Students with desires to be professional sportsmen need to be encouraged to gain academic qualifications – but this is often no easy job. Chris Wall, Exeter College’s sports academy development coordinator, describes how they are doing it

The dream of many a young boy is to become a professional footballer, earning an extravagant salary, driving a fast car, a WAG on his arm, celebrity status and a lavish lifestyle as advertised in glossy magazines and tabloid newspapers. However, the reality is that a only a tiny minority of youngsters have the talent to pursue this career and even fewer have the drive and work ethic required. These invaluable characteristics do not often appear in individuals and to achieve these football aspirations at a high level they need to be carefully nurtured and supported.

Many teachers and lecturers would be offended if they were accused of not encouraging students to pursue their goals, not encouraging the commitment and drive to achieve them, and not inculcating the characteristics every young person should have. However, is a college or school the correct environment in which to produce the premiership stars of the future? How easy is it to support a young person’s goals of becoming a professional sports person, while also guiding them to work towards a ‘what-if’ academically based scenario?

Combining the academic and vocational
The scheme I coordinate enables students from 16-18 years of age to gain professional qualifications, while maintaining a focus on their chosen sport. However, as the scheme has developed, football has always produced a number of discussions within our faculty.  We have experienced mixed fortunes in how best to implement a sustainable and valuable programme to gain the best results.

Within a normal teaching day it is difficult to create a balance between providing the required guided learning hours for qualifications and the hours of specific coaching required to give the best possible chance of creating footballers. There are always restrictions and external influences that impact on which decision is best.

Delivery of both academic and vocational learning, including the technical aspects of football is a challenge. We need to ensure the course is led by suitable role models, who have first-hand experience of top-flight football, but also have the required knowledge and qualifications to deliver the academic content in the classroom. These qualities are arguably essential, but difficult to come by.

Speaking from experience
I am speaking from experience. My love of sport was inherited and encouraged by my father and PE teachers at school. They encouraged me to work towards a career playing sport while also achieving academically. I found studying for my GCSEs, A-levels and my degree a struggle: I have dyslexia-associated learning difficulties and so I had to knuckle down to achieve, but it helped that I was encouraged to find a balance between my sporting interests and academic demands.

Following successful completion of my BSc in Sport and Human Movement Studies, I achieved a PGCE, and  – more importantly for me at the time – I gained the opportunity to play semi-professional rugby. However, after two major knee reconstructions my dreams of playing fully professional sport were shattered and my goals as a result have had to change. Now it is apparent that the hard work I put in to get my academic qualifications alongside my professional sporting ambitions was worth it and as a result I have an alternative route, although within the sporting field which I love. ‘Fortunate’ is a word that comes to mind and hopefully I am able to pass on my experience to the gifted and talented sports performers that I come into contact with.

So what do we do?
Further education establishments have similar target and standard-based pressures to schools: we are continually striving to improve success rates, enrolments, retention figures and attainment. So when considering the students enrolled at the Football Development Academy, we have to think about a full-time programme of academic study with exams to be passed and marks to be achieved, balanced with a commitment to a training and playing regime.

Football is obviously quite an extreme example of professional training, but never the less it does provide the same challenges when put alongside the demands of more academic qualifications. Schools and colleges are increasingly asked to balance these demands and there is no reason why experiences cannot be shared.

The students’ time at the college is not just about football, although many would like it to be, and neither is it an easy option, in fact quite the opposite. We have to emphasise that the rewards can be massive: good qualifications and an opportunity to receive quality coaching. This is a real opportunity to attain the balance that I had so much support to achieve. We try to achieve this by employing individuals, like myself, that prove the need for this kind of balanced education and therefore hopefully, lead by example.

One of the important links we have as an academy is to the local professional football league club. Here we are working to create a programme that gives talented young footballers a chance to gain vocational or academic qualifications while focusing on their football. We have now developed a two-tier system, in which there are apprentices who have earned the right to focus more on their football, with the educational aspect being secondary, and those at the Football Development Centre, which focuses on academic qualifications, with football secondary. We have ensured that there is no hierarchy in these routes, but that individual needs are catered for. The tier system has arisen because in this age range, the football profession is particularly cut-throat. Make-or-break decisions are made about young hopefuls at the age of 16. These decisions often negatively influence individuals towards football for the rest of their lives.

A progression football learner route gives youngsters an environment to develop at their own pace, and acquire coaching and officiating qualifications, while having time to mature. It also gives them time to come to terms with the knowledge that they may not have all that is needed to become a professional player and therefore should pursue other avenues within football.

Course identification
As with all students applying to the college, the enrolment and course identification process is extremely important and this procedure needs to encompass previous learning achievements, input from parents/guardians and the desired progression routes. This can be a slow process, as often a tunnel vision perception of playing professional football is the only outcome wanted. To make this process easier, we employ experienced interviewers who work on the programmes and can identify the most suitable course for the individual. This decision is obviously made considering a student’s achievements within football, internal trials and from the feedback received from our partnership club. The perceived commitment to training and how this will affect learning outcomes must also be considered.

Cross-curriculum links
In order to motivate, enthuse and provide useful life skills for our football learners, we put a sport performer spin on the units and assignments studied at all levels.

For example, Financial Management at Level 1 (Intro Diploma) gives a good first impression of contract negotiations, including win bonuses, player signing, retainer and appearance fees, etc. Within the BTEC First Diploma (Level 2), Health, Safety and Injury in Sports is a core unit in which knowledge is gained of assessing a safe provision environment, risk assessment and injury prevention and identification. At Level 3, Psychology for Sport within the BTEC National Diploma and AS/A2 gives an insight into mental rehearsal, focus triggers, techniques to cope when under pressure and in front of a large crowd. Within Level 4 (Foundation Degree), units such as Biomechanics and the Mechanics of Teaching and Learning provide learners with a more in-depth and complex look at all aspects of coaching and fitness. All of this enables any sports learner to develop their performance and progress in areas that are not usually focused on from a purely practical football dimension.   

This model could also be applied to 19+ football learners, thus creating educated football learners at every level, solidifying the game and in turn making it a more professional, quality assured sport.

Ultimately, I think there are people and organisations that need to take more responsibility in how the national game is perceived, developed and delivered. The thinking behind a school or FE college being an environment where we can create the next generation of disciplined, well-educated quality footballers is sound and, indeed, we should work towards the same kinds of goals in other sports as well. 

For more information see: College/SportsAcademy.aspx