The Parent Trap

A picture is worth a thousand words. While this may well be the case in some instances, I don’t think it always applies. A recent picture of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez sitting watching their sons play football went viral. They were lauded for appearing to sit back and relax while their sons played for a Barcelona youth team. Despite their own word class talent and obvious knowledge on how to play football, there was no sign of either player shouting instruction. The picture kept repeatedly popping up on my Twitter feed as it was retweeted over and over by people commending these world class footballers for their approach to parenting.

Messi and Suarez sit back and relax to watch their sons play football.

I have recently coached my own son’s U6 team. “Coached” should not be used literally here as working with 5- and 6-year olds, I was generally just trying to organize them into a rabble. If you had happened to snap a photo of me on the sideline at one of our matches, you may have caught a variety of different situations all open to interpretation. In one I might be shouting and pointing. What would people make of this? Would this just be another sign of a parent expecting too much too young, while in reality was it a coach trying to tell the kids they were shooting at the wrong goal? On the other hand, you may have caught a picture of me looking relaxed and laughing. Would this put me in the same category as Messi and Suarez, not as a player, but as a laid back parent who just let the kids play?

Coaching or should I say organising my son, Patrick’s, under 6 team.

I can tell you if someone had actually taken photos of me during the games they would have caught a wide range of reactions and emotions and all each photo would have shown, was a snapshot of one moment in time. Perhaps you could have caught a huge smile as one of the lads scored his first ever-goal or a grimace as one of the boys decided to the pick the ball up despite been constantly told not to use his hands. I certainly would not want my approach to coaching or parenting dissected or analyzed on the basis of one picture and I don’t think we should put Messi or Suarez on a pedestal just because they sat back to watch their sons play football.

I understand the point many people were trying to make.

If one of the greatest footballers that ever lived can sit back and let his son play, then surely Joe Bloggs that hasn’t kicked a ball in his life shouldn’t be screaming and shouting at the side of the park telling his son or daughter what or what not to do. We have all seen it. Those parents at the side of the park that treat youth football like the World Cup Final, screaming at anyone and everyone. The poor referee, the opposition manager or even opposition parents, it seems no one is immune from their tirades. This is not acceptable and never will be. Parents should be there to support their own child’s team and everything else should be insignificant. I think despite the outpouring of admiration for Messi and Suarez, there is major grey area about parenting young sports people that people have forgotten or perhaps overlooked. Everyone was eulogizing about such a laid-back approach to watching their kids, but I can’t help but wonder if some of their praise was misplaced. Is there more to a parents’ role in helping develop a young aspiring athlete than some people think?

Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Andre Agassi. These three names symbolize greatness in their own sport. For my generation, these sportsmen and women are icons of their sport, synonymous with being the best in the world and they all have one thing in common. Their parents pushed them to be the best they could possibly be from a very young age. Tiger’s dad didn’t go to the driving range and sit back in his chair and just let young Tiger hit some balls on his own. He instructed him, he encouraged him, he challenged him and at times scolded him. In the end, he produced one of the best sportsmen that has ever lived. Agassi’s dad hand-built a tennis court in his own back yard and a machine nicknamed “the dragon” that fired balls out at a ferocious rate. Agassi points to this machine and his father’s constants demands to return the ball harder each time as the reason for his fantastic forehand.

Tiger and his Dad shared an exceptionally close relationship.

Tiger and Agassi are both products of an environment where they were pushed every day by their parents to be the best they could be. At times did their parents cross the line of what was considered by the general public to be acceptable behaviour? From stories I have read, I think it is safe to say they did, but was that perhaps necessary to produce a world class athlete?

While hard at times, I suspect these athletes all look back now and are thankful for the way their parents moulded them. Would they have had all the trophies, accolades and money if it wasn’t for that constant push from their parents? The Williams sisters’ dad can always be seen sitting in the tennis stadiums around the world supporting his daughters, a sure sign that their relationship is as strong as ever despite his role as taskmaster during their formative years. Where would Tiger’s career be right now if his dad Earl was still around? Many feel Tiger’s demise started when he lost his father. Earl was not only Tiger’s father, but his best friend and mentor as well. Tiger didn’t despise him for pushing him hard as a child; He idolized him.

