A conscious effort is being made to develop football’s future stars as people, as well as players.
Through the EFL’s education partner, League Football Education, Academy scholars across the country have been provided opportunities to gain a better understanding of how developing a broader identity can support performance, wellbeing and transition.
LFE’s Personal Development programme consists of six mentoring workshops for prospects aged 16 and 17, presented by one of eight trained deliverers, while additional resources are also provided for Club staff delivery, including a module to create an individualised plan.
Five of the mentors involved have current or prior experience in the professional game, with Carlisle United forward Tobi Sho-Silva and past EFL players Bobby Copping, Fraser Franks, Linvoy Primus and Mark Roberts passing on their insights, alongside former Olympic swimmer Adam Whitehead, Paralympian Jack Rutter and ex-international basketball player Dru Spinks.
Project Leader Kelly Butterworth says: “The mentor programme began in the 2018/19 season with two pilot Clubs, developing on from the My Future Today event which focused on exploring a broad identity and understanding the concept of personal development.
“The initiative has allowed for these key concepts to be explored further, in a palatable and gradual format, allowing apprentices to form working relationships with a personal development mentor, and be supported through an introduction to personal development, understanding and becoming self-aware of their own characteristic skills and guided through their own goal-setting process.
“The mentoring programme has only gone from strength to strength, with eight mentors currently delivering to 41 Clubs across the 2022/23 season – an increase of 39 since the year of its inception.
“Members of the mentor team all come from an elite sporting background and are familiar with the highs and lows that participating in elite sport can bring, which make them ideal candidates to support our first-year apprentices at Clubs.
“In addition to this, they are strong advocates for engaging in personal development and have demonstrated taking ownership of their activities both in and out of their sporting environments, whether it be through mentoring, higher education or counselling, to name a few.
“Their ability to empathise and share their own personal anecdotes add a really unique and person-centred feel to the programme, allowing them to draw on their own experiences and provide another avenue of support and guidance to these young athletes.”
Here, the five mentors that have plied their trade in the EFL discuss the project from their perspectives.
FORMER EFL CLUBS: BURY & PETERBOROUGH UNITED
I joined the programme in September 2021, having previously gone through the same mentoring sessions as a scholar only three or four years ago.
I feel that having the experience of completing the programme as a player puts me in a great position to deliver these workshops because I can relate to being in their position very recently. I’ve come through an Academy and been a professional footballer, so I understand exactly what it takes to get to where they want to get to.
My own journey of being released and then having to retire early through injury dictates my delivery. I can speak from several different perspectives having experienced many ups and downs in the game and I can give them an understanding of how things could pan out for them as young footballers.
Ultimately, I got involved because I want to help the next generation of young footballers and give them the best chance possible of becoming professional. Hopefully, the players can take something away from every session that gives them that extra 1% of development.
It’s great to be able to pass on my knowledge and it’s nice to have received a positive response from the players and Club staff so far.
FORMER EFL CLUBS: BRENTFORD, AFC WIMBLEDON, LUTON TOWN, STEVENAGE & NEWPORT COUNTY
I absolutely loved my time as a scholar at Brentford FC and have always been fascinated by the different journeys and directions that a youth team will go on to in the future.
As a young player, I struggled mentally and didn’t really know who I was as a person. My aim is to help these young men see themselves as more than a footballer and help to equip them with the tools to thrive with their wellbeing, as well as their career.
I’m very open with the players with how I felt at their age. I allow myself to be very vulnerable when speaking to these players as I know how much it can help them. A lot of the time, these are very insecure young men who are finding their way in life, but feel they have to portray a character. It’s about allowing them to find their authentic selves and explore their emotions.
I think it’s so helpful for them to resonate with someone that knows their journey. I try to relate to the players like an older brother or like a senior professional that could be in the same team as them in a couple of years. You just try to share experiences and expand their thinking and hope they absorb the information. Once they realise that it can make them a better player, as well as enhancing their long-term wellbeing, they seem to buy in!
Becoming a mentor has allowed me to find out who I am and what I actually enjoy doing. I didn’t really know what my values were, what my interests were and even that there was a life and opportunities away from the football bubble I’d always lived in. It allows me a healthy outlet that is beneficial for me.
