Thousands of talented teenage footballers dream of following in the footsteps of players like David Beckham and Steven Gerrard.
But new research shows that elite young soccer players are at risk of burn-out before they leave school because of the perfectionist standards demanded by their coaches, parents and fellow team members.
Dr Andrew Hill, who lectures in sports and exercise science at the University of Leeds, said some youngsters at professional football academies show signs of chronic stress, exhaustion and disillusion with their sport at a young age.
He and his team talked to more than 160 junior players at eight academies and centres of excellence attached to English professional clubs and found that up to a quarter had experienced symptoms of burn-out.
“Even though they might originally enjoy their sport and be emotionally invested in it, they eventually become disaffected,” said Dr Hill.
As part of their position within the Football League or Premier League, all professional football clubs have youth development programmes. They recruit children as young as eight – but few go on to have careers as footballers.
“It can be harsh,” said Dr Hill. “At its worst, we are talking about an environment that can develop, foster and maintain a mindset where athletes are wholly invested into the idea of being the next David Beckham.
“In fact, of the estimated 10,000 athletes involved in youth football at any one time, less than one per cent is thought to make it as a professional footballer.”
Dr Hill added that secondary school PE teachers can play an important role in encouraging these youngsters to enjoy sport and keep a sense of perspective.
“While the junior athletes will spend a large portion of their time with professional clubs they will also be participating in PE lessons at school,” he said.
“The primary purpose of soccer academies is to identify and foster talent, whereas schools aim to develop physical ability, make sport enjoyable and establish a lifelong habit of engaging in physical activity.”