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UK Coaching Team
Rapport Building and Communicating Developing Mindsets Safety and Welfare

Ask Not What Your Player Can Do for Your Club but What Your Club Can Do for Your Player

Nick Cox’s compelling presentation on the high-pressure, demanding world of football academies left a lasting impression on delegates at the UK Coaching Conference. The Manchester United Academy boss feels strongly that the system is in need of a timely review, reports Blake Richardson

  • Mindsets need to change to prevent football academies evolving into ‘football talent factories’.
  • Talent development should be about 10,000 experiences rather than 10,000 hours.
  • Football is a big piece of what players do, but it should only be a piece of what they do.
  • Developing wonderful well-rounded people should take precedence over developing wonderful all-round footballers.
  • Note: Since publishing the article in 2018, Nick has been promoted to Head of Academy.

It happens infrequently – once a year perhaps, sometimes once every two years. When it does, it comes right out of the blue. You will be sat listening to a presentation and there is a spontaneous round of applause and you realise you have lost all track of time, so utterly gripped were you by the speaker. You snap back into the present moment as if a bubble has just popped inside your head and your first thought is, ‘Yes, yes, yes! You have well and truly nailed it.’

Well, something exceptional happened at the UK Coaching Conference in Edinburgh.

Nick Cox works alongside Manchester United Academy Director Nicky Butt. He has spent the last 20 years designing player development programmes, having previously worked for Watford and Sheffield United’s Academies.

In his presentation at Oriam, Scotland’s sports performance centre, Nick shared some of the conundrums football academies are currently wrestling with and made the refreshingly candid admission that traditional talent development programmes are in danger of becoming unfit for purpose.

He challenged coaches of different sports working on elite pathways to question their own practices, in terms of the journeys they create for their talented young performers. Are those journeys enriching adventures, or are they bereft of fun and loaded with pressure – or are they somewhere in between?

Nick’s fear is that football academies are evolving into ‘talent factories’ – an unintentional by-product of a raft of recent developments in the game coupled with the desire to churn out high quality professional footballers.

“This talent factory environment may be neat and tidy, convenient and very friendly to the adults who work in it but actually really isn’t what the kids need,” said Nick.

He stressed there are some ‘amazing’ coaches working in academies who are making great strides to prevent this from happening and who understand completely that the lives and the future well-being of the children who enter their doors is paramount.

As an industry we have to shift our mindsets,” he added. “My challenge has got to be creating happy young people who are successful in life and want to engage in a lifetime of sport, with lifelong happy memories. The aim should be creating a decent person regardless of if they become an elite footballer.”

There is a danger the modern academy system could end up failing the children it is there to help without this ethos being kept firmly front of mind. And Nick is putting his head above the parapet in a bid to kick-start a reappraisal and reprioritisation of the system.

Football journey should be random, chaotic and exciting

Premier League academies are much maligned in the media over their lack of concern for player welfare. Fleet Street’s finest have been letting clubs have it with both barrels for some years now.

Nick is on side with the argument that academies must safeguard the interests of players and is happy to confront the many moral issues head-on rather than go on the defensive, although he refutes the suggestion there has been an intentional move towards constructing a ‘talent factory’ framework.

“We had huge rule changes in 1998, and again in 2012,” he explained. “Decisions made in one area of the industry have ended up having a knock-on effect elsewhere. It has not been deliberate. We have had pressures from parents, clubs have reacted to what their competitors are up to and to the short-term nature of the industry. As we’ve gone, so we’ve bolted bits on, until the point that we’ve got this pathway, which everyone is adhering to.

“The problem is, no one is stopping to say, ‘Would it look like this if we started from scratch?’ My theory is it wouldn’t look anything like what we currently do.

I have to think ‘how do I reshape this to make it more suitable for the task in hand and more appropriate for the young people?’ At the moment it isn’t the random, chaotic, exciting, user-friendly journey that it should be.”

Best of both worlds

He told delegates that if the industry is to shift the methods and attitudes that have become ingrained, then it is only right the burden of responsibility for championing such change should fall to clubs like United, who have influence, stature and considerable resources.

The stumbling block, of course, comes in the form of football’s tunnel-vision club executives whose success-at-all costs approach to every facet of the game is at odds with the philosophy of so many of the coaches working in the academy system.

The solution is to persuade bosses that a change of philosophy would not mean pulling the plug on the conveyor belt of talent. The production line would continue to yield great footballers. Clearly though, in order to persuade the hierarchy that you can have the best of both worlds, some canny solutions are called for.

But admission is the first step to recovery. And Nick’s honesty in accepting a ‘talent factory’ approach to player development should be shown the red card is integral to setting the wheels in motion.

Football is like a religion, with time-honoured rituals and devout supporters who worship their favourite players.

