What Sacrifices Do You Have To Make To Become A Professional Footballer?

Throughout the world, footballers are idolised and whether you are playing in non-league or you are representing your country, you are likely to be the envy of many. Some would give anything to live the life of a professional player. However, have you ever considered what is given up by those involved in football, to give themselves only a CHANCE of a career in the game?

The sacrifices made to forge a career in the game are substantial yet highly rewarding. Any sacrifice made is a commitment to your career. However, the reality is that they don’t guarantee success on the pitch and in our careers.


Lionel Messi

Sacrifices: ‘Live and breathe football’

That was something I was told as a young boy with dreams of being a professional. We dedicate our lives to it, all the way up to that last ever game. We have to make many sacrifices for the sake of our careers and if we are willing to dedicate ourselves and be disciplined, then we will have given ourselves every chance of having a successful one.

Nothing is guaranteed of course, but self-discipline is always evident in the most successful players.

Can you focus on the end goal and not get taken off track by distractions that are pleasing in the short term?

Small margins are often the difference between success or failure and if we’re not willing to dedicate ourselves, we will fall short. Everything we do is to give ourselves the best opportunity to perform well and give ourselves the best chance of success on the pitch. 

Every decision we have to make affects our ability to perform:

  • Everything we eat
  • Everything we drink
  • Every hour of rest and sleep
  • How we spend our time away from football

We have an obligation to our fans, teammates, coaches and most importantly, ourselves, to be as best prepared as possible for the day-to-day demands of a footballer.

It doesn’t matter if we are playing at the very top of the game or playing in the lower leagues. On hundreds of thousands or a couple of hundred a week. Every footballer has the SAME sacrifices to make throughout their career!

Moments like this make the daily sacrifices, over many years worth it. Image by Graham Scambler

Sitting in a hotel room on Christmas Day, away from family.

Sacrifices: Missed memories

Missed family events are a big one. I couldn’t tell you the number of times I’ve been invited to birthdays or events on a Friday or Saturday, but couldn’t make it because of my commitment to my career.

Professional football isn’t an industry where we can book a day’s holiday or annual leave in advance so that we can attend the wedding of a family member. People always used to seem surprised when I would inform them that I wouldn’t be at their birthday party or a wedding because I have a game that day.

The only time we can guarantee our attendance is in the 4-6 week break we get at the end of the season. People can’t book events solely for our attendance so that means we miss out on many occasions. 

No one tells you about the possibility of missing the birth of our child because we are 200 miles away in a hotel for an away game when our partners suddenly go into labour. Again, we aren’t able to book a few days off around the due date to make sure we will be there for the birth.

Often players will leave their phones with the club physio or a member of staff during training, just in case partners go into labour whilst we are training.

When our child is born we aren’t entitled to paternity leave. If all is well with baby and mother, we are required to be at training the following day, sometimes even the same day. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been at the birth of my two boys but I know some aren’t so lucky. However, the possibility of potentially missing the birth due to football was a stressful time.

Holding back on Christmas dinner because of the Boxing day fixture has become the norm for me and my younger brother Ben (right).

Sacrifices: Christmas!

The most anticipated time of the year, I love Christmas and all of the joy it brings! Family, food, TV and more food!

What more could you want?

Oh yeah! The hectic and exciting, yet exhausting Christmas football schedule.

Whilst everyone is indulging in their Christmas dinner and numerous helpings of dessert, you will find players refraining and fighting the urge to help themselves to that tin of Celebrations.

When we aren’t fighting the temptations, we can be found reporting to the training ground for a training session or to travel to a hotel.

Sitting in a hotel room on Christmas Day, away from family is how many will spend the day. Preparing for the Boxing Day game, whilst on FaceTime to loved ones who are enjoying the festivities back home.

As players, we aren’t able to fully relax on Christmas Day like most can. As much as we try and switch off, we always have one eye on the game the next day and ensuring our preparation is as good as possible.

The temptation to overeat and enjoy a few too many drinks is appealing and we try and convince ourselves that an extra plate of food won’t affect our performance, but this is when discipline is tested and the dedication to our teammates and fans override any temptations.

A Christmas training schedule from 2012. This was the first time I experienced being away from family at Christmas.

Sacrifices: Security and stability

The average length of a player’s career is 8 years. Most are retired before 35, which is incredibly early in comparison to a job outside of football. Many are only just beginning to see the fruits of their labour at university, or within their businesses when we are hanging up our boots and facing a career change.

