Choosing a Private Academy

With numerous private academies and commercial operators out in the football marketplace – and seemingly more popping up every day – many parents are often confused as to what to look for and questions to ask when choosing an academy (or similar) for their child.

Putting aside whether extra sessions are beneficial or actually needed over and above normal club training, the following questions may help to provide some simple assistance and guidance.

The below information is not an exhaustive list of aspects to consider, but hopefully will act as a guide in the event that a parent wished to go down the path of choosing an academy program for their child.

Firstly, don’t be afraid to ask questions and don’t be afraid to ask for a trial.

Academies and private operators are trying to ‘sell’ you something and will effectively be taking and hopefully looking after yo2ur child for a period of time. While matters such as location and convenience may be very ‘front of mind’ from a logistical perspective, the more ‘discerning’ consumer will investigate further and seek extra information, taking in to account the quality of coaching staff and their accreditation, experience and reputation, and the overall philosophy.

QUALITY OF COACHING AND THE TRAINING ENVIRONMENT

Parents should be aware of the suitability and quality of coaches that they are leaving the child – their most valuable asset – with and the training environment and experiences that they are being exposed to. There are now well-established requirements and standards that must be met by anyone that is involved with children’s activities.

All academies and private providers must be registered – this can be done at here

Importantly, a Working with Children Check (WCC) is a requirement for people who work (in either a paid or volunteer capacity) with children and minors. It involves a national criminal history check and a review of findings of any workplace misconduct. Applicants for a WCC can do so here

Being outside the formal football system, private providers are not checked by Football NSW, the FFA or any affiliated club. That said, and as a matter of course, anyone working with minors should be compliant with government regulations and should be able to produce their own WCC number but the responsibility for checking rests with the parent/guardian.

 

The NSW Government’s Office of the Children’s Guardian has further information on WCC (and other topics in this increasingly important area) on their website

Further, they have developed a series of key principles for what they refer to as ‘child-safe organisations’ to follow, namely:

  • Principle 1: The organisation focuses on what is best for children
  • Principle 2: All children are respected and treated fairly
  • Principle 3: Children’s families and communities are welcome and encouraged to participate in the organisation
  • Principle 4: Children receive services from skilled and caring adults

Parents SHOULD ask to see the WCC for each coach working for the academy/private provider and to judge for themselves whether the academy environment espouses the above principles. 

Parent should be able to assume that ALL coaches (not just the principal of the company) involved in teaching and coaching their child has some sort of formal coaching qualification. Preferably this should be from the FFA’s Coach Accreditation system (following their National Curriculum) although in some instances, coaches may be accredited through overseas Confederations such as UEFA (Europe) or the AFC (Asia).

One wouldn’t send a child to a teacher, doctor, dentist or similar who has never been to University/College and obtained their respective training in the form of a degree, diploma or certificate. As such, beware of ‘instructors’ who have no coaching qualifications whatsoever and who may just be a ‘fan’ of the game or a previous player.

Whilst attending a course and getting their license doesn’t necessarily make them a ‘great’ coach, it does imply some form of instruction and a knowledge of the Curriculum and should be the very basic of tests.

Be cautious of academies who employ ‘backpackers’, or those who have ‘played a bit’ – if one is paying for a ‘professional’ coaching service, then the least one can expect is a ‘professionally trained’ instructor. Similarly, children’s football is not the same as the professional adult game – the mentality of the child and the skill development and instruction required is fundamentally different than that of adult football. To state the obvious, young players are not competing in the World Cup, and thus should be treated according to their age, skill level and learning phase.

Further information on the FFA’s Coaching Scheme can be found at here

Parents should ask what coaching qualifications the respective coaches have. 

Coaching qualifications aside, the attitude and behaviour of the academy’s coach and the overall training environment should be positive, encouraging and generally uplifting. Parents should not confuse shouting and berating with instilling discipline or demanding excellence. Some simple points to look out for include:

  • How does a coach welcome and speak to players?
  • How do they provide instruction and reinforce good actions or correct bad behaviours?
  • Does there appear to be a structure to the program and each training session – is this shared with parents
  • What is the ratio of coaches to players?
  • Do young players enjoy, have fun and finish session looking forward to the next or are they terrified that they might not be good enough?

Parents should ask what insurance coverage the private academy or external provider has in the following areas: a) Personal Injury, b) Public Liability, c) Professional Indemnity, and d) Management Liability. 

Football, like many sports and physical activities, can result in injuries – some of which may be serious enough to require medical treatment. Broken bones, a ruptured ACL or other injuries requiring an ambulance, surgery, hospitalization or physiotherapy can be extremely expensive and may not be covered by Medicare. It is important to recognize that many training activities, games and tournaments conducted by private academies and external providers are UNSANCTIONED are not covered by Football NSW’s insurance program (unlike normal club training sessions and matches).

Some private academies may not have any insurance in place and instead ask parents to sign a waiver indemnifying the academy of any ‘blame’ or responsibility. Parents need to be aware of what insurance is in place (if any) and make an informed decision as to the risk in the event that the child is injured.

Parents should ask what insurance coverage the private academy or external provider has in the following areas: a) Personal Injury, b) Public Liability, c) Professional Indemnity, and d) Management Liability. 

Involvement in private academies is often supplementary to club training and its demands, and sometimes on top of school sport, potentially football and a whole host of other activities that children do nowadays. Other than him/herself, there is often no one monitoring the workload, total hours and overall stress that a young child’s growing body is exposed to. This can lead to some potentially serious injuries and should be constantly and closely monitored.

Further, research tells us that early specialisation in just the one sport (such as football) may lead to repetitive strain injuries and loss of interest. Children should be encouraged to be involved in a range of sports and physical activities.

