“Grey zone” interviews

Too often, staff in academy settings put off frank conversations about an athlete’s progress. That is not the case at Fulham. Difficult conversations need to be on the agenda from the off and, according to Jennings, “everything should be couched in positive language – but not at the expense of leaving out the critical message.”

Extract from case study on Fulham FC’s Academy

As coaches go through the interview process, there are occasions where this moment may involve telling players that they are in a “grey zone” (i.e., potentially not going to receive a retention for the following season), and giving feedback on how they can improve.

These conversations can sometimes be challenging for coaches. Below are some key tips on how to approach these interviews.

Setting and structure

  • Choose a private setting: Hold the meeting in a quiet, private location where the player and parent can feel comfortable and speak openly. Avoid public areas or spaces where others may overhear.
  • Involve the player: While parents are important, the conversation should primarily be directed towards the player. This shows respect for the player’s development and encourages their active participation in the discussion.
  • Prepare in advance: Coaches should have specific examples of the player’s performance, areas for improvement, and reasons why retention isn’t likely. This demonstrates thoughtfulness and avoids vagueness. Videos, clips and GPS data should be utilised to support this process.
  • Bring in support staff as needed: If you are unsure, or anticipate the conversation being particularly challenging, contact your program lead for additional support, including in the interview itself as required.

Framing the conversation

  • Be direct and honest: Avoid sugarcoating or misleading the player and parent. Clearly state that retention is unlikely, while emphasizing that this decision is based on a careful evaluation of the player’s current skill level, their development, and their fit within the team.
  • Focus on specifics: Provide concrete examples of the player’s strengths and weaknesses. Explain how these factors have contributed to the decision, while still, as relevant, highlighting some areas where the player has shown promise.
  • Avoid comparisons: Do not compare the player to others. This can be demoralizing and unproductive, and create a seperate conversation that is not helpful for either child. Instead, focus on the player’s individual journey and potential for growth. If the parent tries to make comparisons, make statements such as “We are here to discuss your child, not others”, to help redirect the conversation.

Providing constructive feedback

  • Offer actionable advice: Provide specific suggestions for how the player can improve. This demonstrates a commitment to their development, even if they won’t be retained on the current team.
  • Highlight strengths: Recognize the player’s positive attributes, even if they aren’t sufficient for retention. This can help boost their confidence and encourage them to continue pursuing football.
  • Inform of the process: It is important to remind parents that our feeback systems are methodically constructed over large periods of time, and only being provided in the best interest of the players development
  • Offer support: Let the player and parent know that you’re available for further discussion or questions. This demonstrates a willingness to help them navigate this transition. You can also offer to provide further videos or 1-to-1 support to the player, if appropriate.

Example dialogue

“Thank you both for coming in today. We wanted to use this interview moment, to have an honest conversation about [Player’s Name]’s future. We value the contribution the player has made to our environment, however, at this time we want to state, that in regards to retentions, the player is currently in a grey zone, and will need to improve in the coming months in order to be retained.

“We also need to make it clear that we have not made any final decisions, however, that we are providing this information now so the player has an opportunity to improve so they can be best placed for when this decision-making process occurs.

If the conversation becomes challenging…

If the parent starts to become disrespectful in their tone or language, it is important you re-state our club values. Should there not be a change in behaviour, you can respectfully inform that the current conversation will conclude there, and it will be continued later at a time when all involved are able to remain a respectful nature. Being clear and firm in these moments is crucial to ensure we maintain a respectful environment.


By approaching the conversation with honesty, clarity, and compassion, coaches can ensure that players and parents understand the reasons behind the decision, while also feeling supported and encouraged to continue working hard on their development.