Players taking a shot at further education

The days of footballers leaving the game with nothing but memories and a couple of medals are on the way out, as many now combine playing with university studies as they look to build a life after the final whistle.

The days of footballers leaving the game with nothing but memories and a couple of medals are on the way out.

Modern players - those with established careers and just entering the game - are now encouraged to think of their lives beyond the white lines, and consider the ramifications of pursuing a career that lasts, for the most part, around 15 years.

In order to help build futures for players after the final whistle, FFA, in partnership with the PFA, have developed the My Football Career program, which aims to help players make educated and informed career decisions and to assist the continuing professional development of all Hyundai A-League, National Youth League and Westfield W-League players.

One aspect of this program is A-League clubs strengthening their ties with the universities whose campuses they train on (such as Sydney FC at Macquarie University, Melbourne Heart at Latrobe and Newcastle Jets at the University of Newcastle) to provide their players with clear educational pathways.

Currently, about 15 per cent of A-League players and more than half the Westfield Matildas are integrating university study with their football careers.

One such player is Newcastle Jets striker James Virgili (pictured), who is studying radiography at the University of Newcastle.

It's not immediately a career you might perhaps expect a footballer to follow but Virgili says study provides a good counterpoint to playing.

"It's x-rays, ultrasounds and MRIs - I've been injured a few times so maybe I got interested in it that way," Virgili says.

"Study's not too bad; it does get tough in pre-season because you're training a lot more and the workload's a lot heavier but once the season starts I actually find it a bit easier - apart from the away games.

"But they make it really easy, I do it part-time, and the uni let you do extensions for time."

There are a number of Jets players now taking advantage of their training base location at Newcastle Uni: Ben Kantarovski's doing a bachelor of psychology, Jacob Pepper's studying nutrition, young goalkeeper Jack Duncan's studying biomedical science and Ruben Zadkovich is undertaking a bachelor of music.

The players also receive ongoing support from the Jets career development advisor Emily Figueroa and the University of Newcastle elite athlete advisor Andrew Yapp.

The University's Elite Athlete Friendly Scheme offers support and flexibility to these students, through assistance with assessments, timetables, attendance and exam arrangements.

Figueroa admits working with footballers presents unique challenges but says it's important that players have the support to consider their professional development options whilst they are playing, no matter what point in their career they are at.

"Part of the job is making sure they understand that we support them 100 per cent in their football," Figueroa says.

"We believe football is No.1 in their life - but the reality is one day football's going to come to an end.

"It's not if - it's when. So many players find that transition really difficult if they haven't prepared for it. If they've felt like I'll deal with that when it comes, it's very difficult because life changes drastically when the contract comes to an end.

"They might be used to making $150-200,000 a year - then, all of a sudden, they're looking at the reality of making $50,000 a year.

"And it's not just financially; the thing they were most passionate about comes to an end, all those challenges, accomplishments and accolades come to an end. We need to be realistic, accept it and prepare them."

Playing football professionally is such an aspiration, such a dream for so many young athletes, it is not surprising that they don't always consider they harsh reality of the limited time they have - although it is perhaps more present for women, who don't earn anywhere near as much as their male counterparts.

As such, Figueroa says advising footballers, so engrained with a goal-orientated mindset, requires some encouragement and a broader approach than the focused existence of an athlete.

"I meet with players one-on-one, do a career assessment and get an idea of their education and work history. Then we talk about their off-field interests, what things they see themselves doing in the future, their goals in and out of future, and really it's looking at the whole picture.

"Career development's come a long way; in the old days the career development officer was someone who said, 'OK, what do you like? Working with kids? Boom, you should be a teacher.'

"These days it's more of a holistic approach, looking at the individual and going, 'OK maybe you're interested in this, now let's look at what you value in life, let's talk about where you want to be in the future, where you want to live, about how you see yourself.'

"These guys are elite athletes who have made it to the highest level of their sport in the country and chances are whatever they take on that they're passionate about they're going to do very well at, so it's about harnessing what else they love and make a plan with it so they're ready for when they time comes."

Other My Football Career initiatives, such as Open University Australia scholarships and an A-League club-based diploma of business program, also give players the chance to get a tertiary qualifications completed during their playing career.