Saturday 9 June 2018, the County Ground, Taunton, Somerset.
Its 11.06am and I am sitting in a stand with my wife, Sarah, my eldest son Ben and his fiancée Olivia. My youngest son, Matt, is about to bowl the biggest over of his fledging professional career – his first delivery in first class cricket. This is what he has worked so hard for, he has the skills, he is physically prepared, now has he got the mental strength to take the opportunity. I don’t usually get nervous but today is a little different, even his brother later admitted to some ‘clammy hands.’
Its 8.00pm, the family is in a restaurant in Taunton town centre enjoying a meal together. It went well, a few first over nerves then he settled down bowling 16 overs and picking up his first wicket. An emotional day – a mix of excitement, nerves and happiness.
Today was the result of hard work, talent, dedication and resilience by a young man but just as importantly sacrifice and support from many, many people. I wholeheartedly thank them all.
Dreams can come true.
Firstly, a bit of background/context with two very different journeys.
My eldest son, Ben, joined Notts County FC Centre of Football Excellence at 9 years of age. He also played County Age Group cricket for Notts CCC from 11 years of age. Aged 14, the COE closed, and he moved to an Academy football club – Leicester City FC. Aged 15, he had a decision to make, does he pursue cricket or football. He chose football, gained a 2-year scholarship at 16 and a 1-year professional deal at 18. This was not renewed, and he moved into semi-professional football and obtained a part time job. His wish to return to full time football did not materialise and he is now self-employed within the financial services industry whilst playing his 12th season in the semi pro game with Tamworth FC in the Southern League ( League 7 of the football pyramid ) following spells with Boston United, Corby Town, Kettering Town and Buxton.
My youngest son, Matt, joined the same football COE at 9 years of age and played County Age Group cricket for Notts. Aged 14, the COE closed, and he went on trial to a couple of Academy clubs but went back to playing grass roots football. He did not get chosen for the Notts CCC under 15 squad but progressed into his Premier League Club 1st XI at 15. Aged 18, he went off to University and was selected to play in the Durham MCCU cricket team (University Cricket Centre of Excellence). Whilst studying for a Primary Education degree, he made several appearances for the Durham County Cricket Club 2ND XI. On finishing his degree, he came back home, got a job locally and played club cricket again. Nottinghamshire CCC monitored his progress, invited him to play some 2nd XI games and in 2017 offered him a 3-month contract, which was followed by a 1-year professional deal from October 2017. He was offered another contract but following interest from Kent CCC, he moved down south on a 3 year deal in October 2018. He picked up 55 Championship wickets in the 2019 season which earnt him a place on the England Lions tour to Australia in the winter of 2020. He has since developed his white ball skills and was an integral part of the Kent side which won the T20 title at Edgbaston in September 2021 and has since represented Welsh Fire and the Oval Invincibles in the Hundred competition. He commences a new 3 year contract with Yorkshire CCC on 1 November 2022.
Let me say at the outset, I’m not the ‘my son will be the next Beckham’ type of parent. Sadly, we have all come across them and continue to do so. I have always encouraged my two sons to enjoy their sport and play to the best of their ability, but I will always remember a conversation with the U18 coach at Leicester City, Steve Beaglehole, one crisp November morning in Sheffield when he quite rightly said ‘You know Mark, overall, players find their level.’ I think this is true.
So, where did it all start? Inevitably, like many scenarios in the back garden, the football in the winter, the cricket bat in the summer. Parents are often asked ‘did they influence matters?’ Well looking back, the answer must be yes. I was a decent club cricketer, and I enjoyed my football, playing at a lesser level so I suppose it was inevitable that I would encourage my sons with their sport and introduce them to it. They enjoyed it and continue to do so. Am I living my dream through them? – A question I hear often asked of parents. No, I honestly don’t think so. I have and continue to enjoy watching them and hopefully I have helped them, but they have made their own decisions as to their level of involvement. I lost my father at eight years of age so I was determined to support my children as much as I could.
You will notice some words in bold print throughout this piece of writing – I decided to brainstorm the subject matter and expand on key words / phrases.
SUPPORT – I started off my article detailing a day in June 2018, I wanted to highlight the importance of family support. We have been very fortunate to have it available to us and there is no doubt that without it my sons would not have been able to experience their sporting journeys. The taxi drivers are vital, whether it be mum, dad or in our case my late father in law. It can be difficult, the workplace has changed, work pressures are greater and to spend hours transporting children to training / games can take a massive chunk out of a week.
Support can come in lots of different guises. I have been an onlooker, taxi driver, adviser, listener, negotiator and probably lots of other roles over the years. It takes time and effort and I accept that I have been fortunate in having a love for sport, particularly football and cricket. Listening is so important, often we are not good at it and I am as guilty as anyone. I learnt a valuable lesson one afternoon as I was taking Ben home after an u16 game. They had won, he had played well and as we drove along, I was keen to chat about the game, he wasn’t!!!!! He had been in the football bubble all week long, it was time for some down time for him – a lesson learnt by his father, there is a time and a place.
