This article was first published in Valley Review, the club's matchday programme.
The traditional measure of success shows that Charlton’s academy is an exceptional one. Players of quality are regularly produced to represent the first team. For those within the academy, however, the development of the person is just as important.
“Aftercare is great and it’s a crucial part, but what are you doing while you’ve got them under your stewardship. What skills are you giving them? What opportunities? What space are you providing while they’re with you? Because that’s when you can have the most impact.”
Joe Francis, Charlton academy’s Head of Education and Welfare, remains in regular contact with young men who have departed the club at the end of their scholarship. There’s no end date on that, he simply remains in contact with them. Some will have earned a career in professional football elsewhere, others will have flirted with a playing career before pursuing a different path, and there will be those who immediately left the game.
The dedication that Francis puts into ensuring the young men who depart the club are progressing well and in a healthy psychological state goes above and beyond what is required, but Charlton are not alone in ensuring an aftercare package is in place for the 80% of scholars who will not be offered a professional contract. Where Charlton’s academy has successfully set a trend, however, is by ensuring that those who depart the academy will leave so with the skills already in place to address any challenge that life may throw at them. That any aftercare need only be a form of reassurance for young men who have been proactively developed as rounded individuals, not a reactionary process once it becomes clear they may need some assistance.
The academy’s Player Care Programme is as vital to its success as any work that is done on the Sparrows Lane training pitches. Educational sessions are delivered to the U18s that focus on a combination of personal development and life skills, providing coping mechanisms and support strategies to ensure they can meet the emotional demands of life within and outside of football. Developing the person is as important as developing the player.
“My mantra is aftercare is great, and we all can endeavour to do that, but provide a safe space where this sort of work can take place while they’re with you,” explains Francis.
“It’s a dedicated psychologically safe space where we deal with all things that wrap around their training and competing. It’s vitally important. We attempt to broaden the experience base so that they develop transferable skills in different settings.”
There may be a preconceived idea that investing time in a classroom environment, or simply participating in tasks that don’t involve having a football at their feet, is something that a young footballer would not enjoy. Their focus is solely on the pitch. But the feedback Francis receives, both anecdotally and in survey responses, is quite the opposite.
“The feedback I get is that just providing a point of difference is challenging for the lads, and they respond to challenge. They see the relevance, especially as it becomes more bespoke because it’s personalised to them. Every boy that we deal with has a different personality, a different set of values, and a different morality around how they develop.
“All of this relies on relationships. This is a ruthless environment where you are taken to the brink of what you think you’re capable of. You will have more of a chance to get those outcomes if you prove to the young person - the young player - that you care for them. That they’re being listened to.
“You’ll get more out of them if they feel that your relationship is strong. It’s designed to strengthen relationships.”
Former Charlton midfielder Bradley Pritchard, who became involved with programme as a product of both his previous association with the club and the overseeing of emotional welfare interventions within schools, leads the sessions with the U18s and has observed a successful impact on the young men who have participated in it.
“We’re trying to develop well-rounded people who can make better decisions,” explains Pritchard.
“That comes through when you look at the type of people who leave the academy. You can quantify that in terms of where players end up. There is such a high percentage of players who leave professional football, and they head towards substance abuse, even incarceration rates are high, because they find it difficult to deal with that loss of identify.
“But if you’re in a situation where Charlton’s academy has case studies of people being successful, not just in football but in other areas of life, it means we’re creating a holistic and healthy environment.
“In the short term, the success also comes from talking to those players and the coaches and asking how it benefits them? How does it form the bonds between players? Are they able to talk about their mental wellbeing? Are they able to talk about bigger issues away from football?”
The skills are not just embedded into the scholars in the traditional classroom setting, with the value of taking the group into different environments seen in both personal development and building a collective bond, again focusing on the strengthening of relationships.
“It provides a point of difference within the programme to get out of the environment,” explains Francis.
“90% of what they do is based at the training ground, so just a change of space, a change of place, a change of environment to do some off-site activities that engage them.
“The boys went to an escape room to work on some problem-solving skills, teamwork, communication and leadership. We’ve taken them to boxing gyms in the past just to get a different perspective from a different sport, we’ve taken them to community projects. It’s about getting out of the football bubble.”
When they are back in the football bubble, however, there is clear evidence that it has a performance impact.
“It’s so relatable, they’re skills that you work with when you play,” reflects U18s boss Hamza Serrar on the benefits of the Player Care Programme to his group of players when they step out on the pitch.
“You work a lot on the person, how they behave in a group setting, having the tools and methods to deal with disappointment. I can see improvement as a result of the things they learn from the programme and how they apply it in games.
“It challenges my thinking, too, and challenges the way that I do things inside and outside of football.”
In addition, there is a programme tailored for the U23s, delivered by academy chaplain Gareth Morgan. The sessions move towards a greater focus on the individual, helping them to understand an adult perspective of who they are as they become young professionals. The emphasis is on values, and avoiding having their values entirely defined by their profession.