As a spokesperson for likeminded coaches, Nick has been brave enough to enter the confessional box in a bid to challenge some of these outmoded traditions for the benefit of current and future generations of players – both the few who end up making it and the many, many more who don’t. He practices what he preaches. And he is seeking more apostles to join him on his mission and spread the vision.

As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility, and Nick said there have been countless occasions when he has laid in bed ruminating over whether he is doing the right thing by the young players under his care and direction.

“I’m actually taking a large percentage of their childhood and if I’m putting them into an adult world on a daily basis we are going to find that we’ve got some really disaffected young people at the end of it.

I’m petrified that I’m going to meet some young people on the street in 10 years’ time and they are going to look me in the face and say, ‘You let me down!’ I want them to be saying, ‘Hey, I had an amazing time that enriched my life. What you did for me has helped me become a decent person regardless of whether I became a footballer’.”

It is incumbent on academies to realise football is a big piece of what the players do, but it should only be a piece of what they do.

Life should be a rich tapestry

Sessions and drills are an integral part of any coaching process, but Nick has changed his opinion of what great coaching looks like during the course of his own professional development.

He now believes coaching is more about individuals connecting and building relationships and coaches giving more thought to the social journey players are on.

“I look at these boys,” he added, turning to face a picture of one of his early Academy sides, “and I think, ‘Great, some ended up playing for Watford’. But then I look at some of the others… ended up with a debilitating illness at the age of 12 and couldn’t play football anymore; got bored by the age of 16 because he thought the process we put him through was mundane; other boys that went off to university to study; other boys that went out of the country on gap years and things like that.

And this kid here, incredibly talented boy… I had 20 per cent of his waking hours if you include travel, training, and fixtures. Died at the age of 14. I had 20 per cent of his life!”

The room held its collective breath as it processed that last sentence. A profoundly powerful, thought-provoking quote that compresses the whole essence of the article into a few short words.

There is no one-size-fits-all blueprint for talent pathways, but there should be a one-size-fits-all ideology. Those three big little words every coach is familiar with: person before player.

Certainly, there were no dissenting voices when Nick championed this principle, saying it is essential players on performance programmes are given the same opportunity to engage in the full vibrant range of childhood experiences as other young people living a ‘normal’ life.

That way, if a teenage dream is crushed (as, let’s face it, the vast majority are) then the impact on the player will not be nearly as devastating, as they will have a colourful catalogue of cherished memories to call upon for the rest of their lives.

Recommendations for change

“Players should be given time to play other sports and have the opportunity to go and play with their mates in the street and express themselves, or play at other clubs where they can socialise,” said Nick, making the case against early specialisation.

And they should train less. It’s about 10,000 experiences rather than 10,000 hours. It’s got to be a memorable, life-changing experience, and that leads on to the way we practice, and making it games-based rather than drill-based.

“My biggest issue though is around identity. If you wake up in the morning and your football club drives you to school and does your lessons with you and your homework with you and your mates are footballers from your club and your training sessions happen in the daytime and you get bussed home at the end of the night and you spend seven days with that football club, then football quickly becomes who you are and not what you do.

“With such a high drop-out rate in academy systems, I’m not just removing a small part of your identity, I am telling you that your identity is worthless.”

Such forward-thinking strategies hold the key to massively reducing the effects of psychological fallout felt by those who don’t make it, including the considerable regret of having sacrificed their whole childhood.

Life in the fast lane: Brake time!

Nick does not believe there is anything wrong with young children being associated with a football club – “They’ve got to be somewhere, they might as well be with some experts” – and applauds the fact that academies are giving children a life-changing opportunity.

The problem is the adultification of those in the programme. So desperate are the clubs to produce fully-fledged professionals that, in their haste, there is a danger they get ahead of themselves and begin treating teenagers as if they are the finished article at the end of the journey.

“It should be childlike, and it should be playful and it should be creative and it should be experimental,” said Nick summing up.

And actually, that has amazing performance effects. Plus, if you can be this wholesome, rounded, robust person, then actually we are going to produce a better player as well.

“We need to think about making it an individualised programme by maybe working in chronological groups, biological groups, January to January groups, September to September groups, position-specific groups, up an age group, down an age group. I need the kids to experience everything they possibly can.

“It boils down to this: Let’s develop the person and the performer will follow. My challenge has got to be to produce happy young people who want to engage in a lifetime of sport.”

Related Resources

  • “I Didn’t Make It, But...” A Case for the Defence of Talent Pathways

  • United! United! Football Managers’ Extraordinary Power to Unite a City

  • Clarke Carlisle: Coaches have a Duty of Care to Look Out for their Participants’ Mental Health


Related Learning

  • Mental Health Awareness for Sport and Physical Activity+ (2023)

  • Duty to Care: Supporting the People You Coach and Yourself

  • Prioritising Mental Well-being


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