SACRIFICE – it is inevitable that there will be a need to sacrifice other things in your life as a parent. Perhaps the most important will be time. Supporting a child within elite sport can be very time consuming especially alongside busy jobs. I remember finishing work early on two, sometimes three evenings per week to pick up Ben from home at 5.00pm to travel just over an hour for his evening football training sessions, returning at about 9.30pm when it would be time for a shower and a bite to eat. There may also be a need to change any social arrangements at short notice and in many cases, finance will be a consideration. It can be expensive to travel around supporting a child. Finally, I had to sacrifice my own football coaching – it was just too much alongside a full-time job and the need to be travelling to and from Leicester 2/3 times per week.
Parents need to be aware of the sacrifices required, go into it with your eyes open. It was a little easier for Sarah and me as we had a genuine interest in the sports, but it was still very tiring at times. Elite sport development requires hard work and dedication from not only the athlete but also the support staff – the parents.
LIFE EXPERIENCE – I have also seen things from the other side of the fence having worked as an Academy coach and presently as a scout. As football coaches within a Centre of Excellence, we would undertake a parent induction session for the new intake of excited 9-year olds and their parents. My standard line would always be ‘Are these boys going to be professional footballers?’ The likely answer is no.
But if they work hard, do their best and listen, then they will probably leave the process as a better football player, a more rounded individual and a person who has had a great life experience. I suppose I was trying to manage expectations to a certain extent but I still firmly belief my words are true.
In all honesty, in my opinion, there are just too many boys in the ‘elite ‘ system. The percentage that actual make a living playing professionally is extremely minuscule and to play semi-professionally is still an excellent achievement.
There needs to be more honest decisions made by Football Academies at age 13/14 years of age. They have a very good idea of which players have ‘got a chance‘ at that time. Yes, there will be late developers and yes there will be some that go away and prove them wrong but this has to be accepted.
Why not combine the age groups 13/14s then 15/16s. This would reduce the squad numbers, enhance playing time and concentrate the development on the boys who they believe can progress to be professional players. I witnessed an u14 Academy game recently at a Premiership club where they virtually used 18 outfield players during the course of the game.
I do not have any experience of the girls game which is clearly growing rapidly but I do hope that they can learn the lessons and maintain a focus on reduced numbers to try to produce elite players.
Football is a brutal industry, ‘a naughty business.’ As I say it won’t change so parents need to be fully aware of this fact when supporting their children.
I believe that the cricket academy system is slightly different. It certainly concentrates on reduced numbers (possibly due to less funding). The main challenge with cricket is how to engage with state school children – there has to be some natural talent out there but how is it accessed?
One of the great benefits is the life experience. Your child will meet new people from different backgrounds and make new friends. They will play as part of a team and learn many people skills. It will be character building, there will be setbacks – how do they react? They will have to stand their ground on occasions, the elite sport environment is cutthroat. But it will be a good grounding for later life, whether they are fortunate enough to progress to a higher level and earn a living or go away to enjoying playing recreationally. I am certain that a prospective employer would be interested to see a CV with ‘4 or 5 years within an elite sports environment’ on it.
I have thoroughly enjoyed the journey and still do. People may say – well, you would, your sons have been successful. But it has not been easy at times. However, I have had the opportunity to visit lots of different places and meet people from various walks of life. We still enjoy our days watching, whether it be on the boundary edge or on the terrace.
DECISIONS, DECISIONS, DECISIONS !!!! – some difficult decisions will need to be made. At 15 years of age, the decision as to whether to go down the cricket or football route was not easy for Ben. Both camps were making the right noises. A recent selection set back in cricket could have influenced his thought process, but it really came down to a simple question. I asked him – ‘which do you enjoy the most?’ His answer was football – decision made. Clearly, as they progress and get older, they make their own decisions but a ‘chat with the old man’ still takes place on occasions. It happened when Matt was mulling over offers from two different counties in 2018. As a parent you can perhaps see the bigger picture and have that life experience. You can give your input but let your child make that final call.
CONTROL THE CONTROLLABLES – along with fail to prepare, prepare to fail, this has become something of a mantra for me. A Senior Manager within NatWest introduced it to me and what sense it made. Why waste energy, get frustrated and worry about things that you cannot control. Concentrate on things within your power of influence. It’s a good phrase to remember within an elite sporting environment. Parents will see lots of things which will frustrate them – coach decisions, nepotism, poor communication for example. But can you change it, the likely answer is no. Take a deep breath and move on. I have struggled on occasions, we are only human, but this phrase has been a great help to me.
