the countries undesirables. A gatehouse and barrier are always the first indication you’ve arrived at your destination. A security guard appears from the comfort of an enclosed office acutely aware of your arrival some 500 meters away as the multiple camera feeds update every inch of the sites boundary. Security checks conducted, questions answered via an interactive screen, photographic ID produced, the security staff satisfied and our arrival announced, a stark contrast awaits when you pass through the lacklustre entrance.
Greeted with immaculately presented grass pitches (thank heavens for some prevailing traditions of the modern game), roaming youth players and passing staff meet you with a hello and smile. Our first impressions? A welcoming atmosphere littered with polite and humble people. With striking logo emblazoned buildings and pitches as far as they eye can see, this is a disciplined functional environment.
The enjoyment, the insight, and the importance of the information earned is dependent on the people you encounter. Our first meeting was with Alex Inglethorpe (Academy Manager). I’d already had a few conversations with Alex over the phone, and knew by his tone and the passion in his voice, player welfare was firmly on his radar. We had an engaged audience. A good start.
As is the case in the football world, and those that have made football their working life after playing has stopped, there’s a ‘feeling out’ period at that initial meet. You bounce questions and slowly latch onto each others stories of yesteryear. Crossover almost always happens in what is still a very insular and network driven industry. It’s not what you know and all that. Ours was a fairly obvious common thread. In the lavish surrounds of elite football we bond over non league coaching and management. Kindred spirits of all things non league Alex at Leatherhead and myself and Adam at AFC Totton. Cutting your teeth in coaching with players that love the game and play for for enjoyment and beer tokens (mainly). We talk about the relative unknown skills a manager needs in non league such as; washing kit, driving the mini-bus, pumping up balls, meeting sponsors to squeeze whatever money you can to keep your club afloat, not the usual coaching badge content.
However, it’s your development in dealing with people that is probably our biggest learning curve when transitioning from player to coach. Being both a mate and the gaffer throws all sorts of challenges and curve balls to any aspiring coach. To the non league player, football is their outlet, their enjoyment and often their distraction. You have to invest in the players’ life. Find out what stresses and strains they are enduring. And help! There is no safety net in non league, you become the expert in psychology by default, or you fail in helping the mental health and wellbeing of your players.
The talk of why myself and Adam have spent time to create a support network for ‘the football family’ takes us through the first 30 minutes of our time together. All fairly scripted, the standard dialogue you would expect from a person in a senior figure at an historic and established academy on the subject of mental health.
And then that human connection hits Adam and Alex like a train, almost instantly the guard drops. All it took was for Alex to mention Tommy Taylor (his former coach at Leyton Orient). Adam smiles, “he gave me my league debut for Cambridge United as a 17-year old”. Well that’s’ me done for the next 10 minutes.
Now firmly a lunch meeting, we had two new additions join our table. Enter Yvie Ryan the clubs Performance Coach. How Yvie is utilised by the club is interesting. The first of our three take homes messages. Traditionally, coaches and sport science staff would recognise a player showing signs of distress in their behaviour and would either refer the player to the club psychologist, or request the psychologist to arrange a meeting with the player. Either way, any diagnosis and initiated strategy would be owned by the appropriate department or staff member.
Here’s the twist. Alex sees Yvie’s work more akin to that of a ‘consultant’. She is there to educate and upskill the frontline staff involved with player development. Ensuring she is a regular visitor to the grass, the gym, the treatment room and analysis suit. In practice this places Yvie in effective collaboration with the player and staff member, increasing what we like to call in the academic world ‘ecological validity’.
Ok, so I said earlier that we had two people join our table. Welcome King Kenny. Now I can’t tell you any of the wonderful anecdotes or memories of Sir Kenny Dalglish’s career, these past times remain his to tell, and ours to enjoy. Suffice to say, he can hold an audience and we were very fortunate to have the ear of such a footballing legend. Two hours flew by and it was now approaching kick off. What I can tell you is this, there is an ease and rapport between Kenny, the youth players, and the staff.