FORMER EFL CLUBS: CHARLTON ATHLETIC, BARNET, READING & PORTSMOUTH
I got involved with LFE at the start of 2022 as I believed in the work to promote personal development and wanted the chance to help young players have a rounded view of themselves.
The game itself hasn’t changed much – it’s still a ball and two nets – but what has changed is life outside of the pitch. The stresses that surround the game are far more intense now than they have ever been.
I knew support was there if I wanted it as a player, but I wouldn’t leave my comfort zone and ask for help. I believe if I had a face-to-face meeting, like the workshops that are delivered on the mentoring programme, I may have felt more comfortable to speak out.
In my playing days, personal development was only really talked about when an injury had already happened, or your career was over. I hope in years to come we can witness the positive impact that will come from this work in the world of football, with players more open to developing broader identities at an earlier age alongside their football.
FORMER EFL CLUBS: CREWE ALEXANDRA, CHESTER CITY, ACCRINGTON STANLEY, STEVENAGE, FLEETWOOD TOWN, CAMBRIDGE UNITED & FOREST GREEN ROVERS
I feel very fortunate that I have been at the forefront of this exciting project since its inception in 2018. To see how it has grown and to have played a pivotal role in that evolution process has really helped me to make my own transition out of the professional game.
This season, I am mentoring 10 different Clubs and find it incredibly rewarding to have the opportunity to make a positive impact on an industry that has given so much to me.
I realise I don’t work with the lads on the training pitch and may never see them perform on the field, so I choose to focus my energy and effort on developing the person because that is a fundamental factor in player development.
Of course, I take note of the players that do and don’t make it and there is no coincidence that those that succeed often demonstrate a professional mindset in my sessions, well before that elusive first contract is signed.
However, I’m also quick to point out to them that football is a game of opinions, with limited opportunities, and that is why I am confident that the support we provide can act as a catalyst for individuals to thrive, whether they remain within the game or explore their options outside of it, too.
I stress that personal development is not limited to formal education and by encouraging these young players to pursue their other interests, hobbies and passions, we are opening their minds to the possibilities available to each and every one of them.
Personal development had such a profound impact on my football career, but I class myself as a lifelong learner who is striving to be the best version of myself. That journey continues, and my mission now is to empower others while inspiring them to do the same!
CURRENT CLUB: CARLISLE UNITED
FORMER EFL CLUBS: CHARLTON ATHLETIC & SUTTON UNITED
I am passionate about using my voice and unique experiences, as a current player, to speak with current apprentices about how they can use their time to maximise their personal development, in life and particularly in education.
Since my involvement with the programme began during the 2021/22 season, I have experienced many personal benefits. It allows me the space to engage in activity outside of football, which enables me to switch off from it and creates a better work-life balance.
I have also been able to garner much knowledge from the teaching, which has allowed me to grow in confidence, enhance my ability to lead and has further improved my communication skills.
Furthermore, delivering these workshops has provided me the opportunity to gain experience in an area which I would like to explore further when I transition out of football. I believe there’s great value in going out and doing things that you are passionate about, rather than merely thinking about them.
Being a mentor has impacted my performance as a current player in the EFL in many ways. We often speak about transferable skills and how individuals might develop in areas such as resilience, patience and empathy, which are essential in the game of football and applicable to players at any stage in their career.
Additionally, delivering the content of this programme and receiving challenging questions from the lads has driven me to want to improve my own game and helped to establish a solid foundation of theory which also underpins my performance.
I view being able to mentor at my own Club as a privilege. I am able to build good relationships with the boys at Carlisle in workshops and then also go to their games and be a presence and source of additional support beyond the personal development sessions.
Also, mental health is important to me and being able to provide a safe space where others can feel comfortable to open up and ask questions is one of the most rewarding parts of mentoring at my own Club.
I can’t speak highly enough of the work that LFE is doing to provide vital support for younger players in this industry. Helping players understand their identity and using a variety of different and creative methods to share the importance of personal development, not just in football but in life, is very much needed. We won’t be footballers forever and it is important that it is understood that life doesn’t end when you hang up your boots.
As the first current player to get involved with delivering this programme, I highly recommend that more current players, with an interest in mentoring and delivering different workshops, get involved with the Personal Development programme as a means of pouring into the younger generation and furthering their own personal development.
This feature originally appeared in the Winter 2022 edition of the EFL Magazine.