As a young child growing up you need advice, guidance, encouragement and support, but at times, you need to be disciplined, challenged and pushed to reach your full potential. While I never reached the heights of the aforementioned athletes, I have enjoyed a career in professional sport for more than 15 years. I think I have managed to get the most out of the ability I had thanks in large part to my parents.

Of course children at times need to make their own mistakes and learn from them, but the experience and wisdom a parent can pass on from their own experiences are invaluable. During your teenage years, when there are so many distractions, you need someone to point you in the right direction. At that age, it is so easy to just follow the crowd and succumb to peer pressure. If you have parents that can warn you about the pitfalls of making the wrong decisions and guide you along the right path, then the impact later in life can be huge.

Before a parent can really push a child to reach the top in sport, there are two ingredients the child must have. For anyone to reach their potential at anything, they need to be passionate about what they do. I have always lived and breathed football. Growing up, it consumed my thoughts every hour of the day. One of my report cards once read, “At times Neill’s mind is at Rugby Park and not in the class.” To be fair to the teacher, she was spot on. I was single-minded in my desperation to be a professional footballer.

On top of a passion for the sport, you need to show an aptitude for it. I have seen many players who loved football but even with the best will in the world, they just didn’t have the ability no matter how much they wanted it. If you have both the aptitude and the passion, then I think you’re able to handle a parent pushing you to be the best you can be. If you don’t have these ingredients, it will just end in tears for everyone.

When I read autobiographies or listen to interviews from sportsmen or women, they often site their parents as the biggest influence in their career. The influence of parents obviously varies with every athlete. In some cases, their parents didn’t have any clue about the sport their child participated in, but supported them in other ways, like ferrying them all over the country to and from training and events, lending emotional support after disappointments and encouraging a level head after great victories. In other cases, parents have vast knowledge on their child’s particular sport and were able to actually coach the intricacies of the game. Would Andy Murray be world number one if it hadn’t been for his mother Judy’s influence in the background?

As a father of four young children myself, I appreciate I will have decisions to make over the coming years on how to best help my children pursue their dreams whether it be in sport or academics. One thing I know is that they are all already uniquely different characters and will therefore each require help in different ways. Growing up, I had a vastly different character to my sister and for that reason, my Mum and Dad would push, encourage and cajole us in very different ways. While I have enjoyed a career in professional football, my sister went on to earn many caps for the Scottish Women’s Netball team as a goal attack.

To produce a professional athlete, I don’t think it is a prerequisite to have a parent as a major influence, but I guarantee if you ask any sportsman or woman, they will all have an important figure that played a major role in helping them on their journey. It may be an aunt, uncle, grandparent or coach but there is no question help and guidance has to come from somewhere.

My dad played a huge role in my football career. He was my coach from the age of 6 to 13. He enjoyed a short professional football career himself before becoming a Chartered accountant and continuing to play semi-professionally. My dad would be the first to admit he didn’t take the Messi approach to watching me play football.

I can remember appearing for the second half in games and looking over to my dad and getting the distinct signal to liven up, or, as we say in Scotland, get my finger out my arse, if I hadn’t reached the standards I was capable of. There were also days I hopped back into the car after a game thinking I had performed well only to be told in no uncertain terms that I hadn’t. “You need to do things quicker.” “Why didn’t you get tighter?” As a youngster there were times where I didn’t like this frank appraisal, but it always made me strive to do better and raise my standards and this was exactly the response my dad was hoping for. He could see the ability I had and how much I wanted it, but realized I needed to be pushed to achieve it. I can safely say that without these demands being placed on me, I wouldn’t have made a career out of the game. If I had jumped in the car after every game and been told how great I was, I doubt I would have made it past semi-professional level in Scotland. I needed to be pushed to reach my potential. I knew what I wanted to achieve but my dad knew HOW best to get me there having made the journey himself and from years of life experience.

Playing for Queens Park at 17 in the Scottish Third Division my Dad looking on in the background. He didn’t always look so relaxed.

