Updated: Apr 10
Academy football is a fast paced, high-pressure environment which tests young players to the absolute maximum. Each year, thousands of children between the ages of 9 and 18 train week-in-week-out in the hope that by the time they turn 18, they can demonstrate enough ability to secure a professional contract.
The time investment and sacrifice made shouldn’t be underestimated. I can remember vividly the car journeys with my dad travelling an hour each way to Wycombe Wanderers twice a week, and then travelling up and down the country for matches on the weekend. I expect some of you reading this are probably traveling further, and have had to make even greater scarifies to keep the dream alive.
It’s a highly competitive environment where success and failure are often defined by the smallest of margins. This continues to be true at the full-time scholarship ages between 16-18. With the rewards of a career in the professional game being so lucrative, parents and players all around the country will do whatever it takes to make it to the top. This includes extra training sessions with private coaches, investing in strength and conditioning sessions and buying the latest boots, gloves and equipment to stay ahead of the game.
I’m not going to sit here and preach to you that I didn’t have access to all of the above. I was lucky that my parents were so supportive of my journey and were willing to do whatever it took in order to help me achieve my dreams of becoming a professional footballer.
However, like so many that enter the system...
I was an architect of my own failure.
Having had time to reflect and look back on my experiences, I can say with 100% certainty that my failure to make it to the professional game wasn’t down to a lack of resources, but rather down to my inability to create the optimum mindset I needed to have a career in the game.
By the age of 14, I was training with the First Team goalkeepers and regularly training with the U16s. Occasionally I trained with the U18s on day release. I was in a great position, but after the academy at Wycombe closed down due to the introduction of the EPPP, I found myself lost.
Suddenly, the sacrifices didn’t seem that important anymore.
I stopped doing the extra training I used to do to improve my game.
I didn’t prepare my kit the night before a match.
I would waste time on my playstation.
I would spend time with friends the night before a game.
In other words...
I had the ability, but my mindset let me down.
If you ask the majority of people who were previously involved in academy football and are now out of the professional game, they’ll blame the system, the club they were at, or how they just weren’t physically big enough.
While some of those factors may be true in individual cases, and I have experienced those factors myself…I can say with honesty that a key reason I didn’t make it was down to me and my mindset.
There are thousands of kids in the system who, like me, have the ability but don’t know how to apply themselves.
I can tell you from my 9 years’ experience in the Academy system and 5 years working with experienced and aspiring professionals that ability only gets your foot in the door. It’s your mindset that keeps you in the game.
So why are we so keen to invest our time in private training sessions, strength and conditioning, and equipment, but reluctant to develop our mindset?
I’m convinced that my career path would have looked very different if I had the knowledge I have now. So let me share the things I would do differently if I had a chance to pursue my dream again.
Here’s 5 non-negotiables for Academy Footballers.
1. Sacrifice Short Term Pleasure for Long-Term Reward
One of the first things you learn as an academy footballer is how to sacrifice. Without knowing, you do it every week when you turn up for training – sacrificing your time which you could be using to better your education or recharge after a hard day at school.
As you get older and venture into the U16-U18 territory, the distractions become greater and more appealing. I remember well one Friday evening that there was a house party that all my friends were attending and I had a major fear of missing out.
I chose to go to the party and left early because I knew I had a game. I didn’t drink but I got home around 11pm and went straight to bed. I woke up the next morning and felt fine. I went to my game and had one of my worst performances of the season.
Was a few hours out with friends worth the shame and disappointment I felt after the game?
Was it worth the 6 hours of time my dad had invested to drive me around the country?
The challenge about sacrifice is that you have to give-up what you desire and want in the short-term in order to gain the thing you really want in the future. We call this Delayed Gratification.
Having a mind on the bigger picture is challenging, because:
It’s easy to go to the party.
It’s easy to lay-in and not go for that run.
It’s easy to eat junk food after a game.
It’s easy to stay out late with friends.
