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  • Writer's pictureFraser Franks

Your Child is not a project

Updated: May 12

My plea to parents of talented kids is simple – just let them know they are loved, win or lose



Project Mbappé


There is a term which has been knocked around on social media since about 2015, often humorously - Project Mbappé. Funny memes of fathers with their kids who can barely walk but dad has them kicking footballs (as seen below!) and even clips of fathers playing the Champions League music on the bellies of their pregnant partners.



The urban dictionary defines ‘Project Mbappé’ as:



 

We all understand the ‘tongue in cheek’ nature of ‘Project Mbappé’. It’s a bit of fun. Right? Anyone that has lived in the world of elite youth sport recognises that this caricature has foundations in some realities.

 

I signed at Chelsea’s academy at 9 years old and spent most of my childhood there. Since I retired from football in 2019 and ventured into a different career within sport, I’ve been fortunate to have been inside many of the top academies in the country. I’ve seen incredible work being done, but I’ve also seen some attitudes around the game that I continue to question. The early professionalisation of children and the coach-parent are two of the biggest. The question I feel everybody needs to ask themselves is ‘Are we preparing a kid for a successful career? Or a successful life?’ Another question to ask is ‘Are you trying to raise a good footballer? Or a good young man? What comes first?


 

I was prompted to write this after I was alerted to a podcast called Project Footballer. The Instagram page for the pod reads “Project Footballer (aka Project Mbappé)”. The bio reads ‘Can you make your child into a footballer?’ This page has 176,000 followers. Many of these followers will be parents desperately looking for the best tips to get the most out of their child as a footballer.


 

I should be clear: the podcast, which is hosted by a company which offers football coaching, clearly has some insightful content and healthy messaging. The most recent linked episode starts with a soundbite from Harry Redknapp which has the simple message for parents: “let him get on with it”.

 

What worried me though was an episode featuring Harry’s son Jamie, Paul Merson and Frank Lampard. Some big names in the world of football. Authoritative voices. Later in the episode an extra guest is added to the line-up – the parent of a very young academy player. What I heard on this episode was, in my view, very dangerous and damaging messaging. With guests like Redknapp, Merson and Lampard, men who are rightly respected in the game, what they say and endorse carries huge weight. Parents will hang on every word that they say.

 

The episode discussed Lampard’s experience with his father. A very hard task master. He pushed Frank to extreme levels as a child. He says that felt he himself was a project for his father. Frank obviously loves his dad but whenever I have heard him talk about him in the past, there has been a sense of coldness and possible resentment. Conversely, he has always talked with such fondness of the nurturing nature of his mother, who sadly passed away in 2008.

 

The conversation moves to questions of whether Frank would have made it as a professional if he wasn’t pushed so hard. If it helped or hindered. How he’d be with his own children. And what he’d have like to have been different.


Many will look at Frank’s experience and say, “Well it obviously worked, he went on to be one of the greatest players the country has ever produced”. But is that it? Is that job done? How has it affected him as a person over the years?

 

The bigger question is how many other children were pushed and pushed and didn’t make it to the top of the game? And another big question that gets ignored is EVEN IF your child does make it as a top professional footballer, is that a successful life? If you were told now that your child would one day play in the Premier League but would also suffer from crippling depression, would you take that?

 

How many examples are there of amazing sports stars, music artists, actors that have had incredible careers, but their personal lives have been a mess and dreadfully unhappy? Every parent just wants the best for their kids. But when you can’t see beyond a fixation on success that can lead to such unhealthy behaviours. A very successful career in professional sport will result in an athlete retiring around the age of 35. The average age of mortality in the UK is now beyond 80. Many still have an illusion that if you have a successful career in sport, you sail off into the sunset with your money and live happily ever after. Believe me, I’ve worked with enough retired athletes to know that not to be the case.

 

Language is important. To take ‘Project Mbappé’ as an example. Objectifying your child and identifying them by a skill or profession and as a project is extremely unhealthy. The Instagram bio enforces this dangerous language - ‘Can you MAKE your child a footballer?’. We shouldn’t make our child do anything with their lives. It is their life; we are just their carers and guides in their younger years.

 

I would never seek to criticise another parent. I know it is a tough job and I am far from perfect at it. I speak from my experience as a child who was at an elite academy and that was why I was concerned by the words that the academy parent spoke on the podcast, and the way the “project” of his son, was indulged as a topic.