Kenny recalls with alarming accuracy a youth football festival some weeks prior to our visit, even naming the stand out players. The U19’s are huddled in the foyer awaiting a team meeting prior to beginning their pre match warm up. Each player that catches the eye of Kenny either nods, smiles or greets the man. Kenny had time for everyone. He added an enthused commentary on the game events throughout to the small cohort of people stood in close proximity from our balcony view. Often challenging the lads in certain situations (including the Genk players) and congratulating touches, skilful movements, and always praising brave blocks and individual work-rate for the team.
It was a great insight into how to integrate, respect, and treat a club legend. But key to this was the humility and eagerness of that club legend to be part of the process. Football courses through the veins of many an ex player. Having a former decorated player, coach, manager and director of football walk the walls of the training ground strengthens the ‘Liverpool connection’. I’ve not witnessed many operate in this way, but I’m hopeful it happens. Basic learning and teaching theory points to ‘lived experience’ as a key theme in the transfer of knowledge. Who better to act as a sounding board for staff and a presence around its youth players? This surely is ‘added value’.
And lastly, our third take home message. And this is quite innovative. Liverpool have created a new role tilted ‘Alumni Manager’. This was designed with the idea of contacting and supporting those players no longer at the club. In a shift from the norm, this adds a new dimension to player welfare. Focus has remained largely on the registered players for many successful academies with a conscious effort to reach out and assist released players. Now a leading football power is trialling a new initiative to promote ‘Alumni support’, could this be adopted by others?. Open to all players who have at one stage represented the club at any playing level or age.
This for me this missing across the sport. If you read the following extract from my former colleague Gary Issott, and Alex’s equivalent at Crystal Palace FC, he says; “As an industry we’ve got to do more for post-player care. It’s a traumatic experience, effectively players are being sacked if they don’t get a new contract. It affects your finances, your wellbeing, your ego and status, your dreams, you lose friends from a dressing room environment. So it’s a huge trauma leaving a professional football club.”
Candid, blunt and hard hitting from a man who’s spent over 20 years living and breathing everything associated with youth development. Players’ transitioning out of the game is so complex. Retirement, injury and unemployment all manifest a number of serious mental health issues.
The PFA will do well to share a coffee with Alex as his team capture this impactful longitudinal data. How can we triage the trauma? We can but raise awareness of the good initiatives and share practice that has a positive impact on individuals. This is after all about helping people. Get sharing, keep caring.
Match day at Anfield is always special. Just before kick off, and on cue, Liverpool supporters enter full Gerry and the Pacemakers mode. It’s a spine tingling moment. The presence of its former players at Kirkby and Anfield, together with the creation of the Alumni Manager are further evidence that at Liverpool FC ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.
“Southampton Football Club, over a period of time became a lot more than just a football club to me, they allowed me to do things I didn’t believe possible, meet incredible people and live my dream. But more importantly I made friendships with people for life, felt cared about and welcomed which as a 14-year old moving away from home is something that overwhelmed me and made my experience better than I could imagine!”
Former Southampton Scholar
In an unusually candid interview Ian Herding speaks with an authority and passion on his duties as Life Education and Performance Officer at Southampton FC. Ian helps to shed light on typical and non typical ways football clubs tackle the ‘unspoken’ issues of player welfare. We are undoubtedly living in times of change when it comes to sharpening the focus on a structured and proactive duty of care for our footballing hopefuls. The sharing of good practice is one major leap forward in what must be a connected and purposeful attack on how we value preventive measures.
Ian displays an impressive
schedule of events for the current playing season. In total facilitating and coordinating 144 targeted ‘life education’
sessions for registered players between 9-23 years. These include crucial
guidance in off-field learning outcomes such as; social media awareness,
financial planning, car and insurance dealings and other topical ‘house keeping’
administration. This to many would resonate as typical channels of support and
expected currency at most Academies, not necessarily out of the ordinary.
So, lets look at the atypical, and the extraordinary
If you asked yourself how many academy footballers have travelled to a foreign country and addressed its Chancellor and visiting Presidents’, your reply I’m guessing would match my own, zero? Except of course those fortunate group of 14 and 15-year old schoolboy players from Southampton FC whom travelled to Germany. Their reason? To take an active role in a World War Commemoration Service. Angela Merkel (German Chancellor) and Emmanuel Macron (French President) among the 1500 strong parliamentary audience, heard the wonderful tribute of World War 1 hero, and talented footballer, Walter Tull, as told by a 15-year old Southampton FC player.