While many of you might not see it as a skill, being able to sacrifice what your mind desires for what is disciplined is one of the greatest skills you can learn as an Academy Footballer. The number of players I know who should have got a career in the game but didn’t because they couldn’t sacrifice is frightening.
Let me tell you have to improve your ability to sacrifice and become more disciplined.
Have the Bigger Picture in Mind
A great way to improve your ability to sacrifice and be disciplined is to visualise and remind yourself of the bigger picture.
Players I have worked with in the past have done this many different ways:
Writing specific goals down as part of their bigger picture
Having an image on their laptop screen as a reminder
Creating a vision board of all the things they want to achieve and aspire towards
Having the bigger picture in mind allows people to act and think in manner which will be beneficial towards the things they are trying to achieve. It acts as a constant reminder in to your daily behaviours that there is something in the long-term that you are trying to achieve, and in the short term, you should do specific actions in order to work towards that goal.
If you watch interviews with current professionals where they reflect on their childhood and some of the sacrifices they had to make in order to achieve success, they always refer to having the bigger picture in mind and envisioning themselves becoming a professional.
To quote the late Pele:
“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.”
So the next time you are confronted with a hard choice…or have the fear of missing out…just remember the bigger picture. Every action that does not direct you towards your goal is someone else’s opportunity to get ahead of you.
Don’t be the architect of your own downfall like me.
2. Get out and Stay out of your comfort zone
You learn very quickly that football is a harsh game and only those who can adapt are the ones who survive.
My first every experience of Academy Football straight out of Sunday League at U9 was at Chelsea FC. I went to the club for a 6 week trial, and after some initial success demonstrating my abilities, I was invited to stay for a further 5 months to prove I was worthy of a contract.
Having the knowledge of being secure for the next 5 months was the worst things that could of happened to me…
Because it allowed me to enter my comfort zone.
The comfort zone is the worst place that you can find yourself as an Academy Footballer because it is the place where you allow other people to catch-up with you and ultimately, you stop developing as a player.
You end up cruising through sessions. You’re more tolerant of mistakes. You’re lose interest on how to improve and ultimately you stop growing.
The worst part about the comfort zone is that it’s also very hard to recognise that you’re in it!
I stayed on trial at Chelsea for a further 5 months and fell deeper and deeper into my comfort zone. I behaved like I was one of the signed players. I would walk around family and friends like I was signed at Chelsea even though I was only there on an extended trial. I would go into sessions without being mindful of what I was really there to demonstrate and achieve in the long-run.
In other words, I was a victim of the comfort zone.
Fast forward 5 months and it was decision time. I went into the board room with my mum and dad to speak to the Academy director and he asked me how I thought I had done…
It wasn’t until that moment where I reflect on my entire time at the club that I realised I had started so promisingly, only to let my levels drop-off to mediocrity.
My fate was inevitably sealed.
I knew I was told I wasn’t going to be offered a contract.
6 weeks of brilliance followed by 5 months of mediocrity.
The comfort zone had killed me.
I sat in the car and I cried the whole way home. My mother consoled me but I felt empty because I knew the only person I could blame was myself.
The comfort zone is one of the biggest career killers in Academy Football.
Let me show you how you can beat it:
Challenge yourself beyond your limits
During your time in the system, you’ll have, what I like to call ‘lightbulb moments’ where you figure something out and everything clicks into place.
Towards the end of my time training with the academy goalkeepers at Wycombe, I began to enter my mental comfort zone.
I was 14 and training with the U16 goalkeeper at the time. The volleys and shorts weren’t particularly hard, yet I was happy to parry shots I knew I could catch when we were doing the drills. My expectations weren’t high enough and I was happy to cruise through sessions because I knew I had the ability to do what was required of me.
My ‘lightbulb moment’ came when the first team goalkeeping coach invited me to train with the first team goalkeepers.
Suddenly, things weren’t so easy anymore.
The ball moved faster.
If I parried into the danger area, they would score the rebound.
The first team goalkeepers were catching everything.
