Football - Enlightened clubs prepare youngsters for rocky road ahead

There is much more to becoming a top-class footballer these days than having the ability to dribble the ball like World Player of the Year Lionel Messi or score goals like Real Madrid's dynamic Cristiano Ronaldo.


The best players also need mental toughness based on social skills that include self-awareness, the ability to understand team mates and a positive mental attitude honed by years of pastoral support provided by the clubs.

Some of the more enlightened teams are increasingly turning to educational experts such as former head and deputy head teachers Steve Pisano and Kristian Sorensen who set up the LifeSkills Sports firm to aid the development of young players.

Pisano, 56, had trials with lower-league English club Millwall as a youngster and later played in the United States while Sorensen, 38, turned out for various semi-professional sides.

Both are still involved in coaching at minor-league and grassroots level, independent of their projects in the professional game.

Now they are adapting their specialist skills honed in senior education to help clubs improve all aspects of the development of young players at their academies, giving them an added edge before they hopefully set out on long and successful professional careers.

The players need all the help they can get to thrive in what is an increasingly competitive world and also need guidance in how to cope when their footballing days are over.

Players' charity Xpro says that more than 130 former professionals are in British jails, 124 aged under-25, as they struggle to adapt to life having been feted and had everything done for them from an early age.


Two of the clubs LifeSkills Sports work with, Premier League Fulham and second tier Crystal Palace, have almost 400 boys between them on their junior books from Under-nines through to the Under-21 development squads.

A fraction are likely to make it all the way to the top, though.

"What we are offering the clubs is a detailed social and psychological profile of a young player's strengths and areas of development," Pisano told Reuters.

"We also help the clubs see where they are succeeding in building up young players. Our data provides them with a total analysis of where their successes are.

"The key things we provide are the mechanisms to promote a young player's self-confidence, to help boost their self-esteem and self-image and help strengthen their social skills so they can be the best player they can be," added Pisano.

"You need confidence, a secure self-image and a positive mental attitude to be a top-class footballer and we help clubs help their players develop these skills."

LifeSkills Sports have close links with an educational support company and survey the young players, providing hard data for the clubs who guide them along the rocky road from Under-nines to first-team level.

"As we are based in London we focused on Fulham in the Premier League and Crystal Palace, who could be back in the Premier League next season, because of their values in developing youngsters," said Pisano.

"Palace have got one of the best academy to first-team ratios in the country, they have a strong commitment to recruiting from the local community and a strong pastoral approach to their players.

"Fulham are the absolute benchmark community club in the Premier League. They have a high ratio of academy players to development squad, if not first team as well," added Pisano.

"Just talking to the staff in the academies you can tell they are seeking very high standards of performance from the players but they also have a very holistic view of how you bring on a player in terms of their all-round personal development.


"At Palace and Fulham they spend a lot of time supporting the social and psychological aspects of a player," said Pisano.

"Our basic philosophy is to support the social and emotional skills that can not only help prepare aspiring elite sportsmen and women to achieve their best as players but we also want them to develop social skills that are transferable in any situation they are in.

"These social skills involve understanding yourself and communicating with others and help the development of a player on the field. Can you communicate and work effectively with your team mates so you get the best out of them, for example?"

LifeSkills Sports use a tool called FAST - Footballer Attitudes to Self and Team - which helps assess players across nine key areas including self-regard, preparation for learning, views of staff, feelings about the club and work ethic.

"What this is really all about is teaching these youngsters how to be a footballer in the modern age," said Pisano. "It is not just about what they can do on the field.

"The clubs spend a lot of time getting them to review and reflect on their own development. They want their young players to be equipped to learn.

"Not every player is going to make it to the top but there are mechanisms in place to support those who don't and keep them in the game perhaps initially at a lower level," added Pisano.

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