academy football?

"to sign or not to sign? - that is the question!"

catalan kids sat on bench in barcelona

As the professional football clubs increase their annual spend in the search for players, the number of young players being 'scouted' to take part in Academy training sessions has increased exponentially. Professional clubs no longer have a single Elite team per age group, many clubs now have a second-tier called a 'shadow squad', and even a third-tier labelled 'development centres'. In a desperate attempt to hoard and recruit as many young players as possible, the professional clubs nationwide are in a rat race to find players they hope will be a financial asset to their business in the future.

will playing at an academy help my child improve?

Absolutely! Whilst being the kingpin at their grassroots club is likely to build your child's confidence, the opportunity to play with other talented players will also give them a solid benchmark to measure themselves against. Players that participate in Academy training sessions develop their speed, quickness of thought and may even learn new skills from other players. Participation in the Elite, Shadow Squad or Development tiers at a professional club can be a time consuming and serious commitment.

At age categories 6, 7 and 8 players cannot sign a contract with a pro-club, but parents will still be invited to train at the given clubs 'Elite' sessions or 'Pre-Academy' which depending on the club may train 2/3 times a week for between 90 minutes and 2 hours. This number of hours can sometimes result in physical and psycholgical burnout. Parents should monitor their child closely and ensure that any physical discomfort or change in the childs mood are not ignored.

Your typical 'Shadow Squad' will usually train once, maybe twice a week, and usually at the professional clubs own facilities. 'Development Centres' are operated as satellite sessions usually in more remote locations in an attempt from the pro-club to 'spread the net' as far as possible.

Whilst the bigger football clubs absorb the associated costs of the coaching provision, you may find yourself being asked to pay a fee by the smaller clubs. The Development Centre subscription fees will be used to cover the costs of pitches, coach wages, equipment and administration of the respective centre. Some centres break even, some turn a profit, and others make a slight loss with any shortfall being subsidised by the club.

Be wary of these 'paid' Development Centres (DC's). There are many DC coordinators out there that have little ambition for kids in the centres, but are driven to recruit players to cover their operating costs. For every good DC operated by professional clubs, there are usually a couple of not so good ones. Seek feedback, observe carefully and monitor the quality of tuition taking place in the sessions.

Development Centres being the third tier of the Academy systems, they are vulnerable to less quality control and sessions may not reflect the philosophy or methods being implemented on site at the Academy premises with the Elite groups. Elite classes are run by the clubs most competent coaches, Shadow Squads are usually staffed Elite coaches working extra hours, or by coaches that the club feel have a promising future and would like to see work with the better players.

character building or soul destroying?

There is a hiring and firing protocol in place within all academy structures. Elite players ages 9+ will be subject to a retain or release decision every 12 or 24 months depending on the length of their contract. Players whose contracts will not be renewed are offered a place in the Shadow Squad.

Shadow Squad and Development Centre places are offered to players on a 5, 6, or 7 week term, with a decision to retain or release the player at the end of each block. Release from a Shadow Squad sees the player offered a place in their local DC.

'Release' from a DC means that the child is released from the club entirely, and the player will need to seek an offer from a different pro-club, or continue to play back at their grassroots team in the hope of being monitored and re-scouted in the future.

Most kids dream of getting 'scouted' by a professional club. However, before subscribing to what can be an emotional rollercoaster, parents should consider the positive and negative impact it may have on their child's self-esteem should they be released or 'dropped' by that club in the future. No child enjoys feeling that they are not good enough, and as such parents should consider the effects on the childs emotional well being in the event that they are let go. Some children are more emotionally sensitive than others, and there have been cases where a child that has been released by a pro-club have been so heartbroken that they have stopped playing football altogether.

On the other hand, there are important lessons that can be learned from any process that lends itself to 'survival of the fittest'. The children must be at their absolute best in every session. They must learn to listen and pay attention in what can be highly formalised and structured learning environments - potentially very different to grassroots. The boost to the child's feelings of self-worth from being scouted in the first place can resonate in the child's confidence for months and years to come, feeding into their appetite to play the game even if they have been released.

summary - where do we go from here?

Weigh up the travel, time, training quality and fuel costs. Weigh up the risk of your child's confidence taking a knock, against the confidence boost it will give them having the opportunity to train with a professional football club. It can be the realisation of a dream for some kids. Maybe support them and see how far they can go? Succeed or fail, manage the expectations of your child and help them understand that at some stage they may need to step off the ride and start again.

We thought it would be worth mentioning that some football clubs use third-party coaching providers to extend their catchment of players. These independent coaching providers operate outside the FA's Academy guidelines, in an attempt to boost their appeal its more than likely they will tell you they are working 'in partnership' with a professional academy. Be careful when dealing with these Academy 'partners' - more often than not they are using the badge of the professional club to aid their recruitment efforts, but only benefit from a minimum level of support from the 'partner' club - if any at all.

The reality is that these third-party providers use the pro-club's badge to entice players into their coaching sessions, and in return they will pass on any 'superstars' they come across to the professional club's academy. In most cases, there is little or no day-to-day contact between the two parties, and the pro-club have no input on the quality or content of the third-parties coaching sessions.

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