I was very much out of my comfort zone.
The trigger moment for me was when I was doing a low diving drill and I parried the last save of the drill. The goalkeeper coach said to me:
“Next season you’ll be catching that.”
All the first team goalkeepers started to laugh, to which I replied:
“I want to catch them next session.”
I came in the following week a different animal. I had higher expectations of myself. My intensity around the goal was sharper. I pushed myself to my limit to catch everything. I trained like a superhero. It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had in a training session.
When I got sent over to train with the U18s, I was a completely different goalkeeper. I began to catch more around the goal. I began to communicate more. There was more of a swagger about my game.
All because someone pushed me out of my comfort zone.
Getting out of your comfort zone is as easy as picking something in your game and asking yourself:
How do I take this to the next level?
It might be kicking for example – if you’re great at pinging the ball with your stronger foot, can you do it with your weaker foot?
If you’re great with your weaker foot, can you do it while the ball is moving?
Can you do it first time?
Can you do it on the volley?
Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is how you level up your skills and capabilities. All too often, players are happy to stay in their comfort zone because they can avoid mistakes and do the minimum to get through sessions. If you want to revolutionise your game, you need to think about how you can develop certain skills and techniques beyond what you have already mastered.
Get out your comfort zone and push your limits. You’ll be surprised what you’re able to achieve.
3. Learn to Train Effectively & Purposefully
Knowing how to develop and train purposefully is one of the most underrated mindset skills you can learn as an academy footballer. It is a skill that, over time, separates those who go on to develop and have a career in the game vs those who drop out of the game and never reach their true potential.
The worst part for me was that I only found out about this skill when I turned 17. By this point, I had lost 4 years of time where I could have developed my game to a completely new level.
Training effectively and purposefully is training with the intention to improve a specific skill or thing in a particular session. So as a goalkeeper, for me it would be working specifically on my footwork to get across for a collapsing save. For a forward, it might be working on their finishing, but specifically on different types of finishes around the goal (e.g. first time, laces, toe poke, side foot, chip etc.).
The reason this is such an important skill for player to master is because if you truly understand what you are working on and trying to develop, you gain yourself the opportunity to get feedback and learn from your experiences.
The best way I can describe it to you is when you’re in a training session…
How many times a week do you go to training, complete the training session, but never ask yourself what you learned and why you did specific drills?
How many times do you make a mistake but not ask yourself why the mistake happened and what you would do differently next time?
This was me every week. I would train. Do hundreds of reps across different drills, but never understand what specifically I was trying to develop.
It wasn’t until I read this really great book called ‘bounce’ by Matthew Syed which talked about the idea of ‘purposeful practice’. Purposeful practice is training with a specific focus and goal in mind, allowing you to develop skills to a point of consistency, then taking yourself out of you comfort zone to develop this further.
I began applying this to my training sessions and I found I was able to pick up information quicker. The coaches would give me points to work on and I was able to apply them more efficiently. I began to understand the game on a deeper level and eventually, I was able to learn new skills in a few sessions.
The problem in football, and from my experiences working with Academy and professional players is that they don’t know how to train with purpose and learn from their past experiences. It’s a critical skill which all players should be able to use in every session, so let me show you how you can build it into your game:
Have a Meaning in Every Session
One of the best ways to develop a purpose in your training is to have a meaning or a focus. What I mean by this is having a specific focus for your training sessions and setting goals around them.
For example, if you have identified that you’re not confident with your weaker foot, why not practice taking risks and playing out from the back with your weaker foot in small sided games?
Why not take 10 balls at the end of the session, and practice clipping into areas to develop your muscle memory?
Why not have the focus on your first touch with your weaker foot when you do specific drills?
By having a meaning and a focus in your sessions, you instantly have intent to develop that specific component of your game which will maximise your development efficiency in that specific skill or task.
If you just go into sessions with no focus or meaning, you end up drifting because sessions, whether you like it or not, tend to be very similar in nature from day-to-day.