For any parent reading this thinking that this is the approach to take, I would urge that there is no one-size-fits-all method. While at times my dad was demanding, I was also always aware he was my biggest fan. During some of my biggest disappointments, he was always there to pick me back up and restore belief in my ability. At fourteen, I was released by my boyhood heroes, Kilmarnock FC, and Aberdeen FC within a week. I was devastated and suffering a crisis of confidence, but my dad was steadfast in his belief that I would come through this stronger. His unwavering support despite the knock backs gave me confidence to keep going and prove the doubters wrong. Without this support at an age where insecurities are magnified, I would have believed the so-called experts and just faded into the background never to be seen again. The people that hold the positions of influence and power do not always know best. It is worth bearing in mind Michael Jordan did not make his high school varsity team.

Every athlete takes a different route on their path to professional sport, but one constant is the need for a positive influence, whether it be a parent, family member or close friend. It has to be someone that solely has the athletes’ best interests at heart. Coaches have a huge number of players to look after and a club to answer to. Agents might say they have your best interests at heart, but really have clubs, managers and chief executives to keep happy if they want to enjoy a long working relationship in that industry.

A parents’ role should never be underestimated, as in reality, they are the one person with only their childs’ best interests at heart. If they don’t try to push their child to be the best they can be, there are no guarantees anyone else will. So the next time you see a parent at the side of the park trying to motivate their child to do better, think twice before condemning them. They might just be nurturing a future champion.

Jumpers for goalposts

If you were born and brought up in a certain era you will know what it was like to rush home from school, whip off your uniform, change into your favourite football jersey and rush out to play football until it was dark only taking a break for tea, which would be consumed in record time afraid you might miss something. Indigestion was never a thought as you rejoined the game still munching the remnants of a buttered roll. You will also be familiar with games like world cuppy, doubles, comby, wally and phrases like “any man save”, “next goal and in” and “no poaching”. I spent my childhood down the park playing these games and uttering these very phrases as did countless others all over Britain. My Mum and Dad used to tell me it would be the best time of my life. Playing football every hour that god sent with my best friends making our own games and our own rules. How right they were. No one to impress other than your peers, no one to tell you what position to play or how to play it. It really was the time of my life.

Now, whenever I get the chance to go home to Scotland I often drive by my old stomping ground, Barassie Park, and relive some of those childhood memories. The epic games that were tightly matched at 32 each but concluded because Mrs. Devlin was calling Krissy in for his tea or that volley I scored the first time I got to play with the older lads. I can remember some of these games just as well as games I featured in later in my professional career.

Unfortunately now when I drive by the park it is deserted. No longer is there the buzz of forty unruly kids playing in their own World Cup final. Instead, there’s just silence. The grass is perfectly green with no sign of badly worn goalmouths at either end of the park — a symbol of how little football is played there.

The lack of “street” football doesn’t just apply to the park in my hometown, but every park I pass by now. Whether it be in Leeds, Manchester or Birmingham, I don’t see kids imitating Ronaldo or Messi, playing games of headers and volleys or shooty in. You could be forgiven for thinking ball games had been banned nationwide. In Ayrshire these days they are replacing the “No Football Here” signs with “Please Play Football Here.” Such is the lack of activity at recreational areas.

Now I understand people will say society has changed, that it is not as safe as it used to be. In a day and age where every child seems to have a mobile phone I wonder if this is really true when your parents are just a phone call away. We only need to watch the news to realise there were a lot of bad people about even back in the so-called “good old days”. Regardless, I fear these halcyon days are gone for good.

I recently listened to an interview where former Celtic manager Neil Lennon commented on how he feels football has become sanitised for young players and it is stunting their development. In his opinion, players are over-coached and are deprived of the opportunities to improve and learn through street football that past generations have had. For years, Scotland, Ireland and Wales produced some of the world’s best players, George Best, Dennis Law, Kenny Dalglish, Duncan Edwards to name a few. Players produced not from professional clubs’ academies, but from playing endless hours of football whether it be with friends, school teams, boys club teams, county teams, literally any team that would have them.