“The big emphasis is on identity, that’s what everything flows from in the conversation,” explains Morgan. “Building sense of who am I as a person, and being able to communicate who I am, my values, my beliefs that will guide me now into the next phase of my life both professionally and personally.
“They key phrase that I talk to them about is an individual never outperforms their self-image. You help someone to understand that this area of identity is a driver of personal growth development and performance, so really helping someone to understand the value of their identity.
“A footballer is what they do, it’s not who they are. If you don’t have that healthy situation, your evaluation becomes tied into your self-worth and fear creeps in. So we try and help them to have that healthy situation, which enables them to evaluate performance and personally open up.”
Having been promoted from U18s to U23s boss at the start of the season, Anthony Hayes has seen players begin the programme at 16, and continue to participate in it now in their first year as a professional. He is able to provide evidence that the objective, to ensure personal development and create well-rounded individuals, is working. The development of identity and self-awareness is pronounced among those who have engaged with the programme for the longest time.
“What’s been nice about it is, as the programme has evolved, the players are starting to see a separation between the footballer and the person. They’re able to not lose sight of the fact that their profession is aspiring young footballer, but they’re a person first and foremost. How they act and behave outside of the world of football with their relationships as well as having the understanding of various social and economic issues.
“Value can be added so much to their lives outside of being an aspiring footballer. The player is more self-aware in terms of what makes them tick, what they don’t like.
“I think that self-awareness - that means they’re aware of their values, how they behave, how they react - means that particularly in the difficult times, whether that’s off the pitch or on the pitch, we can go down a mental health perspective.”
That is something that is integral to Morgan’s U23 programme, where individuals have one-to-one sessions to delve deeper into topics discussed in the sessions, or to talk about personal matters in a safe environment.
Current U23 defender Billy French is someone who has particularly benefited from the personalised nature of the one-to-one sessions. The 19-year-old has suffered a string of injuries, but has found all aspects of the Player Care Programme beneficial during the toughest moments of his recovery. That despite having some reservations at first.
“Any 16-year-old who comes into the building full-time just wants to play football, just to improve technically and tactically,” admits French.
“When they introduced it, you’re questioning whether you need it, but in the modern game there’s so much going on psychologically. Even after the first session, we all thought it was decent.
“When you say psychological stuff, you just think someone is going to sit you down and tell you how to do things, how to think. It sounds boring. But the way the Player Care Programme works means it’s very engaging, very intriguing, and got us involved in the structure of the lessons. It helps to make it more entertaining as well.
“Especially with me at the minute having sustained quite a few injuries, I’ve stayed positive in mindset through the things I’ve been taught and learnt over the years through the programme. It helps you with that mental resilience.
“The one-to-ones have been really beneficial in my circumstances. It helps to keep the mind positive. I’ve been able to speak to Gareth about the good things and the bad things, and to talk about stuff away from football and not just the injury. It helps me set little goals and be appreciative of the little things.
“I was doing well with my recovery but I had another set-back, and straight away he turns that set-back into a positive. That’s helped me be in a good space.”
And the group nature of the programme has also benefited French, whose injuries have meant he has found himself somewhat isolated.
“I’ve been disconnected from the group, and it can get lonely at times, but with these sessions it brings everyone together. It also shifts the focus away from football. So though I’m disconnected in the football sense, we’re very much open and talk about a lot of personal issues that happen externally from the training ground. You learn a lot more about players, their relationships and how they deal with things.
“Sometimes, the people you wouldn’t expect open up and you think ‘really? I didn’t realise you were going through that’, and it just makes you a bit more aware of everyone. It brings everyone together and helps with that team chemistry because you’re not just understanding everyone as a player but understanding everyone as a person.”
French isn’t the only example, with Serrar pointing towards a current first team player who benefited from the Player Care Programme both at U18 and U23 level.
“One that sticks out for me is Albie Morgan. One of his challenges as a scholar was dealing with emotions. And I think through the Player Care Programme, he was shown how to deal with team settings and disappointment.
“It was a work in progress at the time and we didn’t think he would come through in terms of emotional control. But eventually through the consistent methods and messages in the Player Care Programme, he eventually had the tools to build that emotion intelligence.
“It helped a lot in the transition too, from U23s to first team, and now obviously he’s having a career in football.”
However, as much as the objective of the Player Care Programme, and the academy in general, is to produce professional footballers for Charlton’s first team, it is not to be underestimated just how much pride is taken in the programme’s success in ensuring young men are prepared for a life beyond football.
“There’s an integrity about the programme because it doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life,” explains Hayes.
“We discuss the reality of young aspiring footballers, that eventually at some part in their life they’re going to be rejected. We have to prepare players for that eventuality. If we’re not doing that, we’re failing them.
“You’d like to think because of the robustness of the programme, the conversations you can have informally with your coach or with their peers, and then safely within that player care environment, they’ll feel prepared. Nothing can fully prepare, there’s a rawness, but we can provide a preparedness.”
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Click here for more information on how you can become a Valley Gold member.
(Article by Kyle Andrews)