The mentors who shape footballers long before they turn professional

“Break her legs!” one parent shouts from the sidelines as an eight-year-old Kelly Smith dribbles past a pack of would-be tacklers. “Hack her down!” “Foul her!” “She shouldn’t be playing!”, the barrage continues. Unfazed, Smith scores goal after goal, leaving a trail of young boys grounded by her feints and shoulder drops. The final whistle blows and Smith trudges off the pitch, gaze fixed on the ground, too scared to catch the eye of an adult bristling with jealousy. Her team, Garston Boys, congratulate her on her performance before she joins her father in the car, ready for the ride home. As soon as the door shuts the tears pour out.

Bernard puts his arm around his daughter and delivers advice that helps shape one of the greatest players in the history of the women’s game. “Block it out,” he says. “Don’t bite, just ignore them. They do it because you’re one of the best players on the pitch and they don’t want you to play. They’re trying to get in your head and affect you.”

Smith sniffles, wipes away her tears and smiles. “Thanks dad,” she replies. Reflecting on this traumatic experience 34 years later, England’s record scorer, a four-time Women’s Premier League winner, believes that ordeal coupled with her father’s counsel gave her the tools to overcome horrendous injury problems, alcoholism and depression later on in life. “I was devastated when I heard those parents shouting from the sidelines,” explains Smith. “I cried, but my dad sat me down and told me the reasons why they were saying it so I took that on board and used it to make me a better player.

“There were times when it was difficult because I was still very young, but I knew I had a gift and I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t I play football? Just because you think I’m the wrong sex that’s not going to stop me.’ “I faced adversity from a young age and that made me the player I became; because I had that grit and determination.”

Digesting Smith’s interpretation of that episode and her response, prompts the question: would she have been the same player had she not experienced this trauma during her childhood? Childhood experiences shape our personalities and relationships well into adulthood, forming the foundation on which the rest of our lives are built. Most people lead ordinary lives, with regular jobs, out of the limelight, but what if we’re blessed with the talent to become a professional footballer and a chance of becoming rich and famous? How does our upbringing impact our chances of making it? And if we get there, how does it influence our playing style, mentality and success?

For all the will in the world, some of us just don’t have the genetics to earn a living from playing football. We’ll improve after 10,000 hours of practice, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to have the speed and guile to scoot by Virgil van Dijk and wallop one past Alisson. This isn’t an exploration into the nature versus nurture debate. This is an investigation into the different facets of nurture and how they impact athlete development.

There are a number of factors to consider – environment, living conditions, culture, parents, education, friends and financial resources are to name but a few. Chris Harwood, professor of sport psychology at Loughborough University, picks out three key elements. “Environment, genetics and psychology influence the developmental process and these factors change as the child develops,” explains Professor Harwood, an expert in the psychosocial aspects of youth sport and athlete development with a particular focus on the influence of parents and coaches.

“In the primary years, from around age four to 12, parents are probably the most significant influence on a child because they help them understand right from wrong, good from bad. Parents also play a massive role in the enabling of a child to experience sport, through financial, emotional and informational support. And they play the role of interpreter: what does success and failure look like and how to deal with either of those outcomes, ie – do they see loss as an opportunity to learn and grow?”

At a very basic level, parents are the caregiver responsible for taking their child to training, providing them with the opportunity to discover and explore their talent. Off the pitch they’re setting standards in terms of timekeeping, manners, temperament and work ethic. They’re providing a template of values with which to follow.

Discussion of this topic tends to centre around mentality and behavioural habits, but parents can also influence playing style. Jerome Thomas’s father, Cliff, raised his son on a diet of Serie A during the 1990s and as a result his son wanted to imitate the kings of calcio. “My dad brought me up on continental football,” says Thomas excitedly. “My first idol was Brazilian Ronaldo and I supported whoever he played for – I used to watch him at PSV, then at Barcelona and Inter and I’d watch Gazzetta Football Italia every weekend. I grew up watching the likes of Ronaldo, Shevchenko, Ronaldinho, Seedorf, Rui Costa and Batistuta and I modelled my game on their styles.”

Thomas’s dad also exposed his son to an environment in which skill, improvisation and resilience were mandatory. Without these qualities, he would have been cast aside. “My dad played with a lot of the first black teams in London and went on to manage them and he’d do youth centre work so I was always around that environment and it’s toughened me up a bit, even the friendly games were competitive,” he explains. “We’d play World Cup singles or World Cup doubles and it was to the death. Any time we were playing, it was a competition that weeded out the weak.”

Thomas went on to play more than 280 professional games in England’s top two divisions, where he entertained fans with his direct wing play – just ask Gary Neville. The source material and environment provided by Cliff helped forge a creative winger full of guile and confidence, but it was the code by which he led his life that helped Jerome thrive in the structured world of academy football.