They say you have to have 10,000 hours of quality practice to become an expert in your field. Many players would have been considered experts in their teens if you added up the amount of football they played back in a bygone era. Lennon is not alone in thinking that the change in football culture, particularly in Scotland, has made for a dearth of natural talent. It has been a long slow death and another nail was hammered home when Scotland were the only home nation to miss out on this summer’s Euros. Many pundits raised similar concerns over England’s ability to produce top quality players with character after being ruthlessly dumped out by the minnows of Iceland. The academy system has quite rightly come under scrutiny.

I know boys as young as nine years old now that are tied down to professional clubs and therefore don’t get to experience what it’s like to play with their school on the Friday, boys club on the Saturday, County on the Sunday and in the middle of all that, squeeze a game of wally in with their friends. Instead they will train in what Lennon describes as a sanitised situation playing “false” football at an academy where they will be instructed what to do from the minute they arrive to the minute they leave. The whole process is far too linear. There are very few problems for these players to overcome. They get the best kit, the best facilitie and the best mode of transport to and from games. Their toughest choice is sometimes what colour boots to wear.

Now, some people may argue that good, quality coaching in a professional academy is surely better than battering a ball off a wall for half an hour with your mates, but I am not so sure. First of all, quality coaching is hard to find even at the highest level in the professional game. Unfortunately, in my experience there are more average coaches than good coaches, so just being in academy doesn’t guarantee development or fun. On top of that, how much coaching do you really need at nine years old? Yes, you need to learn the basics and be guided in the right direction, but it is amazing the improvements that can be made just playing in any capacity with the freedom to express yourself. A simple game like “Wally,” when you take it in turns to hit the ball against a wall until someone misses, works on so many aspects of your game. You start finding ways to drive it, chip it, or curl it, along with learning how to use the inside and outside of your foot. Think how many touches you get in half an hour playing this compared to being a just another number in a group of 14-20 players.

When out playing with your friends at a young age, a game as simple as trying to hit a lamp post can be where a dead ball expert is born. So many times I look back at games I played when I was a kid and now realise I was honing my technique without thinking, coaching myself, as I wanted to find a way to beat my pals whilst having unbelievable fun.

On top of improving the technical side, you also improve the psychological side. Nothing builds character more than fighting your corner down the park with your mates. I can remember many scraps breaking out over whether the ball that rolled over a jumper impersonating a goal post was in or out. That first time you got called over to play with the big boys, three years older than you, and you had to sink or swim. How often are academy players really taken out their comfort zone?

The state of Scottish football has raised intense discussion on what can be done to improve the nation’s game. Ex-Scotland international John Collins has some pretty strong views on how, as a nation, Scotland should change things to aid player development and many of them are excellent but one point I can’t agree with him on is that young players should play non-competitive football up to the age of 18. How will players adapt going in to a first team at 18 years old when all they have known up to then is that winning doesn’t matter?

When British football was producing genuine world class players by the barrel load, the route through to the professional ranks was via competitive boys club, school and street football. I was very fortunate to play at a time when schools football was extremely strong. The standard of talent at the surrounding schools was high. In a previous blog I talked about matches against Scottish international Kris Boyd. These type of games were fantastic for pitting your wits against the best players in the area. Alan Hutton, who also went to my school, Marr College, would join us from time to time playing up front and scoring goals for fun with his electric pace.

Boys club football in Ayrshire was equally competitive and full of high-quality players that went on to achieve professional careers. Scottish international Kirk Broadfoot featured against us regularly and my own small town team, Troon Thistle, included three future Scottish Under 21 internationals, myself, Tom Brighton who played for Rangers, Clyde and Millwall, and Craig Samson, current goalkeeper for Motherwell in the SPL.

Top left to right. Tom Brighton, myself and Craig Samson all went on to play for Scotland U21’s together.

At around 16, I was playing for Ayrshire schools on the Monday, Queens Park reserves on a Wednesday and Queens Park Under 18’s on a Saturday. I have no doubt all these games and the experience I gained from playing so much “real” football accelerated my development past all the other 16 year olds that had gained YTS or Academy contracts. While I was out learning my trade playing in all various different levels of football, they were being mollycoddled, playing one game a week if they were lucky. At 16 they were considered better than me. By 19, they were well on their way out the game.