The service was broadcast live
on German TV with figures of 3.5 million viewers. Was it luck that this U15 group
happened to include a teenager with the courage and confidence to articulate such
a moving tribute to a captive, somewhat daunting, audience? Or can we trace the
character building work of Ian and his team to suggest ‘luck’ isn’t responsible.
The players learn about the
tragedy of War and the heroics of allied and enemy service men and women. It’s
a fascinating insight into the history and politics that clearly galvanise and
promote a far wider appreciation of individual courage, leadership and sacrifice
for the greater good.
When I think back on my time
as a young player and reminisce about the good old days, stories of those trips
together as a team are never far from conversation. I can’t always recall the
most basic of information, or retain the most important of facts, but along
with my friends we can, and do get lost, in the happy chat of footballing vacations.
The club and Ian are firm advocates of the benefits a residential footballing
trip can bring.
The conscious effort to ensure
at least one foreign excursion per season for all the age groups testifies that
resolve. Supported by his colleagues, trips to Italy for example are coupled
with Italian lessons and the cooking and eating of the local cuisines. Cue geographic
and cultural insights preceding the trip promoting an awareness and understanding
of its people and landscape. And maybe you
have a few additional lovers of all things Italian.
Careers day was another ‘life experience’ session that caught the eye. In conjunction with an external partner and part of an annual dedicated series, the U15’s visit Sky Studios. Working in small teams the players are briefed with real world contemporary issues such as teenage obesity. They then research around the subject and prepare to conduct a ‘live broadcast’ of their newly acquired knowledge.
Identifying their own strengths
and interests the players decide on what role they would like to occupy;
presenter, camera man, sound engineer, director and so on. After some teaching and
tutorials from the respective experts the players put together a news reel the
like you would see on Sky News. Cutting from the studio to an outside broadcast
and back again. This is all filmed and made available to each player recording their
achievements. Could this lived exposure to alternative careers maybe spark an
interest for the future should professional football not materialise? I believe
Shared experiences and open dialogue seem a constant with Ian. ‘Captains corner’ is a scheduled meeting with the respected captains and vice captains of all age groups from U13’s upwards. A chance for the players to talk informally with the first team captain. A simple but effective opportunity to bring your age group leaders together to gain insight from Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, and Steven Davis before him. This I really like, it provides a team within a team, and draws on experience from respected players throughout the club. Another of the positive learning environments that get ‘buy in’ from all corners of the football club.
the alumni database, and the approach to the released footballer as detailed in
the first part of this interview, we are beginning to see the Southampton Way.
Ian, on behalf of the club,
sits on the Premier League Player Care committee as one of six invited members.
Their remit; to research, discuss, design and implement new initiatives in supporting
players’ mental heath and wellbeing. There remains a battle to invest in worthy
initiatives, and an unwillingness to discuss the negative affects of the industry.
But the voice of the released footballer
is becoming louder. I can’t think of a better person, or football club, to
contribute and lead this growing area of responsibility to football and its footballers.
Ian Herding is arguably the most important person at Southampton Football Club you’ve probably never heard of. But to all released academy players he is the go to man.
Lost in a mass of dedicated Academy staff befitting the now world renowned Category 1 Academy at their magnificent Staplewood base, the Performance Education and Life Care Officer conducts his pioneering work in typically understated fashion.
Southampton are an innovative football club. It’s a word that most organisations want to be associated with, and all too readily pronounce, but few ratify their claims with substance or evidence. This two-part interview provides insight into good practice with the hope it may spark the imagination of our footballing community. Separated into two themes titled; ‘The released footballer- gone but not forgotten’, and; ‘Life education-the Southampton way’.
How do you define innovation? For me, it’s simple;
“Innovation is anything new, useful, and surprising. Great innovation often leaves you thinking, wow that’s a good idea, why didn’t I think of that”.
None more so evident than their approach to the ‘released player’. While the world wakes to ever increasing stories documenting the struggle of mental health issues of footballers, it’s reassuring to hear that preventative actions have, and are, well under way when it comes to the 99.5% that don’t make it to first team level. Recent cases of bullying, depression, anxiety and unhappiness within Academy football settings are as alarming as they are distressing. Let’s try and redress the balance with some innovation.