West Bromwich Albion’s Jerome Thomas (left) gets away from Manchester United’s Gary Neville in January 2011 .
Jerome Thomas playing for West Brom against Manchester United Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

“I don’t know where I’d be without my dad, not just in terms of football, but life,” he says. “He was very strict in terms of schoolwork, behaviour, manners and dedication to football, but he taught me a lot of life skills and took me to every single game. We were never late, no matter where a game was. He would always make sure we were early and that’s something I carry with me to this day.”

This is not an experience the talented enigma Ravel Morrison can relate to. With the exception of his time at West Ham, where he found some consistency, his career has been a nomadic experience, taking in 12 clubs, across six different countries. Morrison was a supremely gifted player who would have “had the world at his feet” had he been able to “get himself right”, according to his former teammate Rio Ferdinand.

Unfortunately he didn’t have a father figure to help him navigate the hazardous world of professional football as he rose through the ranks at Manchester United. “My dad wasn’t around so my mum had three children to look after and it was hard,” he told Ferdinand’s YouTube show. “She’s got me, that’s out every night, panicking where I am and then she’s got two little boys that she’s got to look after so from not having a father figure or an older brother it was difficult because she was alone.

“I was always in the wrong place at the wrong time and I was always late, that was my worst one. I didn’t see it being a problem. Playing football was my environment, but as soon as you leave you’ve got 1,000 things on your mind.” The duty of a parent can’t be overstated, but there are some players who have had to turn to other role models in the absence of a guiding light at home.

For Ian Wright, it was a teacher, Mr Pigden. If you haven’t seen the clip of an emotional reunion between the pair, go and find it on YouTube. Warning: you will cry. Mr Pigden surprises his former pupil at Highbury. Wright, who thought his teacher was dead, is so overcome with emotion he bursts into tears. Raised in a volatile household by a single mum, Wright lacked a prominent male figure to give him the belief and support he needed, until he became Mr Pigden’s student at Turnham Primary School. “He was the most important influence on my life,” he said. “From the age of seven he showed me a lot of love, attention and care.”

Chips, lobs, volleys, right foot, left foot, inside the box, outside the box, Wright had a ferocious confidence and unique aptitude for improvisation. This ingenuity owes much to the measured advice of Mr Pigden, says Wright. “He said, ‘Don’t score goals, Ian, where the goalkeeper is close to it, score goals where he can’t move’,” he told Stan Collymore’s podcast The Last Word. “My favourite was always to chip the goalkeeper to catch him off guard, so he doesn’t move. I used to get close to the goal and literally try to get the power of my whole body to get it through the goalkeeper and make a hole in him. Back in 1971, my teacher was telling me”: ‘Jimmy Greaves passes it into the goal. Sometimes it doesn’t even touch the net. He passes it. Those are the good goals to score.’ I’d always felt like I was the best player ever after speaking to Mr Pigden.”

The heartwarming tale of one of Arsenal’s greatest ever goalscorers and Sydney Pigden, a former RAF pilot turned teacher, is gift-wrapped for TV shows. Not every story has a Hollywood hook and many of the dedicated coaches who help develop an elite talent are forgotten along the way. Audiences want to hear about rejection, trauma and redemption, not the hours spent learning a system on the training ground.

But as Mr Pigden demonstrated and Professor Harwood can endorse, mentors, whether they’re teachers or coaches, have the power to shape a young player’s future. “Coaches aren’t far behind parents because they’re seen as a credible source of information and expertise and the trust in their guidance progresses through into early adolescence onwards,” he says.

Edu Rubio has been entrusted with this responsibility throughout his career, working with academy players at Chelsea and MK Dons. The Spaniard, who is currently working as a technical consultant at Crystal Palace, is the founder of My Energy Game, a group of coaches and psychologists who have developed a curriculum designed to support mental health and improve emotional intelligence.

Rubio believes it’s the coach’s responsibility to focus on the person, not the player, and help them master their emotions so they handle the pressure and demands of the professional game. Failure to do so can lead to wasted talent. “If you have a gift, I can’t give you more ability, but my influence on you as a coach will be massive in terms of you making it or not, depending on how I shape you as a person,” he explains. “I can inspire you to work hard and make you more passionate about improving your weaker foot. I can give you coping mechanisms to deal with your emotions during a game so you can recover from mistakes, walk away from provocation and block out noise from the crowd. I’ve seen talented players lose their love for playing because of the way they’ve been coached and I’ve seen gifted players enhance what they have because of good coaching.”

Coaches working with players through the delicate transitional phase of adolescence, have to manage raging hormones, rapid growth and in some cases, players coping with a challenging home life or troublesome friends. The role of the peer grows in significance as children get older because they start to compare their progress with that of their teammates, who double as rivals in the pursuit of a pro contract. An influential peer group outside of the academy environment can help lead a young player to success or drag them into trouble. Get caught in the wrong crowd and the odds of fulfilling your potential diminish, as Morrison can testify.