It is in a competitive environment under the most stressful conditions that you put your technique to the test and find out how good it really is. For example, taking a penalty in front of your whole school at a cup final gives you a small idea of the pressure you may face later in your career. Non-competitive sport just doesn’t create moments like this.

You would think all this schools and boys club football would be enough, but my thirst and my friends’ thirst for football wasn’t quenched, so we decided to invent our own team, Barassie Madrid. We all chipped in a tenner each and I was trusted to pick our new teams’ strip from the local market. I probably picked one of the worst strips of all time, a green and white Swindon away strip. Even an ardent Swindon Town fan would have turned his nose up at it, but we loved them because they were ours. We had local rivals called the Barassie All Stars and they donned a Russian national strip from the late 80s. Forget the Old Firm. As far as we were concerned, this was the only derby that mattered. When games took place down our local park it was like the Wild West, all sorts going on. We even attracted a crowd, mostly girls that were hoping for a winch after the game. No quarter was given or asked and we would scratch and fight to try and win the bragging rights.

Barassie Madrid home kit. Voted one of the worst kits ever but not in my eyes.

When people suggest playing non-competitive football, I think they are missing the point. When is football amongst youngsters ever non-competitive? Even my five-year old son wants to beat me when we play out the back. As a young child you don’t carry defeats the way you do when you reach the professional game. You might shed a few tears in the car home, but by the following morning, you are playing your next game in the school ground with hopes and dreams still intact. It is the coaches and parents that need to learn how to teach players the balance between the importance of winning and improving at a young age.

One academy I have come across that has noticed the change in society and our culture was Sheffield United under ex-Academy Director Nick Cox, now at Manchester United. Nick was kind enough to let me get involved in academy coaching at Sheffield United and I could see he was well aware that children weren’t getting the opportunity to play football on their own terms anymore. In an effort to create as good an environment as possible, one night instead of normal training, the boys would pick teams and just be allowed to play. No rules, no coaching. The best smaller boys, regardless, of age would get the chance to play against the bigger boys — the same type of natural selection that used to happen in any street game. If you were good enough, you were old enough. All of a sudden, instead of dribbling past boys their own age or smaller, weaker players, they had to think on their feet. Now, their physical attributes weren’t enough and they had to on technique and their reading of the game. All the things we did without thinking when we got pitched in with bigger, stronger lads. Nowadays, we need more academy bosses to think like Nick Cox and try and give the players a chance to improve by improvising.

With three sons of my own, I feared they would never get the opportunity to experience the childhood memories that I did, playing football with friends down the park but since my move to Florida, my fears have been well and truly allayed. Culture and society has changed in the U.K. and will never revert, while something special is happening in the States. Every park I go past has goalposts up with nets hanging from them and when I say nets, I mean real goal nets not some fishing nets that have been procured to replicate a goal net.

I remember when a set of goal nets appeared down Barassie Park every now and again, it was like a scene out of the Kevin Costner film, A Field of Dreams. Players would start appearing from all parts of the town like wasps attracted to a pot of Hartley’s strawberry jam and before you knew it, a 13-a-side game would be underway. Goals with nets turned our basic park in to a Hampden Park. All of a sudden, a goal looked much more aesthetically pleasing, instead of the monotony of having to chase after the ball every time it went through the posts.

My son and I playing down our local park in Florida.

Not only are there perfectly green pitches around every corner with beautiful white goal nets hanging, but there are boys and girls playing in them. The same type of games I played all the way back in Troon 25 years ago. If my theory is right and kids playing football up the park has an impact on the national game, then keep an eye on the USA. It might not be in the next five or ten years, but I expect in the next fifteen to twenty years, they will make huge strides and find their place in higher echelons of international football. Not only have they got kids playing on their own but they have a strong boys club and high school soccer scene to boot.

Scotland’s national team might just see the benefit from the street football culture in USA in around 20 years’ time as my three sons will all get the chance to play down these parks while wearing the lion rampant on their chest.