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  • Harvey Steel

The Unseen Challenges On Academy Players

Rejection, expectation, pressure and jealousy are common challenges that we all expect to encounter during our adulthood, however for many academy players these challenges come at a much earlier age.

Would I love to be an academy player again? Yes, in a heartbeat, without a doubt! During my time in Cambridge United’s academy system I experienced moments, memories and matches that will stay with me forever, but my footballing journey from eight to eighteen was far from plain sailing and I know many others would say the same.

Rejection in any aspect of life leaves a sour taste in the mouth and with rejection comes a feeling of embarrassment. It results in you asking questions of yourself, questions you probably never considered when the journey was running smoothly. At eight years old I was offered a trial with Cambridge United FC after impressing in the clubs ‘shadow squad,’ now known as the ‘Elite Centre’. After an initial trial period, the club continued to monitor my progress throughout the season by inviting me along to train and play fixtures most weeks but unfortunately, come the end of the season I was not offered a contract and so returned to the ‘shadow squad’ and continued to play for my village side, Milton Colts FC. This rejection did not register with me in the same way it did just weeks ago, when I found out I would not be receiving another contract at the club. Aged eight, the rejection went straight over my head. I was sad for a moment of course, but then went back to doing what I loved most because with a ball at my feet I was, and still am at my happiest. However, as the years went on, I would begin to understand the demands of being an academy player, physically, mentally and socially, beginning when I was signed by Cambridge as an U14.

Being an academy player during your school years is tough. In primary school you are fought over like the last toilet roll on the shelf during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. As you progress through the early school years, you’re the hottest property during lunch time El Clásico’s but by the time you get to secondary school… everyone is trying to end your career especially the older lads! But being talented in any sport at school comes with more than just that, there’s jealousy, and a certain weight of expectation for you to deliver wherever you play. Some thrive off that expectation, as I’d like to think I did but there was an underlying sense of envy towards me and my achievements, which I could never understand.

Expectation is thrust upon elite athletes whether you're aged 10 or 32, it doesn’t matter, and there’s a spotlight, created by external people, which they are thrust into. It feels like someone saying, ‘go on then, let’s see what you’re all about then’. You could argue that this is a good thing, it helps you to practise for when the pressure is on but what people don’t understand is that a school fixture, a school playground game or a kick about with a group of friends is a game off. It’s a game to relax and enjoy, after all, your academy coach isn’t watching – the pressure and expectation should be off, but it isn’t. The expectation and pressure to deliver is still there and if you don’t perform, well then… “how the f*** are you in an academy?”. What I didn’t understand at a young age was that you don’t need to prove yourself to everyone. You don’t need other people to tell you you’re good enough to be in an academy, just enjoy playing football and enjoy being in the privileged position, you deserve to be in. You will never be able to please everyone and if you try, you’ll exhaust yourself, causing things like relationships and your football to suffer.

Jealously is something that really got to me during my time at school. I loved competition, but this wasn’t competition, this was people around me waiting for my failure. I struggled to come to terms with this as in my eyes I was still the same Harvey I had always been, but now that I was doing well, others looked at me differently. It took an emotional conversation with my mum for me to finally understand what was happening. I got the answers to so many of the questions I had been trying to figure out myself. Why are people acting differently towards me? Why do people want me to fail? Why don’t they support me? Were they bad friends? Definitely. If there is one thing, I have learnt from being an academy player it is that you need to surround yourself with genuine people who are pleased to see you achieve and encourage you to progress in everything you do. What I didn’t realise was that this was the first life lesson of my footballing journey that I needed in order to reach my dream of becoming a professional footballer. I slowly realised that people will always want you to do well, but never better than them and better than them, I was doing. This honest reflection on who was really supporting me caused me to begin maturing much earlier than I expected.