When he was growing up two of his friends were convicted of a street robbery and in February 2011, three months after making his Manchester United debut, Morrison pleaded guilty to two offences of intimidating a witness. “I moved from Wythenshawe to Stretford and it’s the wrong crowd. Growing up I’d be out until 2am and I’m supposed to be at training at 9am. I’m not sleeping correct, I’m not eating correct. I wasn’t living the footballer lifestyle,” he explained. “When I was 15, 16, I was hanging around with a group of people that are bad in people’s eyes; not bad in mine because when I grew up that’s all I knew.”

Ravel Morrison comes on as a substitute against Wolves in 2010 for his Manchester United debut.
Ravel Morrison comes on as a substitute against Wolves in 2010 for his Manchester United debut. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images

Parents, coaches, teachers and friends all leave an impression on a young, malleable athlete. Smith used her dad’s advice to turn a negative into a positive. Mr Pigden influenced Wright’s approach to finishing. Thomas’s dad shaped him as a man and as a player. And in the absence of a father figure, Morrison was led astray by his peers.

This is known as modelling, a theory developed by the psychologist Albert Bandura that emphasises the importance of social learning through observation. Simplified, children observe people (models), encode their behaviour and at a later date they may imitate the behaviour they have observed. The response they receive to the application of this behaviour – i.e. positive reinforcement or punishment – usually dictates whether it’s repeated.

The type of role models a young person encounters is dictated by their environment, which is primarily governed by location. Where they live influences where they go to school, which in turn impacts where they play and who they play with.

The former Exeter City defender Troy Brown had parents who recognised the importance of environment and the network of people that would expose him to. His parents separated when he was young, but they worked together to give their son the best possible opportunities. First, his father, a successful businessman, sent Troy to a private primary school called Cumnor House. Then his mum moved from Thornton Heath to Purley to be closer to the school.

Once he was in the private school ecosystem, he earned a scholarship to Whitgift secondary school, an institution that boasts Callum Hudson-Odoi, Victor Moses, Jamal Musiala and Bertrand Traoré among its alumni. “I moved away from the urban area and that had a massive influence on the way my life turned out,” Brown explains. “I had a head start and everyone that goes to private school does, but it can go so wrong for people.

“I’ve seen parents bend over backwards to send their kid to private school but stayed in the area where there’s a lot of stuff going which is why I’m grateful to my mum for moving otherwise I’m getting on a certain bus route, seeing certain people and things could have been a lot different. People who went to my school still ended up in prison.”

Brown, who now works as an agent, went on to make 295 appearances in the Football League and Scottish Championship after being released by Fulham as a teenager. He wasn’t your standard public-school boy: with one foot in a working-class environment and the other in the world of the privileged, he developed a self-belief and resilience that equipped him for a career in professional sport.

“We lived in a rented flat and my mum didn’t drive,” he says. “I wasn’t as fortunate as some of the other kids from wealthy families, but I was resilient and I could shrug it off because I was a footballer. That helped me later in my career when I had to deal with being released, relegation and injuries. Going to these schools gives you discipline and structure. I was like a robot. My whole childhood was discipline, timing and manners. At the age of 11, 12 I was having full-on conversations with coaches and looking them in the eye, whereas other kids were looking down at their feet.”

However, all this structure took him away from the curbs, cages and concrete pavements of south London, the breeding ground of flip-flaps and rabonas. The technique of street footballers is often attributed to the challenge of dribbling around housing estates and standing up to trash-talking opponents.

While these elements help sharpen skill and build stoicism it’s actually the hours of repetition and free play that hones a velcro touch. “Sean Scannell [the former Crystal Palace and Huddersfield Town winger] was always better than me because of the people he was playing street football with, week in, week out,” recalls Brown. “He was playing more football than me because his time allowed him to. While he was playing football I was in extra maths.”

There’s a popular narrative that suggests creativity is the exclusive reserve of the street footballer, but Rubio believes imagination is cultivated from many different sources, including the structured environment of an academy and a qualified coach. “There’s more to it,” he says. “Maybe a player is really creative because they spent two years with a coach who developed that side of their game.

“Also, a street footballer could come from a home where their parents are really regimented and strict and when they play in the cage they follow this same behavioural pattern. Family environment, schooling, role models, all of these things influence creativity, not just playing street or academy football.”

The media love to romanticise the origin stories of our sporting heroes, none more so than the free-spirited street urchin who has overcome a personal trauma to achieve success against all the odds. As was the case with Smith, many successful people draw strength and motivation from trauma – it builds personality, humility and drive: essential traits for any individual to survive the journey from prospect to pro and then thrive in the merciless world of elite sport.

