The lamentable lemmings of talent development
This is one of those posts that is probably going to get me into trouble...
But I can't stay silent anymore...
My father used to say, "if you hold someone's coat...you may as well have punched the other bloke in the face yourself". In other words....if you enable things to happen by doing nothing, then you are complicit in creating the problem in the first place".
It was his version of the famous quote by Edmund Burke
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (sic) to do nothing.”
So I need to write this...whatever the personal or professional consequences...
I overheard a conversation outside the school while waiting to pick up my daughter...it made me feel sick...
One of the mum's was talking about her 9 year old son's football 'career' and some of the worries she has about it all...
She said that he is currently training 4 times per week in an 'academy' run by the nearest premier league club (an hour and 15 minutes away) and he also does football year round with his local club (the 'off season' lasts 3 weeks!). More recently he has been scouted and offered trials at some high profile professional clubs. She told me that she is secretly hoping he doesn't make it because of the strain it will put on them as a family and the concern that she has for his well being.
This mother used to play high level sport herself and knows a thing or two about the challenges of elite youth sport and she is concerned but at the same time she also feels powerless because she thinks that if he doesn't get into these programmes now that he will 'miss out'.
This is not an isolated case...
I was at a county hockey training session and was chatting with some of the parents. One of the Mum's was telling me that her son had only started playing hockey this year as he was heavily into football. He had been in a premiership clubs 'pre academy' for a couple of years but had been let go at the age of 9, he then went to a football league club's academy for another year but they too decided that he wasn't good enough...he now plays for a 'Junior Premier League' team (with about 5 other 'academy rejects') who travel all over the south of England to play games and training 2x per week doesn't stop all year round. She estimated that he was doing in excess of 20 hours a week of football and that he regularly gets home after 11.00pm from football training, tournaments and matches. While he was in the premiership academy it was costing so much in travel and also the training went all year that they didn't have a family holiday for 2 years.
She openly admitted that it concerned her but she also said that they weren't 'sporty parents' and didn't really know what they were doing...they just felt that they should do their best to provide him with the opportunities.
He is 11....
This BBC radio show entitled, 'Manchester's Cold War - The battle of footballing youth' tells the story of how professional clubs are competing to recruit and identify talent in children as young as 5.
Recently Manchester United posted this advert for a 'Lead Phase Scout for 6-8 year olds'.
Here is the job purpose and a few selected lines from the role description Purpose: To lead the Pre-Academy recruitment strategy and help coordinate the Academy scouting operation and gain market intelligence for Manchester United Football Club in the North West region. To work closely with the Pre- Academy Manager and offer support to other lead phase scouts within the club. Proactively contribute to the management of the club’s local casual scouting network. The Role
Primary responsibility is to oversee the recruitment strategy within the Pre- Academy phase, ensuring Manchester United Academy have leading market knowledge. Also coordinating the casual scouting network to identify, track, recommend and support the recruitment of grassroots players of potential interest to Manchester United Academy in the North West region.
Liaise with other lead phase scouts to share information on players that are cross-market.
Compile and maintain ‘target lists’, ‘monitor lists’ and ‘market depth lists’ for Pre-Academy players of potential for Manchester United in the North West region.
Promote a positive market identity for Manchester United with local communities, representatives, clubs, federations, families, and all key contacts.
Contribute to the arrangement of scouting activities such as tournaments, recruitment events and games programme as required whilst maintaining links with the emerging talent centre staff regarding club and community links.
Notice the language...'market', 'market identity', 'target lists', 'market depth lists'...
One of the biggest professional sports clubs in the world feels that it is totally acceptable to talk about 5 year old children as being part of a 'market' and wants to create lists of 'targets' and a positive 'market identity'. How did we get to a place where this kind of 'commodification' language is publicly acceptable? Professional clubs are using the language of the market when talking about human children! The same human children who still get a coin under their pillow from the 'Tooth Fairy' and are looking forward to searching for chocolate eggs that have been hidden by the Easter Bunny.
At least in this case the exploitative nature of the relationship is in full view....at least parents that buy into these places do so knowing that they are trading their children's childhood and turning their off spring into human currency.
In other sports it's less obvious. It is done by stealth, children and parents are being 'manipulated' implicitly to begin serious training in sports earlier and earlier. They are provided with options that they feel that they have to take for fear of their children 'missing out'. They commit time and money to ensure that their children have the 'best chance' possible. They pay for private sessions with so called 'skills coaches' who promise to turn their child into an academy player. They make personal sacrifices, holidays get cancelled or are wrapped around training sessions or tournaments. Other siblings have to follow along...the family becomes consumed with chasing the dream. A dream with worse odds than winning the lottery....
To me, this is an example of the free market gone mad. Each club or sports team is in what has been dubbed 'a race to the bottom' to secure kids with 'talent' so that they can give themselves the best chance of producing players that will assist their team to do better or they can sell them on for a profit.
If you look at some of the policies that exist you can see why these sorts of behaviours take place...
If a policy document says things like...
"The Performance Pathway will be calculated on the basis of a system that begins at U5 and continues to U21"
It's not really that surprising that clubs and coaches are acting in this way is it?
'Performance Pathway'....for children that haven't learned to ride a bike yet?
What in the world....?
These are children, they shouldn't be anywhere near anything called a 'Performance Pathway'. They should be playing, they should be developing relationships with friends, they should be given opportunities to create and experiment, to be goofy, to pretend and use their imaginations.
Instead they are sitting in cars with adults, travelling to and from training or matches, doing their homework in the back seat, eating their dinner on the way home, being told what to do, when to do it and how to do it.
I don't think I am alone in being concerned that these children are having their childhoods mortgaged for them by a system run by leaders and policy makers who should know better!
When did we start thinking that it was OK for pre adolescent kids to be 'training' 4 times per week?
When did it become OK for people to be celebrating 4 year olds as elite players in clubs?
When did it become acceptable for children to be doing their homework in the back of the car on the way to and from sessions?
In what kind of sick sports landscape do we think that it is a healthy way to spend your childhood?
When are the people that are in charge of talent development systems going to recognise that this needs to stop?
When is the idea that children are more than a commodity to be recruited, developed and sold for a profit?
There are people globally who are fighting back....brave souls, taking time to share an alternative vision...to champion the rights of children to play, to have choice and to grow.
A community of people pushing back against the 'vulture capitalism' infecting youth sport...trying to push back the tide...trying to call for a new model...for a rethink....for a reset...calling out to the better natures of people in positions of power...people of influence.
I recognise that I am one of those people so I am making this pledge...one way or another, I will do whatever I can to give those people a voice...to hold the mirror up to the system...to challenge and question and push for change.
We have been working on this with a small group of passionate people for a year - we have been finding common purpose and a shared vision - soon we will share these ideas with the world and we hope that you will join us in the mission to change children's sport...to forge a 'grand collaborative' of people calling for change and wanting to be identified as doing it differently.
If you are one of these people please write to me and tell me your story...I promise that your stories will help to bring about change...they are powerful...they help to raise awareness.
I realise that this is a blog and I am calling for a new approach...I am expressing a position that won't necessarily be shared by everyone. I will be criticised for sharing my views in this way...some people will want to say that 'it depends' and that it isn't black and white...they will create clever memes that criticise me for sharing 'absolutist views'. Well for me this is one of those things that is an absolute....it is black and white....you are either on the side of children's rights and you want to change things or you are standing by and letting it happen - academic snobbery is not going to silence me - it's time to stand up for change...it's time to pick a side. You can be one of the lemmings or you can be one of the people that stops the madness.
As Burke went on to say in the longer version of his famous quote:
"When bad men (sic) combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle".