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Dany, Costa Rica, Summer 2004 Parent Questions


My teenager son has played football (soccer) since he could walk. I don't think he is an extremely gifted player but he does have a lot of determination and some good skills. He plays for his school and a local team. I keep asking him what he is going to do when he leaves school and he just keeps saying that all he wants to do is play football. I have tried to persuade him to consider other options including joining the armed forces and play for them. He just cannot see that he may not be a good enough footballer to play professionally.

Can you give me any advice on either what to tell him or where I could take him either for training or consulting? Thank you.
Concerned mom, North Wales

Dear Concerned mom,

The problem of value differences that you are experiencing with your teenager may be addressed through communications with your child with the mediation of a social worker, therapist, school counselor or any other entity that you and your teenager may perceive as fair and willing to genuinely consider both positions. Your childís position seems self-destructive to you. Based on the available evidence I would have to concur with your estimate that he may be setting himself up for a big disappointment. Following his current roadmap he may dig himself into a deep hole that he may later find very hard to climb out of.

In a chapter titled "Class Relations and Social Mobility" in his "Sport in Society" text, sport sociologist Jay Coakley (1994), provides a very realistic discussion of the opportunities of "a satisfying and rewarding career" as a professional athlete. This chapter's title page includes the following 1983 quote by "Digger" Phelps, former University of Notre Dame basketball coach: "I still have to tell most of the kids who come to play for me that theyíre not going to make it as pros, that they should forget that dream . . . and that, even if they do make it, the average pro career is only three and a half years, and when itís over, theyíll still . . . have another 50 years to live (Cited in Coakley, 1994, p. 274)."

Coakley carefully points out that while a career as a professional athlete could be a wonderful experience most professional careers seldom last longer than 3-5 years and rarely bring fame and fortune to the athlete. The odds of a male age 20-39 making it to the pros in American football in 1988, for example, were 1/62,500 for Caucasians and 1/47,600 for African Americans (Leonard & Reyman, 1988). The odds of having a long career as a super star and making large sums of money are even smaller. On the other hand, the odds of getting injured and/or cut from the team after the first season are very real.

In order to illustrate how hard it is to first make it to the pros and then have a long career as a pro I will share with you the stories of two (out of dozens of similar cases) of my former students at California State University, Los Angeles. My first student, whom Iíll call John, was an extremely talented junior tennis player who at the age of 15 was the Tennis National runner-up in the US. The following year, John came back to the Nationals and played better and harder, and with more confidence than he ever played before. Again, John made it to the finals where he played his very best match. Despite Johnís remarkable efforts and skills, he lost 0:6, 0:6. He couldnít hold his serve nor could he break his opponentís serve and at least win one single game! His opponent turned pro in 1988 and qualified to play at the French Open in 1989 where he made history when he defeated Ivan Lendl, the number one player in the world at the time. Michael Chang from the US became the youngest player in history to win the French Open. Yet, for quite some time now many tennis fans have wondered where is Michael Chang? He is on his farewell tour and will retire after the 2003 US Open. Despite his low profile in the past few years, Mr. Chang has had a very successful career as a pro that lasted for 15 years.

My second student, whom Iíll call Jose, was a super star baseball player who at every age group, starting at little league and continuing through college, was the best and most valuable player of the league, then region, and then state. Jose eventually became one of the top amateur baseball players in the Nation and was invited to pitch for a minor league baseball team. Jose was doing very well until he hurt his pitching shoulder. Several surgeries later, Jose came to our Kinesiology program and got his degree while trying to recover and rejoin the professional ranks. He managed to make it back to the pros for a very short time until he reinjured his shoulder. He then came to the realization that a career as a physical education teacher would be a much more practical choice. Jose returned to our program and completed his Masters degree in Kinesiology and is now a successful physical education teacher and coach.

The prospect of a career as professional football player in North Wales or anywhere else on the British Island does not seem very promising. According to Martin Johnes (2002), "With the exception of the 1920s, domestic Welsh football has not been able to offer the wages or glory that English clubs could and thus Wales' most talented players have plied their trades outside her borders. Similarly, Welsh professional clubs have employed strong contingents of English players." I do not know what the odds of making it into the professional football ranks would be when your teenage son will be old enough and ready to give it a shot, but future odds look even grimmer than the present very low odds. My prediction or speculation is based on the fact that young aspiring talents from around the globe may now send videos and other materials to scouts and thus substantially broaden the pool of potential new players. English football clubs can pay much better salaries than most soccer clubs in the world and that would also include American soccer clubs. I know of many young and very talented soccer players in the U.S. who dream about a professional career in England. This reality makes the prospect of becoming a professional football player in England extremely competitive.

In a study about upward social mobility and British professional soccer players Houlston (1982), reported that there was an overrepresentation of players from lower socioeconomic groups in the league. These players experienced a steady decline in earnings and a diminished social status as their playing career dwindled and eventually ended. Average earnings per year for this group declined from about 7,500.00 pounds/year to 3,500,00 - 4,500.00 pounds/year. Several studies in the U.S. indicate that compared to non-athletes, athletes with a college degree earn more and enjoy a higher occupational prestige in their 40s and 50s. Clearly oneís quality of life after competitive sports is very strongly related to oneís level of education. You may consider to further discuss these points with your teenager and a school or a career counselor.

I share your sonís passion for football (soccer) and I wish him all the best and I hope that he is able to continue working hard on his dream. But, he also must understand that even if he will end up realizing his dream, he still must also pursue his education. The mix of youth and lack of education with super stardom and lots of money is a very lethal combination. Also, in the more likely event of not making it, or making it just for a few months or 2-3 years, he should know "that nobody is going to give [him] a check . . . or give [him] a job because [heís a former football player]. It just doesnít work that way" (Member of the 1988 US Olympic team, cited in Coakley, 1994, p. 274).

Despite the abundance of evidence of the very limited odds of a successful long lasting professional athletic career, young men and women around the world hold an unrealistic view of those opportunities. Coakley (1994) points out that misinterpretations of media coverage contribute greatly to such distorted views. We are constantly bombarded with stories and news clips by the media about a small number of young men and women that made it while we never get to hear the story of the many that did not make it. Dr. Sandy Wolfson (personal communications, July 21, 2003) pointed out to me that kids "...hear Alan Shearer talking about how his teachers told him to work harder at school because he'd never make it big, and look at him now! So that encourages them to think it could happen to them too."

Those athletes who did not make the cut or do not get their contract renewed do not make the news either. Tom McMillen, former NBA player and member of the U.S. Congress (cited in Coakley, 1994, p. 386) presented the following scenario: "The overall message being drilled into our kids is clear and dangerous . . . Superstars sign 5-year contracts for $20 million. Teachers sign 1-year contracts for $20,000.00. In those circumstances, to whom will you listen, your teacher or your coach? Where will you spend your time, in the library or the gym?"

Iíll be happy to address any questions your teenager or any other teenagers may have for me about this or a related topic.




  • Coakley, J. J. (1994). Sport in society: Issues and controversies (5th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Mosby.
  • Houlston, D. R. (1982). The occupational mobility of professional athletes. International Review of Sport Sociology, 17(2), 15-16.
  • Leonard, W. M., & Reyman, J. E. (1988). The odds of attaining professional athlete status: Refining the computations. Sociology of Sport Journal, 5(2), 162-169.
  • Martin Johnes (2002). Football in Wales (A revised version of an entry in Richard Cox, David Russell & Wray Vamplew (eds.), Encyclopedia of British Football (Frank Cass, 2002). Source: (Information retrieved on 7-06-2003)
  • S. Wolfson, (personal communication, July 21, 2003). (Dr. Sandy Wolfson is Head of Division of Psychology, School of Psychology and Sport Science, Northumbria University, England).

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