Is trauma the fundamental catalyst for success? For the Inter striker Edin Dzeko, growing up in war-torn Sarajevo was the making of him. “There wasn’t much to eat, hardly ever three meals a day,” he said. “I was afraid. We always had to hide when shots were fired and bombs were falling. My house was destroyed so we went to live with my grandparents. The whole family was there, maybe 15 people staying in an apartment of about 35 square metres. It was very hard. We were stressed every day in case somebody we knew died. A lot of footballers start to play kicking a ball around in the street. For me that was impossible. But when the war finished I was much stronger, mentally.”

Dzeko’s survival story is one of many throughout the history of football. Grief, abandonment, poverty, rejection – all of these traumas have provided the fillip for an unstoppable trajectory to the top of the game. But this is where the phrase “Talent Needs Trauma” runs into complications. By its very definition, trauma suggests something extreme: a severe emotional shock and pain caused by an extremely upsetting experience.

There is truth in that theory, but it’s more nuanced, as researchers from the University of Central Lancashire found during a study in 2016. They examined the factors associated with “trauma” experiences and how they impacted the trajectories of high, medium, and low achievers in sport. There was no evidence to suggest major trauma was a necessity for effective talent development, but instead, challenges “associated with specific skill development” offered the “best pathway to success”.

The role of coaches, parents and siblings were mentioned by all of the participants and high achievers “were characterised by an almost fanatical reaction to challenge, both proactively and in reaction to mishaps (i.e. trauma) which typically occurred due to injury or sport related setbacks such as non-selection/ being dropped.”

We should commend the likes of Dzeko for overcoming incredibly difficult circumstances, but that doesn’t mean we should discount the struggles of those we perceive to have had a more privileged life. Kasper Schmeichel grew up as the son of the legendary Manchester United and Denmark goalkeeper Peter. He wanted for nothing and could have sat back and enjoyed the fruits of his dad’s labour, but that wasn’t accepted in his family.

Peter Schmeichel and his son Kasper in September 2002.
Peter Schmeichel and his son Kasper in September 2002. Photograph: Ed Garvey/MCFC/PA Photos

Even after winning three league titles, including an extraordinary Premier League win with Leicester City in 2016, he has retained his hunger for success. “I grew up in a world of privilege, but I struggled massively,” he told the High Performance podcast. “I’ve never needed anything in my life and that was the trigger for me to go and work for something no one can buy me, only I can do it.

“As great as it was sometimes to be the son of Peter Schmeichel and have that kind of access, it was horrible. I’m being compared with one of the best goalkeepers ever. Standards in my family are different maybe to other families. My dad won the Premier League five times; he won the Champions League as captain; and he has the record number of appearances for this country. That’s the standard. Getting a professional career wasn’t enough. That gives me something to strive for.”

And it’s that hunger, forged in childhood, that separates those who do and those who don’t. Researchers from the University of Groningen examined the psychological characteristics of a group of players in an elite academy and then reviewed that data 15 years later, looking at the common traits of those who progressed to the professional ranks and those who failed.

The psychological factors that predicted career success were goal commitment, which led to intense practice and coping behaviours, i.e. those who had the tools to manage stressful situations, and social support seeking – the “perception or experience that one is loved and cared for by others, esteemed and valued, and part of a social network of mutual assistance and obligations”, i.e. a family unit or team.

These behaviours can be learned and influenced by the key figures in a young player’s life. Many of these significant factors are out of their control, especially when they’re reliant on their caregivers and coaches during the embryonic stages of their development.

Every stimulus they encounter – family, friends, education, coaches – has the power to hardwire a behaviour, both positive and negative. Developing a young player is a bit like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube, with so many variables to piece together. It’s easy to celebrate the characters who have overcome incredible adversity, but focusing on the trauma and the individual’s perceived response can steer you away from crucial context and nuance.

It’s the interpretation of a setback and how to respond to that event, set out by the key mentor in their life, that can provide the blueprint for successful behaviours. Young athletes don’t need trauma; they need a high challenge, high support environment to prepare them for a life in elite sport. “Growth comes from those around them who show them how to deal with these challenges,” says Professor Harwood.

“It’s not a case of having a major traumatic event they intrinsically dealt with. The science says there needs to be a challenging portfolio for the athlete, for example playing the kid up an age group or playing them out of position to see how they cope with it, but with a support network to help them manage the situation. Parents need to realise: ‘I’ve got an important role here, I’d better not mess it up.’”

Luckily, Kelly Smith’s dad knew just what to say.

The Blizzard is the football quarterly for thinking fans. Get 10% off the ‘Best of the First Five Years’ special edition with coupon code GSNBEST. Print and digital formats are available.


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