 

The boy is a pre-teen and one of the esteemed guests referred to him as a superstar. A child should never be a superstar. There is no such thing as a pre-teen professional footballer. He is a child.

 

The dad outlined the boy’s daily routine and lifestyle. The young boy is home schooled. His life is tailored to making him the best footballer he can be. He does boxing, trains in the garden, trains with one-to-one coaches and then has his club training at the academy on top of this. His dad talks about him not going to a normal school and talks about him not wanting any distractions for his son. Questions on whether the boy will miss out on key social elements of his childhood are batted away by the father who says he has cousins that he sees regularly and he mixes with the boys at the academy.

 

I’m not saying this dad is right or wrong. Each parent does it their own way. They do what they feel is best for the child. But I still think many are only thinking of the short term. They aren’t thinking of the lasting damage. It didn’t surprise me in the slightest that the father talked of his own experiences as a young player and the talent that he had, but the guidance and support he felt he didn’t have.

 

The main bug I have from this whole interview is the impact it will have on other parents. Parents that now think that the formula to create a superstar is to do it this way. It’s to push them and limit any distractions. References are made of well-known examples of extreme parenting that the likes of Tiger Woods, David Beckham and the Williams sisters received. The comments I’ve seen from parents are so dangerous. Parents whose children will likely never make it as a professional. Parents who will end up causing damage to their children. Children that will completely fall out of love with the sport that they adore playing, because it’s no longer fun. It’s no longer being played because they really want to. It's because they need to in order to please a parent.

 

Trust me, there is enough pressure on young aspiring athletes. They are well aware of the sacrifices the rest of the family are making in order to help them achieve their dream. My mum took me to training 4 times per week. I have a brother and sister and didn’t have a father around. My mum also didn’t drive. We’d be on buses and trains all over the country together. I knew as early as 9 years old that everything was beginning to revolve around my dream to be a footballer. The training ground in the evenings would be full of other siblings doing their homework and being dragged along to sit and wait for the session to finish. I’d miss weddings and family parties and my mum gave up her weekends for 7 years in order to facilitate my dream. That’s pressure enough. The parents build up their own identities as the academy parent. When I was released by Chelsea, I felt I’d taken my mum away from all of her best friends. She had made so many sacrifices and spent years building so many special relationships all to find out that I hadn’t been good enough. I felt all of that.

 

Many parents build up egos. They believe their child is going to be the next big thing and the sense of validation can feel good. Many place all hope that this kid will change the lives of the whole family. Car journeys home are full of parents telling the kids what they didn’t quite do right. Telling them how important things are. Letting them know the amount of sacrifice that they are making. Piling on the pressure. The biggest thing a child needs to know and NEEDS to hear from a parent is ‘I love you just the same. whether you score a hat trick or an own goal, whether you make it to the very top or want to walk away from the sport.’ Too many are trying to win the love of parents. ‘If I can play well, they will love me more’. When young boys and girls are developing into the person they will be the way we treat them in these formative years can have an impact that lasts a lifetime.

 

When former Newcastle United player Lee Clark was asked how he had helped his son Bobby Clark break into the first team at Liverpool aged 18 he said “I tell him how much I love him”.

 

Guide, support, LOVE. That’s how I feel it should be done. Don’t become a full-time coach. Remain a parent. Offer wisdom, support and guidance but be a parent first. Don’t allow the journey home after a match to be one full of love if a child has played well and full of criticism and coldness if a child hasn’t quite performed up to standard. That can have a long-lasting effect. It’s their life, not yours. It’s their dream, not yours. They shouldn’t be made to feel bad for the sacrifices you are making, they will already be grateful for that. It isn’t their responsibility to repay that in any way and become a superstar athlete. Or take the family out of any financial difficulty. They aren’t a project. They are your kids.



 

 

The path already trodden

There is so much we can already learn from those that went before

 

There isn’t a formula for success. But there are common patterns that coincide with wellbeing.

 

Good wellbeing is the number one thing we would all want for our children.

 

In 2022 we spoke to Yinka Tomori, father of AC Milan’s Fikayo Tomori, for our Football Journeys podcast. His thoughtful and philosophical words on parenting a young man who has been both professionally successful and a good human being is well worth a listen. Listen here.