MARKETING AND PROMOTION

It is not uncommon for private academies and external providers – particularly those affiliated with well-known overseas clubs, to market their program along the lines of ‘Play like [club]’ or ‘Play the [club] way!’ – as if to imply that if you attend their academy then the young child will play like their well-known sporting hero or international club they support. Unfortunately, for so many reasons, football and youth development simply doesn’t work this way. As much as every coach would like their team to play ‘tiki-taka’ or in the style of the European Champions or World Cup winning team, this takes years if not generations and a whole culture to develop. Obviously attending an academy as an individual doesn’t convert the whole team to play the same way.

Not only that, but with the FFA’s National Curriculum, there is the concept of an ‘Australian way’ in which all young players (and their coaches) are encouraged to follow, adopt and play. The Curriculum has been extensively researched and developed and is applied across the country in both coaching courses and coaching sessions. Offering an alternative style or playing a way that the child is not capable of or beyond their skill level (for example, a one touch, high tempo pressing game) does very little for a young player’s development and may in fact confuse their understanding of how they are expected to play and what to do in any given situation.

The FFA’s ‘Player Centred’ approach is designed to develop and prepare the young player in readiness for their adult participation at their chosen level. Replication of current adult styles – as demonstrated in the EPL, Champions League or the World Cup – may not necessarily be relevant 5-10 years in the future.

Parents should inquire whether the private provider follows the principles of the FFA’s National Curriculum. 

Beware of programs that sell dreams and promise a fast track to success. As the cliché goes, ‘if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is’.

Similarly, beware of programs that offer trials to overseas clubs – often this is nothing more than a money-making and branding exercise by the said club. If a player is skilled and talented and is wanted by an overseas club, then that same club will pay all necessary expenses for a trial. No parent or player should pay for a trial with an overseas club in order to be ‘selected’. There is a well-recognized ‘talented player pathway’ in the Australian football system, and while history has shown there are a very small few who have made it ‘big’ via alternative means, these players are few and far between, and the majority progress through the ranks of the formal pathway.

Parents are encouraged to seek out experienced coaches and technicians in the game who can provide some high-level objective advice and support before making life-changing decisions.

Most importantly, parents/players should be aware that the current FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (Clause 19 on the Protection of Minors) prevent the international transfer of young players under the age of 18. Further, citizenship and visa restrictions can often inhibit players registering and playing overseas, particularly in Europe.

Parents should question what is being ‘promised’ – many times it is nothing more than exaggerated marketing gimmickry. 

Many private academies offer as one of their key activities or programs the prospect of an international tour and matches against overseas clubs. Whilst in the main these are valuable personal experiences (similar to a school excursion) and a novel way to play similar (and often big name) club academy teams, such tours should be seen as lifetime experiences and cultural exchanges rather than from a football perspective. As outlined above, even if a 14-year-old was spotted as having talent, FIFA Regulations prevent any international transfer and registration until they reach the age of 18 years.

A 1-2 week football experience will not be the determining factor in a player’s development. Rather, it is their love of the game, and commitment and dedication to their own personal technique and skills development that will help them shine and progress.

Parents should recognize the concept of overseas tours for what they are – the chance for their child to experience an international culture and to play against foreign clubs. They are often a football club’s equivalent to a school excursion.

With some private providers, payment of significant fees is involved – often up front. A best practice academy should offer some form of payment schedule either over a series of terms (in a year) or even a pay as you go system for only the sessions attended. Even better might be the offer of at least one free trial session to see if the child enjoys it. Similarly, and recognizing the high cost of attendance, a certain number of places in an academy should be set aside for ‘hardship’ cases – that is, for parents of skilled players who, for one reason or another (eg newly arrived refugees), may not be able to afford to pay the full price.

Parents should ask what the financial terms of the private academy and external provider are including whether there is a refund policy up to a certain number of sessions attended. If money and payment of fees are an issue, ask whether there are options for scholarships or payments schedules over an extended period of time.

No club should force participation in a private academy or an external provider in order for the young player to be selected in the First Division team (or equivalent). No participation in an academy program should ever be compulsory and as part of a forced program so as to play for a club. Parents/players pay their registration fee to participate and compete for a team based on their skill level. Any compulsory requirement that forces the player to attend a private provider for an additional supplementary fee is fundamentally wrong.

That said, it is recognised that some clubs offer different levels of service and program offerings. For example, they may offer a premium service with additional training and for an additional fee. Parents should make themselves aware of the different programs and levels of service offered by a club and base their decisions on affordability, value for money and alternative options.

Attendance at a private academy and external provider should never be compulsory and there should never be a forced additional fee to normal registration.

OTHER POLICIES THAT THE ACADEMY SHOULD HAVE

It is not unreasonable to ask to see (and be given copies of if requested) a number of other policies that a ‘best practice’ academy should have. These may include, but are not limited to addressing such important matters as:

  • Codes of Conduct – for Management, Staff, Staff, Participants/Children and Visitors
  • Pick-up and Drop Off Policy
  • Photography and Videoing Policy
  • Discipline Procedure – how does the academy deal with misbehaving and ‘unruly’ children
  • Complaints – including procedures for making a grievance
  • Payment and Refund Policy – including the possibility of free 1 (or 2) sessions trial
  • Other Child Safe Procedures

Never be afraid to ask questions and never be afraid to work with and encourage the academy to have a higher level of ‘duty of care’ for your child. 

CONCLUSION

Although the above list may seem onerous, we shouldn’t shy away from the desire to raise the bar and improve the environment in which our young players participate.

Football NSW encourages all clubs, academies and private providers to develop a safe, caring and beneficial training environment by adopting some of the best practices and behaviours listed above.

FOOTBALL NSW ASSOCIATIONS