From an early age, for most professional players, football is all we know.

In the top leagues, players are rewarded with long-term contracts. 3, 4, even 5-year contracts are signed, which for a player is a dream scenario if you want security, but within the lower leagues, things aren’t so long-term.

Most players will be on 1-year contracts, some will even be on 6-month contracts. Both offer minimal security and stability to players and their families.

The constant pressure to stay fit and perform well whilst on a short-term contract is very stressful. Bills still have to be paid and families still need to be fed, so the pressure of being out of contract comes with many problems.

Signing a two-year contract at Crystal Palace, which was my second professional contract.

Sacrifices: The body

From an early age, our bodies are put through excessive strain and just like most things, eventually, it is likely to break down. We are always one bad injury away from being forced into early retirement or finding ourselves out of contract.

In football, a breakdown could be in the form of physical injuries, or our mental health could suffer. We can look after our bodies as well as possible but there are bound to be injuries picked up along the way, through weaknesses, overexertion, fatigue or just sheer bad luck.

Types of physical injuries that can occur are:

  • Muscular tears
  • Ligament tears
  • Bone breaks

Players can suffer from the pressures of professional football with:

  • Depression
  • Self-doubt
  • Stress
  • Anxiety

I’m fully aware that mental health problems don’t only affect footballers, but these coupled with the pressure to perform day to day can be crushing.

Over the years, the physical demands placed on our bodies will result in general wear and tear. This means it is very likely that after football, our bodies will continue to suffer from the repercussions of our careers with:

  • Increased risk of arthritis
  • Severe joint pain and damage
  • Increased risk of dementia

You only have to look in the news recently to see that dementia is at the top of the list when it comes to post-career problems. This horrible disease and other injuries don’t only affect the victim, they also have a huge impact on families and quality of life.

Even with these risks, players continue to push their bodies to the limit for the length of their careers and then pay the price for it post-football. The possibility of suffering in retirement doesn’t stop us from sacrificing our physical and mental health for the chance of a successful football career.

People may think that the financial benefits that football can provide soften the blow, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. You CAN’T buy good health and the majority of footballers WILL have to work and make a living as soon as their playing career is over.

This is me being stretchered off unconscious after a clash of heads in an FA cup game against Tottenham Hotspur for Colchester United. This is one of many concussions I have suffered and without doubt the worst one.

Sacrifices: Are they worth it?

All of that hard work. All of the missed events in our social life. Yet ‘success’ in the football world isn’t forthcoming, with progression slow and frustrating. This can be deflating and make us question why we are prioritising our career over other aspects of our life.

I always remind myself though, that the result of many years of involvement within the game is that we acquire a range of transferable skills, that are highly valued within the world outside of football like:

  • Discipline
  • Commitment
  • Teamwork
  • Communication
  • Problem-solving

Without all of those daily sacrifices, we wouldn’t possess any of the above, regardless of whether our careers are deemed as a success.

Everybody has a different interpretation of what success means to them.

But what does success look like to you?

Some measure success in terms of physical achievements (winning titles etc). Some see success as having a 15-year career in football. Whereas I will deem my career in football a success if, on the day that I retire, I can look back on it all and know that:

  • I gave it my all and left nothing to chance
  • I have made my family proud
  • I had a positive impact on the people I met throughout my career
  • I am in good health and able to enjoy the rest of my life with my family

I have always wanted to be a professional footballer and I am fortunate enough to have lived it. Yes, it is also how I earn a living now but as I have gone through my career and life off of the pitch has changed, things like silverware and personal success have taken a back seat. As great as they are and as much I would love to win everything I take part in, they are a bonus to what already is the dream job.

Whether I have a collection of medals or just a collection of memories on the day I retire, I will be FULFILLED and CONTENT, knowing that the sacrifices I have made for my career will have equipped me with skills for my life and career post-football.

Years of daily sacrifices all for seconds of glory. Some are easier than others to make but regardless of success, they are all worth it! Image by Graham Scambler

I have sacrificed so much for my football career and sometimes when things aren’t going well I doubt if they have all been worth it. Self-doubt is normal in difficult times but I have to remind myself that every sacrifice is worth it because by prioritising my career, I am giving myself the best chance of success in professional football. Also, the characteristics and skills that are so highly valued in any career post-football, have been instilled in me through the sacrifices I have made from day 1 of my football journey.

I do look forwards to those multiple plates of food on Christmas Day though!

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