 

Tiger Woods

 

Anyone who knows Tiger Woods’ story will be in no doubt he was a project for his father, Earl. Earl exposed Tiger to golf before the age of 2. At age 2 he was on TV exposed for his extraordinary talent. His father Earl was a keen amateur golfer and had a career in the military, serving 2 tours in Vietnam. He is quoted early in Tiger’s career stating he is the Chosen One. He’ll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power.” The project worked. Tiger revolutionised golf and goes down as one of the greatest that ever lived. But does that equal a successful and happy life?

 


It's well publicised the issues that Tiger has faced. Substance abuse, infidelity, arrests and major injuries which have led to serious mental health issues. Many factors would have played into the reasons for this, many would have been the result of his extreme upbringing. There are many articles on Earl’s controversial parenting. Many also praise. But there is no doubt that some of the tactics used were questionable. A biography on Tiger Woods claims that Earl subjected his son to psychological warfare in his youth and called him a ‘little n*****’ during brutal training sessions to improve his golf game. It may have made Tiger an incredibly resilient golfer, but it would have come at a cost. The body keeps the score.

 

One of the biggest things we can do as parents is model the behaviours we want to see in our children. The values that we hope to instil. According to the book, Earl’s womanising was ‘well-known’ to his family and Tiger reportedly would break down in tears on the phone to friends talking about how Earl had cheated on Kultida, his mother.


Earl’s habits included drinking, smoking and pornography that ‘drove a wedge between him and his family’. Tiger was witness to this growing up and again, this would have come at a cost and resentment would have built.


Project Tiger worked. But, given everything we know, would you choose the same for your child?

Tiger has a son of his own. 15-year-old Charlie has dreams of his own to become a professional. Tiger’s parenting appears vastly different to the intensity that he received during childhood. "I'm proud of whatever direction he chooses. Whether he sticks with the game or not," he said in an interview with PGA. "Being a parent, you always want to be the protector and guider of them and teach them skills that they will need in life when you're not around. And so that's the most important thing about being a parent."


Tiger Woods has previously said he doesn't formally coach Charlie in golf in order to minimise any pressure his son might feel. “He just watches me do it, and then he kind of does it," Woods said of Charlie in 2021. This again goes to the point of the behaviours we model as parents. Tiger has called Charlie a "natural" golfer but said he has never pressured him to play for fear he will "hate the game". It is clear that Tiger ended up resenting his father and resenting the game. Whilst also having huge love for both. He is now using this wisdom in his own parenting style. He is quoted saying “I'm proud of whatever direction he chooses whether he sticks with the game or not." Something very different to the messaging he experienced growing up.

 

Tiger has also suffered major injuries that have hampered his mental and physical wellbeing. Years and years of repetitive practice takes its toll. Another thing for parents of young athletes to be aware of.


The images below of Tiger and Charlie highlights the example of our children modelling our behaviours.





Jamie Carragher

 

I was lucky enough to interview Jamie Carragher a few years back and we talked about his parenting style with his son James. James was an academy player at Liverpool and was released aged 14. He then went on to sign for Wigan and turned professional. He is now 21 years old and on loan at Inverness Caledonian Thistle in Scotland. When talking about his parenting style and how he sees the academy system, he gave us some absolute gems. “I see the academy system similar to that of a private school. I never saw my son as being the next Liverpool superstar. I thought, he’s doing what he loves. He’s getting the best education possible, he’s learning, he's having experiences, he’s making friends, he’s keeping off the streets and when he gets to 16, 18 or whatever age it is and he gets let go, we can say, what a journey. If he goes on to have a career somewhere else then great, but if not it’s ok and he’s taken all of those learnings into whatever he does next”.


He took the pressure off. He removed the expectation. He didn’t look at being at an academy for years and being released as a waste of time or as a failure. It was all learning. James modelled his dad’s behaviours. He wanted to become a professional. He wasn’t pushed by his parents. He was guided for sure, but he was and is intrinsically driven. Jamie is a parent, not a coach. In parent-coach meetings he was clear when I spoke to him – I let the coach speak and just listen. He didn’t bark orders from the sidelines or undermine the coaches in the academy and always let James know that he was loved. No matter the performance, no matter the outcome.

 

 

 















Kobe Bryant

 

One of the most beautiful videos available online is one of the late Kobe Bryant talking about his father. In the clip Kobe talks about one summer when he was 10-11 years old and he didn’t score a single point. He says that he was terrible and remembers crying and being upset about it and his father hugging him. His father then said, “if you score 0 or you score 60, I’m going to love you no matter what.” Kobe says that sentence is ‘THE most important thing you can say to a child. Because from there, it gave me all the confidence in the world to fail. I have the security there. BUT to hell with that, I’m scoring 60 and I got to work.”  This is such an incredible message from one of the greatest athletes of all time. How that one seemingly small message has such importance for him. We need to remember that.