So, what can you as a parent help to control? I would suggest two key areas – first impressions and back up plans.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS COUNT – they certainly do. The first thirty seconds is vital. Coaches seek athletes who are ‘coachable,’ a rounded individual who wants to learn, wants to progress. High maintenance sportspeople are very time consuming to manage and potentially disruptive within the team dynamic. So, the parent who tells the coach and anyone who cares to listen that ‘little Johnny has won this that and the other and scored a hat trick three games on the trot ‘is only putting his child at a disadvantage from the word go – news spreads fast within coaching circles!’ Sadly, there are many such parents out there and it appears that ‘ You Tube ‘ is the place to promote your child these days.
From my experience, it is much better to be polite, pass the time of day with the coaches, keep a low profile and put any points which you wish to raise across in arranged meetings.
BACK UP PLANS – vital I would suggest. How many children earn a living out of their chosen sport? A very low percentage so it is paramount that a back up plan is in place. Of course, the sporting option is the dream ticket, but parents must see the bigger picture. I still see football players in their early twenties playing at a decent level in non-league who rely on this as their sole income stream. Their chances of getting back into the full time game are slim, I’m all for ambition but you have to be realistic. It does happen but only very, very occasionally. Parental guidance is important, often expectations are raised too high and when it doesn’t quite work out then there is no back up plan. We were delighted that Matt obtained a degree in Primary Education. At that time, his cricket was progressing but there were certainly no guarantees and we, as parents, were comforted by the fact that he had a back up plan in place. Ben had to return to education in his early twenties and there is plenty of educational support within elite sport nowadays. His previous Education Manager at Leicester City was a great help and he was able to undertake a Financial Adviser course via funding assistance from the PFA.
NOT TOO HIGH NOT TOO LOW – from my experience, it is extremely important to try to stay on a level. There will be good days and bad days, ups and downs as you go through the journey with your child. I have always said that ‘you can only do your best’ and sometimes this is good enough, sometimes it isn’t. When there is some success, it is important to enjoy the moment but when things aren’t so good, an injury, loss of form for example, then that is the time that the parental support is really required and a time to keep things in perspective.
‘NO, I IN TEAM BUT THERE IS ONE SMACK IN THE MIDDLE OF ELITE ‘- I was in two minds whether to include this within my article. I’m sure that many parents are fully aware and go in with their eyes open but if it is new to them then take this advice on board. Like it or not, you must look after number one! Your child will be competing in a dog-eat-dog environment and I can assure you that it only gets more ruthless if they are fortunate enough to move onto the professional stage.
THE FOUR CORNERS – support to help children to develop in elite sport has improved enormously over the last 10 years with the use of technology and enhancements in sports science. From a parent perspective, I think that it is important to have a basic understanding of the areas in which your child will be looking to develop / improve. I can only really talk about football and cricket in which they are referred to us as the four corners of development – Technical / Tactical / Physical / Psychological (Mental Strength), but I would suggest that there is something very similar in most sports. You will not need to have an in-depth knowledge of each area. That may be dangerous, as a parent may start to get too involved and thereby cause confusion but, for example, you will have input into the Physical Corner – is your child getting enough sleep? is your child eating healthy food? Two simple things which will help performance.
From my personal experience, the most important corner is Mental Strength. How does your child deal with the knock backs? Can they get back up and go again? Some highly talented early developers will go on a smooth trajectory and then hit a set back at a later age. I have seen many then drift away from the sport as they couldn’t deal with the rejection.
In some ways an early disappointment and the drive to ‘get back on the bike‘ can be an advantage and an experience in which a child can quickly learn how difficult it will be to achieve their dream.
Clearly this is now part of everyday life and is particularly prevalent in sporting life. There are lots and lots of people with lots of opinions, I call them Keyboard Warriors. If your child reaches professional / semi professional stages then be prepared to read some interesting thoughts from these many ‘experts‘.
I should really just ignore them and for the vast majority of time I do but there has been the odd occasion when I have ‘bitten back‘ to support the team. And remember, sitting in the crowd can be interesting as someone sitting behind you may pass an opinion on your child’s performance on that particular day. It is best to keep quiet but not always easy.
I started my article in Somerset – Saturday 9 June 2018 was a day to be proud of what Matt had achieved, his dream had come true. Three weeks later, on Saturday 30 June, Ben got married to Olivia with his brother as his best man. They now have a 21 old month little boy, Noah and a recently born little girl, Fleur. They have brought us a new sense of happiness. We managed to get out to Australia to watch Matt with the England Lions just before the pandemic and shared in his success with the Kent CCC team at Edgbaston in September 2021, a top group of people.
Sarah and I are both very proud of their achievements, they have worked very hard and made lots of sacrifices.
They have both managed to play sport at a high level and are getting paid money for doing something that they love. It has not been an easy journey for either of them, it never is – elite sport development is a game of snakes and ladders, highs and lows, ups and downs.
Enjoy the rollercoaster, enjoy the life experience but remember, most of all, whatever happens, you are still first and foremost a parent.