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Managing expectations whilst supporting the dream

The statistics don’t lie, and we all have a role to play. Having done some work recently with the Womens Super League academy staff around the ‘Retain and Release Process’ recently I got thinking about how sports present their programmes to parents and young people.

Deep down I am pretty sure that we know that the chances of young people becoming Olympians and professional footballers, or sportspeople are incredibly slim, but many sports parents still do dream and have those expectations. “There are about 10,000 athletes in the Summer Olympics. With the world population at about 7 billion, the chances of making it that far are about 1 in 562,400,” says Bill Mallon, past president and co-founder of the International Society of Olympic Historians.

In the US, surveys show that 67 percent of parents hope their kids earn college scholarships while 34 percent dream that they make the Olympic team or play professionally. It’s one thing to fantasise — it’s another to be convinced. Fully 40 percent of parents with young athletes are “certain” or “fairly sure” their gold medal and pro contract ambitions will come true.

According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) statistics, only a minuscule percentage of high school athletes go all the way to play professionally:

• 1 in 610 (.16%) will get drafted by a Major League Baseball team.
• 1 in 10,399 (.0096%) will get picked by an NBA team.
• 1 in 12,873 (.0077%) will be chosen by a WNBA team.
• 1 in 3,960 (.025%) will get picked by an NFL team.

I have always been very open in the WWPIS workshops when talking about my own children and how I know that I have more chance of being hit by a meteor than my son playing professional football. This is despite signing a Category 1 football contract at the age of nine.

This is in no way about stunting dreams and children should be encouraged to reach for the stars, it is better for young people to have their dreams than none at all. However, it is our responsibility as the adults to ensure that we always have these statistics in the back of our mind when making decisions or supporting our young children.

Whilst I used the meteor analogy, I enjoyed something said by Tony Fretwell (Barclays FAWSL Academy Manager) who described it slightly differently, but it certainly painted another very clear picture.

When we are sold a holiday and we get the brochures it is 99% about the glamour of the trip, the hotels, beaches, sea, swimming pools and attractions and then there is a very small disclaimer that tells us of some of the potential issues (the plane crashing etc.), the package is a fair reflection of the chances of this happening.

In sport and specifically in football, we have very similar odds of children turning professional, but we sometimes sell our programmes in reverse. We sell the dream and the glamour when actually would we be better selling the journey and the wider parts and benefits of our programme?

We must do and show more about how we are going to develop young people with perhaps the final 1% saying there is a chance of becoming a professional footballer at the end of the journey.

In a number of the clubs that we work with, many are being proactive about this factor. Speaking to parents early in the journey, talking about release and encouraging parents to almost expect to have to deal with it at some point in the future is really helpful. In effect, trying to help pave the way for the disappointment that may follow whilst assuring parents that they will work hard to develop both the person and the player to the best of their abilities. Both sporting organisations and parents have a key role to play.

There is something extremely powerful about sporting success, how we see it as a population and how this is fuelled and portrayed by the media. Do we place too much emphasis on it as parents?

I am sure this will differ from household to household and sport to sport, but if we realistically know the odds of success and are supported positively – does it give us a better chance of managing our own expectations and those of our children?

Many involved in sport often cite parents having unrealistic expectations as a major issue within the groups that they work with. I am afraid that it is a parent’s prerogative to be slightly biased towards their own children, that is human nature. However, do we do enough as sporting organisations particularly early in the sporting journey to help align their expectations?

We want parents to have expectations of the right things, progress for their children both physically and holistically, character development, life skills and positive interactions with coaches and their peers.

When we buy a lottery ticket, we know the chances of winning the jackpot are slim so when the results come through and we get the email or go into the shops we are excited for that moment. The build-up and moment when we click on the email or hand it over at the counter in the hope that we have won millions.

More often than not we have won £10 or less and we are able to move on extremely quickly as our expectations of winning the big one was in perspective to the chances of being successful. Yet in sport our reaction to similar odds can be very different.

Parents – there are many great reasons to play youth sport that don’t involve scholarships, Olympic medals, or professional contracts – focus in on those and I am confident that you will celebrate more wins on the way and not run the risk of being disappointed by the final outcome of the journey, whatever that may be.

I am also pretty confident that your children will get far more from their sporting experience if we can adopt this approach.

• Gordon MacLelland is the CEO and founder of Working with Parents in Sport, which supports parents and coaches in working together to provide children with the best possible sporting experiences. To find out more about their work please visit



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