So, before you walk onto the pitch, ask yourself:
1. What is it I’m working on today?
2. How am I going to work on it?
3. How am I going to know If I’m successful?
4. Once I’m successful, how can I push myself out of my comfort zone?
Players who engage in this process get far more out of their training vs those that don’t. The only question left to ask is:
Are you willing to try something new to maximise your chances of success?
4. Find balance between Education and Football
As an academy footballer, you get used to the idea of having very little free time and having to sacrifice a lot of things in your life to attend training and prepare for matches. It goes without saying, but life as an academy footballer leaves you with very little time to do recreational things because when you’re not playing football, you spend all your time catching-up with homework and doing educational things which normal kids would normally do when they get home from school.
Mentally dealing with this concept can be challenging for players because after a long day at school and then having to perform under pressure as an academy player, all you want to do is go home and switch off…
I know how challenging it is because I’ve been there. I used to do homework in the car on the way to training. I used to do homework when I got back from training and weekends used to be filled with study hours in order to keep up with my schoolwork.
Balancing football and training is incredibly challenging because both require maximum focus and dedication. Football needs time investment and focus so you can perform at your best, while your education needs maximum application in the case that you are unable to have a professional career, and therefore have something to fall back on.
I know lots of players have different mindsets about school and education.
Some believe that theyre going to go all out with football because if they focus on one thing, it improves their chances of being successful and having a professional career.
Others are like me, who appreciate that the chances of a professional career are less than 1% and therefore, not having an education to fall back on would mean setting yourself up for a fall if you get to 18 and don’t get offered a professional deal.
In my situation, all I can say is thank God I got qualifications because when I was told I wasn’t going to be offered a professional contract at 18, I had countless options open to me, having secured 10 GCSE’s and 3 A Levels. There were other players in my group who weren’t so fortunate, and the psychological stress of being released began to manifest in the idea of not knowing what their future held next.
Having a Plan B and a solid education, for me, is a non-negotiable for all academy footballers because:
1. It takes the pressure away from ‘having to make it’
2. Gives you practical skills which you can use on the pitch
3. It helps you cope with transition if a club releases you
Despite this, many players that I have worked with in the past struggle to manage their time and come out of the education system with sub-optimal grades. While in the short-run, they do not tend to regret this through lack of reflection, in the long run, they nearly always regret this because they are seeking employment beyond football.
It’s one of the biggest mistakes that young players make during some of the most important years of their lives, so let me show you how you can manage your time better and stay on top of your education; allowing you to truly thrive during your time in the academy environment:
Have a Proactive Mindset
One thing I learned very quickly during my time in the system is that time is a huge commodity. Between going to school, travelling the country on weekends, and training 2-3 times a week, you soon realise that you have very little time and ultimately your schoolwork suffers.
I’d be lying if I said I got this right the first time round…It took me a while to understand that I needed to be more organised than the average person because ultimately, I had less spare time than the average person…
One thing I was really guilty of, was leaving homework and general schoolwork to the last minute. I would be scrambling around the night before deadlines trying to get projects and assignments completed.
I was constantly finding myself under pressure…both on and off the pitch.
Something had to change – so I decided to start doing school work as soon as it got assigned.
I began planning my week on a Sunday as opposed to just floating through the week and hoping there was enough time to get everything done.
I would get home on non-training nights and just fly through all the work I got set. When it came to exam season, I would dedicate Saturday afternoons (after morning training) and Sunday afternoons (after matches) purely to my revision and education.
It’s the best decision I ever made, because being organised off the pitch allowed me to train and play matches without any stress in the back of my mind. I knew as soon as I walked on the pitch, everything in my personal life was in order.
I also knew I was giving myself the best chance to thrive academically, because as we all know, in football, the chances of sustaining a career in the game are less than 0.01%.
Being proactive sets you apart from the rest.
It allows you to reduce stress and pressure, which ultimately allows you to spend more time focusing on your football when you step onto the pitch.
