• Jason Lampkin

Could academy players be better prepared for life after football?

If you go to a circus and you see a bear, you might think that’s interesting. Likewise if later in the act you see someone on a unicycle, that’s also kind of interesting.

But what really brings the house down is when the bear mounts the unicycle and begins to ride. That’s really interesting.

Animal rights aside, I’m simply using this example to make the point that when you combine things that are seemingly incompatible and make them work, it’s magical.

Amphibious cars. Cheese and marmite sandwiches. Goalkeepers playing outfield and scoring a goal, or contrariwise outfield players donning the gloves and making a save. How about a footballer forging another successful career off the field?

Bruce Lee’s superior physical prowess perfectly balanced his striking thoughts and philosophy. He encapsulated an enchanting and enigmatic dichotomy of seemingly mutually exclusive stereotypes – the brain-dead brawler versus the spindly sage; body versus soul – blended exquisitely into one brilliant being.

All humans – to differing degrees – are born multivariate but allow themselves to get pigeonholed or summarized in certain ways, despite knowing that at some deep level it’s not true. We conform and comply to the narrative that is authored for us – either expressly or subliminally – by society.

As the saying goes, “you are not what you think you are, you are not what others think you are, but you are what you think others think you are.”

Every human in the universe is capable of every experience and every thought. And if you accept that the universe is infinite, then you must similarly assume that there’s also infinite possibilities for us within it.

The ancient Greeks and Romans had an interesting take on this and constructed a philosophical scaffold of sorts around their civilizations that followed a natural and nourishing arc to life.

You were born; you went to school; you went to war; you came back and began a business; you progressed to serve in the senate or government.

Finally – once sufficiently experienced and experimented – you could graduate this School of Life and pass on the eclectic knowledge you’d acquired as a philosopher.

These eras encouraged their inhabitants to try their hands at everything and taught them not to fixate on set skills to the detriment and lapse of all others. Each individual personified a collection of spinning plates and sharpening saws.

Specialization is a trait that should be inherent in insects – to allow them to complete their evolutionary and reproductive tasks as proficiently as possible – not in humans. We are capable of far more than merely eking out an existence.

The trouble is that once we experience success in a certain aspect of our lives we can permit it to become our niche, particularly if we receive plaudits for it.

It can become so knit with our personality that we can’t even begin to imagine what we’d be if not for that one thing that we’re extraordinary at. If I’m not that, then what exactly am I?

I’d always been ‘Jason the footballer’ until one day, suddenly and unexpectedly, I wasn’t.

Thanks to COVID-19, many of us will be forced to rethink our career paths. It’s a daunting prospect that is ritual in the world of football.

Thousands of academy prospects are released year-after-year. From the millions that enter the system, only 0.012% will make the grade. The remaining 99.988% have to reinvent themselves.

The ability to adapt to changing circumstances, therefore, is a necessity and trait that academy prospects would do well to nurture.

“You must be shapeless, formless, like water” like Bruce Lee told us. “When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Be water my friend.”

I’m not sure how much things have progressed in 10 years, but as a scholar at Aston Villa it was mandatory for the scholars to do a BTEC and NVQ in Sports Excellence, Performance and Coaching.

While those courses are obviously better than nothing and present a pathway that many of those that fall by the wayside will happily follow – into sports conditioning, nutrition, coaching, etc. – it’s a one size fits all approach that we don’t implement anywhere else with young adults.

You don’t leave high school with only one subject on your transcript. Contingency plans should have more than one resolution.

With so many diverse and distinct online courses and providers to choose from, it could be a fantastic idea for the PFA to allocate an education budget to each academy player at the start of their two year scholarship.

I think that it would help to keep the scholars truly interested and engaged in learning whilst building a backup plan that resonates with the person that lies beneath the facade of ‘the footballer’.

Studying a captivating subject could provide the much needed mental release and stimulation that is sometimes needed from the relentlessly demanding and draining world of football.

Paul Merson, Paul Gascoigne, and David James respectively suffered for the use and overconsumption of negative substitutes like drink, drugs and games consoles to escape it. The former two also appeared to have experienced difficulty determining their place in the world once they’d hung up their boots.

Whilst I obviously cannot say for sure that they would have fared better had they been prepared for their retirements, I’m certain they wouldn’t have had as turbulent a transition as they did had they taken a proactive rather than reactive approach to life after football.

Could our academy prospects be better prepared for that transition? Can we make preparing for life after football a more proactive rather than reactive practice?

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