With pleasant ‘surprise’ Ian opens his laptop to display the clubs ‘alumni database’. Eight years of data tracking 165 released players at the end of their scholarship (U18). A permanent evolving record of their current playing status, career pathway, and specific educational and vocational support offered by his team/ the club. A database that grows organically through the concerted efforts of its creator, as is customary with a practiced auditor. The crucial part is most notably the human interaction. Ian details their last communication logging the conversations. So much so that with an air of certainty he’s able to update me on some unfamiliar names to the average Southampton fan among this talented crop of 2010/11.
The avid Saints fan with just a cursory glance at this youth team photo will probably be able to recognise the fresh faced footballing success stories of Ward-Prowse, Reed, Shaw, Chambers, Isgrove, Turnbull and Hoskins to name a few. But to a former employee pictured with this crop some eight-years past, it was the familiar names of Nicholas, Foot, Curtis, and Young etc. that grabbed my attention. Lee Nicholas was ‘let go’ after his scholarship, and Ian was able to update me on his timeline since. Entering full-time education and gaining qualifications from Loughborough and Solent University, the degree graduate then went on to improve his coaching qualifications with the support of the clubs academy staff acting as mentors. He is now employed as the Coaching and Development Officer in the foundation arm of the club. An FA affiliate tutor he’s also one of the academies foundation phase coaches, completing a full cycle in impressive fashion.
Perhaps offering the most powerful testament or indictment of the work Ian and his team undertake are these honest opinions of the released player. Personal reflections from the player and their parents on how they perceive Southampton FC’s after care provision seem to vindicate the need and validate the process. What a rich collection of data! The academic in me is itching to investigate the qualitative data and examine player differences and perception (on hold for now). Within the remarks Ian highlights one or two negative statements in which he refers to as “important to appreciate so we can reflect, evaluate and improve our practice”. But on the whole, the feedback is heart warming.
“The club and the people involved with the club did more than enough to prepare myself and the other members of the team for life after football, and I couldn’t be more grateful! The help they supplied us with has led me to the next chapter of my life which is at a University in North Carolina, without the help I was given I would neither be prepared and able to do this without the club and the people within it”.
Player who spent 4 years at Southampton before release at 18.
“I will forever be grateful for the time people at the club have spent making sure my time there was the best it could be, but also the time they spent making sure we grew into be good all round people and live good lives whether it was with football or without”
A released Scholar.
In a data driven world why don’t we introduce some numbers. Southampton released 11 players from the U16 group from the 2017/18 season. All 11 players went on to sign a Scholarship at a professional football club, a 100% success rate. The following season 10 players were released of which 7 have signed with professional clubs, 2 have entered higher education, and 1 is unaccounted for at the time of writing. Is this tremendous statistic by chance? No chance.
The club operate an exit strategy for all released players. It is of course the nature of the beast in this occupation, and considered by many academy football practitioners as the toughest part of the job. Ian, aware of the decisions and which player’s will need his support, prior to parent and child meetings begins his work immediately. Acting almost as an agent or intermediary on behalf of the player. Contacting clubs through an extensive network built over time he is able to forward a comprehensive dossier showcasing their talents to any prospective new employer.
The detail is exhaustive. A combination of written documents and video files offer a true reflection of the players’ performance metrics. It’s true that since the inception of the The Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) in 2012, accountability at club and staff level has increased tenfold. Every staff member associated with that player’s development contribute to a mix of objective and subjective information. Technical coaches offer summary of their skills, highlighting strengths and weaknesses supported by game statistics and periodic performance reviews; analysts capture game and training footage; conditioning coaches map the physical load, training data, and current maintenance or production programming, with a mix of performance measurements that chronologically define the player’s output. Some CV!
It is not always an easy process for both Ian and the player. The administrative duties are far-reaching , player incomings and outgoings within an academy take considerable expertise and knowhow. Notwithstanding the logistics of transport, accommodation and kit, there is always the overriding governance of the Premier League, the Football League, the Football Association, and the club’s internal policy and procedures to comply and satisfy. On behalf of one individual Ian contacted 54 clubs, with the player unsuccessfully trialing at 9.
Today, the player remains unattached and Ian remains determined.