You can get ahead of most players just by being proactive and organised. It’s a skill that demonstrates maturity beyond your years.
Apply this simple skill and watch things change.
5. There are no friends in Academy & Professional Football
This is a point that most people might say is a bit ‘over the top’, but it is something I believe to be true.
Academy and professional football are ruthless environments which champion performance above all else.
Whether you like it or not, there are no prizes for how good you are academically, how many after school clubs you do, or how many friends you have in your team.
When clubs are making assessments on your future and your potential, the two things they are judging you on are your performance and your psych-social ability.
The reason I say that there are no friends in football is because it is all too easy to turn the training environment into a social club.
I’ve seen this happen from U9s all the way through to First Team Level, where players lose focus over their performance and instead, become engrossed on their social group within the club.
They become more focused on their social group at the club, and who works with who during drills as opposed to focusing on their development and performance.
I know this happens because I’ve witnessed it and experienced it for myself.
During my time as an extended trialist at Chelsea, I became way too well acquainted with the other goalkeepers in my group. They were supposed to be my competition…But I got lost in the idea of building good relationships with them, as opposed to trying to take their place in the team.
The worst part about this was that I didn’t realise I was doing this until the week of my retain/release meeting.
As soon as I buckled down and applied myself more ruthlessly, my performance improved drastically. I was making more saves in training. I played with a higher level of aggression. I was just generally more motivated for success…
But it was all in vain because I recognised the unfolding situation too late.
Don’t get me wrong. Being able to build relationships is an incredibly important skill. There are players I’ve played with in the system who I know for a fact were only signed because they were good characters for the dressing room.
The point I’m making is that if you are overly focus on your social interactions with others in the building, you are likely to lose focus on what you are ultimately there to achieve.
The most successful players I have observed and worked with have this ruthless, single-minded mindset to focus on the goal they have in mind, whilst negotiating their ability to build relationships with their peers.
They never get too close or too distant from the group…but they recognise that the only person who’s going to secure that next contract, is them.
Let me show you how you can add this to your game:
Create Two Mental Modes
A great way to separate the personal and the professional when in the football environment is to create two masks or personalities that you can become in different situations.
This will help you separate personal and professional relationships around the training ground and on the pitch.
The best way to do this is think back in the past and reflect on what mindset has allowed you to play your best when you’re on the pitch, and what mindset allows you to remain most focused and purposeful off the pitch.
For example, on the pitch, you might identify that you’re at your best when you are confident, dominant and aggressive – that way, every time you walk onto the pitch, you try and become those three words as consistently as possible.
When you are off the pitch, you might identify that you’re at your most productive when you are focused, active and dedicated – every time you are in the building or involved in training like education or gym, you can refer back to this mindset and this will allow you to focus on the right actions.
The key here is to have two masks or personalities you can become when it’s time to work.
Players all too often get caught in the fun of the dressing room and their personal relationships with their peers.
Having two mindsets and personalities which you can refer back to will allow you to remain focused on your bigger picture and get the best out of yourself when opportunities present themselves.
My Final Thoughts
For me, the points I’ve listed above are non-negotiable. They’re non-negotiable because without them, like me, you’ll find yourself edging out of the game. The point’s I’ve made seem basic at face value, but when your in the rush of day-to-day life and being asked to perform under pressure constantly, it can be challenging to remember them.
I hate seeing players fail because their mindset lets them down. There’s so much talent in the system that never gets tapped into because players are never education on how to access their best. Things like planning their week or ensuring their education is organised may reduce their stress levels by 1%...but it’s that 1% that might make a difference on the weekend. It might be them challenging themselves on the training pitch that allows them to discover a new superstrength that they never knew they had…
Applying these simple principles may just give you the 1% you need to progress your career. They seem basic, but I guarantee that they will put you ahead of the majority of other players in the system at your age.
Academy football for the most part is all about finding ways to separate yourself from other people to maximise your potential and performance. Your behaviours, your performance and your day to day actions all start with your brain…
Why not invest in your mindset?