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LEEDS, England (Reuters) - English academy players chasing a dream of turning professional are suffering burnout due to too many demands from coaches and parents and it is robbing elite clubs of bright prospects, a study has shown.
Research by the University of Leeds published earlier this year found that up to a quarter of youngsters reported symptoms of burnout including emotional and physical exhaustion and becoming disaffected with the sport.
"Regardless of how well you perform, these ... (parents, coaches, peers) are increasingly more demanding," said study author Andrew Hill, a lecturer in sports and exercise science at the university.
"It's the kind of relentless pressure to accomplish increasingly difficult goals," he told Reuters. "You know how they say in football you are only ever as good as your last game, another way of thinking about that is that no game will ever be good enough.
"If you score twice, you should have scored three times ... the goals are increased until inevitably you experience helplessness, hopelessness and failure."
The study was based on information from 167 players from eight academies or centres of excellence attached to three unnamed Premier League teams, four second tier and one other Football League club.
It found up to one in four experienced moderate symptoms of burnout while one percent suffered them frequently.
Affected players can lose the desire to kick a ball, sometimes leading to them giving up football altogether.
Asked if this meant talented players were failing to make it as professionals when they could have been 'the next big thing', Hill replied: "Without doubt.
"Burnout has been described as a cost, it's considered to carry a cost both in terms of the welfare of the people who suffer it but also a cost in terms of the loss of talent.
"These guys are in that system because they are very talented and because they are perceived to show early promise," added Hill.
"People often associate burnout with people who put in the most efforts, the guys who are most invested in ... so presumably these are also the guys who over time are likely to accrue the technical and tactical skills to perform at the higher level.
"Burnout is a pre-requisite to dropout."
Whether the boys who drop out would really have made it as professionals is impossible to say, Bolton Wanderers academy coach and former top-flight goalkeeper Keith Branagan said.
"I've certainly seen youngsters who look as if they are tired mentally and physically over the course of several years," he told Reuters.
"I don't disagree that boys probably succumb to that pressure but I would find it hard to state that boy could have made it because part of being a footballer is toughness in your psychological profile.
"Any boys who couldn't take whatever pressure there was might not have made it in the big, bad world of adult football anyway."
In other words, burnout could just be a part of the selection process.
"I dare say we'd all like to be racing drivers but we'll never get there because of how good the best are," Branagan said.
"That's the nature of the business, the nature of the game. The best of the best really are outstanding athletes and outstanding sports people."
Branagan said academies were increasingly making sure youngsters were not put under too much pressure and had realistic expectations since such a small percentage of them - perhaps only around two percent - might ever turn professional.
"In my 20 years of being involved around academies I have seen the opposite - I've seen some academy coaches piling the pressure on the boys, perhaps running the team as if they were a manager of a professional club," he explained.
"But I think awareness throughout the country has improved year after year in academies. If anything academies work very hard to try to put the boys at ease, trying to take the pressure off them because the boys will put pressure on themselves anyway."
Branagan said centres of excellence employed education and welfare officers, held parents evenings and tried to educate guardians on expectations while young footballers had access to top physios, sports scientists and psychologists.
"It has come a long way since I started - when you had a trial and you were in the youth team or you weren't," he said. "Then you were just thrown in the deep end, it is much more structured now."
Editing by Tony Jimenez