Pressure is a measure of force exerted on an object. For academy players, pressure links to expectation and it starts becomes a norm in everyday life, wherever you step. Academy players are constantly faced with the pressure to perform, in every training session and every game. It’s a pressure that simply comes with the job but at ages eight to sixteen, the pressure can be too much to handle. Jacob Joseph, a good friend of mine and a talented footballer, sat in Cambridge United’s academy system from ages 7 to 14. but aged 11 things started to change; the pressure was too much to handle. I spoke to JJ about his story. ‘’It began when I was 11-12, I had lots of muscular injuries which is rare at that age. When I got back to fitness and playing, I felt a huge pressure to perform and, although I was reassured by the coaches at Cambridge several times, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by the thought that I could be released at any time. It was really tough to deal with and it was during the U13’s season that I was at my worst. I felt a huge amount of anxiety before games, I couldn’t think right, I couldn’t get in the zone, before every game my head would be racing at a million miles an hour. I was doubting my ability more than ever despite being reassured that I was good enough several times! By the time I was in the U14’s it all got too much and it was for my own good that I had to leave. I physically couldn’t carry on.” He continued, “from my experience it was never the coaches who put pressure on me, they were fantastic and were quick to reassure me about any doubts I had but for me, I felt a pressure from myself, to perform, to impress and to progress but eventually it all got too much.” JJ is now playing regularly for St. Neots Town FC, enjoying the sport he loves most. JJ’s story shows clearly the pressure that young players put on themselves and how difficult it can be to continuously battle with yourself and your thoughts. In a similar way to the jealousy players face, the pressure made him question himself and what he really wanted from life, resulting in him making big life decisions at a young age.

Being a footballer is regarded as one of them best job there is, and I can assure you from spending two years playing football every day it definitely is the best job out there. But if you do want to be a footballer, you have to live a different life to others. Facts, but what people don’t understand is how different that life is. To give yourself even a chance of making it you must make ‘sacrifices’, it’s always stressed by academy staff, ‘make sacrifices’ but what are the ‘sacrifices’ that academy players have to make? Firstly, you will have to sacrifice part of your social life and accept that you can’t do all of the same activities as your friends, as well as accepting that you are on a completely different career path. As a footballer you have to look after yourself and your body. The demand on your body is constant, travelling to and from training, the actual training 3+ times a week and a game at the weekend which could be anywhere up and down the country, it requires the top preparation. Not only do you have to sacrifice part of your social life but also part of your education. However in my experience, CUFC would always stress the importance of education ahead of football as I would find out. When you get to age 14 and you’re in the academy system, given your school allow it, you are able to go on ‘day-release’. For those that don’t know, ‘day release’ is when one day a week you leave school to go and train with your club. The day involves a classroom session where you are given chance to catch up on your work your missing in school but being realistic, we all know a group of football lads in a classroom aged 14 isn’t the most productive working environment but like I already said earlier, CUFC would stress the importance of education ahead of football, like I found out during my scholarship! After this session, the rest of the day is spent replicating a full-time footballer’s day. Training, lunch, training again, gym and then home. Day release is exhausting, I remember piling onto a crammed guided bus after the day had finished, struggling to get a seat and when I did… straight to sleep! On more than one occasion I can remember nearly missing my stop. When you do get home however, you can’t just relax; you have to do homework. If you ask many young players in academy systems, they’d tell you their education took a back seat during their footballing journey, due to many different things like missed time in school and desire to simply play football. When you get to 16, battling for a scholarship while doing your GCSE’s is a whole other story, balancing education with football is a tough, tough situation and for some can be way too much to handle.

So why do we put ourselves through it? For the love of the game! Strip back everything to do with football, money, fame, nice cars etc. and ask every academy boy if he’d still play, I bet the answer would be yes. We go through these challenges in order to follow our dream, to become a professional footballer. A huge benefit I saw within myself from being in an academy system was that it helps you mature earlier than you or others expect due to the situations which you find yourself in. I felt obliged to write this piece on behalf of all the academy player out there who go through these challenges. This piece wasn’t about how bad being an academy player is because that’d be a lie, it’s fantastic, but it’s about developing peoples understanding of what academy players go through at young ages to give themselves just a chance of making it as a professional footballer.

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