Kobe and his daughter Gianna tragically died in a helicopter crash in 2020. Gianna was 13 years old and an aspiring basketball player. Bryant said at the end of the day, Gianna was his daughter before a basketball player. Kobe once said "It's important that she knows that that's how I feel, and those aren't words ... After a tough game, you get in the car, and it's forgotten."

 

Kobe also talked about the importance of modelled behaviour from parents and setting the right example. “You can’t talk your children into working hard. That’s the one thing that drives me crazy ― parents come up to me on the street or when I’m at the sports academy and say, ‘OK, how can I get my kid to work hard? What do I need to tell them? Can you talk to my kid?’ I say, listen, it’s not something that you can talk through. It’s a behavioural thing. You have to get up every day and do the work. Consistently do the work.”

 

Similar to Jamie Carragher’s approach, Kobe removed the expectation of Gianna becoming a professional athlete and instead looked at the qualities and life skills that she would accumulate along the way. “If Gianna decides to not play basketball when she grows up, it’s fine, but she understands the discipline that it takes to work at something every single day. So whether she wants to be a writer, a director, a doctor, a lawyer, she’ll have those characteristics. She observes me, and not just me, my wife too. It’s her commitment to the children and making sure that they’re on point, schedule, school work. Everything is sharp, everything is there, every single day. Seeing me get up, train and work hard.”

 

Again, it’s the action and behaviours that we model to our children that can often have the biggest impact on them.

 

 

Thierry Henry

 

One of the greatest Premier League players of all time and somebody that seemed to ooze confidence and class. Thierry Henry has recently opened up about his childhood and his father and admitted he has battled depression as a result. As soon as Thierry was born, his father held him up and said “This child will be an amazing footballer” He revealed on the diary of a CEO podcast.

 

Henry says he spent his childhood trying to please his father and then his entire playing career trying to please others, comparing it to wearing a 'cape'. He admitted that he had suffered depression and found himself crying daily. 'I was crying but, technically, it was the young Thierry crying. He was crying for everything he didn't get.' He goes on to talk about of an example of his father’s parenting and recalls a game in which the team won 6-0 and Thierry scored all 6 goals. His father said: "Are you happy? You shouldn't be because you missed that goal and you missed that cross."

 

Thierry talks about a pivotal moment recently when coaching in Montreal. He was about to leave and say goodbye to his family and broke down. He was in pain. He and his family all began to cry. “For the first time, at that moment it was the little me that felt it, I am like "oh, they see me". Not the football player, not the accolades, I felt human. They were crying for me. I felt it for the first time then and the little me, for the first time, got fed with love. I put my bags down, I stayed, and I stopped coaching in Montreal. "What am I doing?" They love Thierry, not Thierry Henry. For the first time I felt human. They saw me the human being and it felt nice.”

It goes back to that question at the beginning. A successful career or a successful life? Are you aiming to raise a great footballer or a great young man? Thierry’s identity was solely as the footballer. Many athletes struggle with this identity foreclosure. When the career is over and the footballer is no more, who is left?

 

Jude Bellingham



There are examples wherever we look. Take Jude Bellingham, who may well go on to become one of the greatest players England have ever produced. His parents are well-known within the football world for their impact on him. Keeping him grounded but also allowing him to be very real and authentic. His father has knowledge of the game and had a career in non-league football alongside his primary career as a Police officer. Jude was witness to many of his dad’s behaviours. "When you go and watch him play every week in non-league, you know it's not the Premier League or anything, but seeing the way he played and the atmosphere, it made me fall in love with football so he was probably my first hero.” Jude has kept that LOVE for the game. He’s been guided with love. His Dad places incredible emphasis on Jude being a good man. Not just a good footballer. He recently posted on X:




I absolutely loved this. Placing such emphasis on maintaining the level of fun. And placing real emphasis on his pride in Jude becoming a good man.

 

Jude’s younger brother Jobe is doing very well at Sunderland and earlier in the season his former manager Tony Mowbray said “Jobe is an absolute diamond, He just loves football and wants to get better. He tests the coaches every day. He’s got a real growth mindset.” Again, the love and enthusiasm of football is clear for all to see, along with his attitude as a young man and his willingness to learn.

 


 

 

 

 

 

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