Tag: Mental Health

Deselection research in partnership with Solent University

Please view our research presentation slides in partnership with Southampton Solent University delivered at the BASES (British Association of Sport & Exercise Sciences) 2021 student conference.

Some excellent findings that football clubs and researchers might find useful from an extensive qualitative investigation of players experiences of deselection at Scholarship stage.

A video recording and the study abstract is to be published by BASES in the near future.

Please share with anyone who may wish to develop this research. Contact louis.langdown@solent.ac.uk for any further questions. Thank You.

So, Hugo what’s Player Care?

There is a new ‘player’ in the support and development of the modern footballer, welcome to the team ‘Player Care’. Among the now ingrained and accepted players like technical coaches, sport scientists, analysts, nutritionists, conditioning coaches, physiotherapists, and educational & welfare officers, we find player care staff building its reputation, and their relevance

I interviewed Hugo Scheckter, former Head of Player Care at West Ham United and posed three generic questions; what is player care? what does it look like in practice? and what player care might look like in the future?  

“For me, player care is prevention, it is a blanket of human interaction and ideas to stem the negative affects of a ‘result’ driven business”. 

This is probably the best description I’ve come across. I’m often asked what player care is and what it involves. I have done it a disservice in truth, but I’ve maintained its purpose is to reduce the stressors of normal life and promote mental wellbeing. In any year, one in four people across the UK will be affected by mental illness. Common mental disorders being depression and anxiety which can have a debilitating impact on the sufferer. Player-specific factors may precipitate or exacerbate anxiety disorders, including pressures to perform and public scrutiny, career uncertainty or dissatisfaction, and injury. 

The human interaction Hugo refers to is the gateway to identifying potential stressors and reducing their significance. This is something that in a high-performance environment that can often go unnoticed. On any given day at the club, its staff, and the playing squad follow a detailed itinerary of start and finish times. Frankly, ‘organised chaos’ would better suit as a description of most training grounds. As a coach you can become consumed by the clock, and your session detail for a group of up to 25 players and miss the subtle signs an individual player may exhibit when in trouble.

It takes a trained eye and an understanding of your players character and ‘normal’ disposition to pick up on behavioural changes. Can you read their body language? Do you know your athlete well enough? 

“We had a player whose mother moved with him and she didn’t speak English. He would be constantly coming in frustrated to training. Observing a change in mood prompted a discussion. We found out he was having to drive her around, translate for her and when he arrived home after a game or training, she would ask him to do things with her that she was unable to do alone. This had gone on for about a month, so we found a local taxi driver from the same area of their home country who could drive her around and translate and help her out. We put him on a monthly contract and the player was suddenly happier and his performances on the pitch improved too”. 

For me, it’s not the scale of the problem that matters, but the ability to recognise there may be an issue, present a resolution and map the outcome. A mother gained her independence and support in a new country and culture, and the players mental wellbeing improved. Great result. Mental wellbeing can be defined as when an individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to contribute to his or her community. I think that happened here. 

“I’d like to see some regulation or code of conduct in place to try and make sure the provisions given to all players are as equal as possible”. 

This now makes sense. Hugo has left his role at WHUFC to head up a consultancy-based company on Player Care, player well-being and team operations. As far as I’m aware, this is the first of its kind, and as such The Player Care Group represents innovation. The step away from club attachment might be to realise the very vision of equality among footballers in the level of service and approach each club provide in their player care strategy. When you’re employed by a club your priority is of course to that group of players and staff, the very essence of competition does not lend itself well to cooperation.  As an independent he can offer examples of good practice and effective procedure to promote fairness, equality, and ‘prevention’. 

Voices of the games greats https://www.playercaregroup.co.uk/

“I think clubs are coming around to player care being a differential maker, where the difference in the happiness and player retention from clubs with good player care to those without is clearly shown. It’s a cheap way of clubs making a difference as the clubs don’t pay for the expenses – the only real cost is the employment costs of the people involved”. 

What we do know anecdotally and through the voices of players is this; when they are HAPPY, they play their BEST football. Evidence enough?!

Football is a results’ driven business with a vast array of metrics used to benchmark performance. Subsequently, we know what is below and above benchmark for technical, tactical, and physical behaviours. Thus, the impact of technical coaches can be found in deviations in passing stats and attacking actions. Conditioning coaches can point to an increased number of match day sprints, an impressive standing jump height or a reduced body fat percentage as a means of validating their input and knowledge. When a penalty kick is saved Analysts will replay their video collections on penalty takers and with justification celebrate in the success of the goalkeepers save.  

Player care is the new kid on the block. It needs time to develop, to find its feet and establish empirical evidence as to its impact on player performance. But it will! Today’s Footballers are a constant ‘live’ experiment. Advances in technology and specialist staff can gather the most detailed activity profile of the player and translate their state of readiness both physically and mentally. In a sport awash with finances at the top end, and staff determined to present meaningful recommendations in the support of player development and the football environment, our ability to link player care provision to increased performance levels will arrive. Look out for, and look after the human.

Check out Hugo’s website https://www.playercaregroup.co.uk/

Keywords; Player Care, Mental Health, Wellbeing, Football, Performance

Career transition for the young footballer; words of encouragement

George Branford- Former footballer turned business owner & fitness expert

A career change for any footballer is inevitable. The time will come when you are unable to earn a living playing the game you love. For the younger professional or the scholar failing to earn their first contract, transition is often sudden and involuntary. Deselection at this stage of the footballing journey often leaves only one option, a change in occupation.

So when you find a success story such as George Branford, a now thriving business owner and fitness expert, we are duty bound to share it, celebrate it, and learn from it. George opens with;

“Imagine if you only apply half the effort and discipline it takes to make it in football, and to get as far as you did in the most competitive industry, and put that into a career or business. You’ll not only stand out from the rest, but you will succeed”.

George’s background story is unfortunately not unusual in football. A promising midfield player whose undoubted talent rewarded with a decade on the books of first Chelsea, and latterly, Portsmouth Football Club. Nathaniel Chalobah, Adam Webster and John Swift a few household names to grace the pitch with George during their formative years. The future looked bright as he juggled adolescence with secondary education and focused training sessions, all in pursuit of the dream. Finally, that day came as Portsmouth FC presented George his first professional contract.

From right to left- Nathaniel Chalobah, Adam Webster & John Swift

But almost as soon as it came, it went. At the end of the season George was informed that his contract would not be renewed. He now faces the unknown. Ten years he’d identified as a footballer, so what now? It may be that you are a young player reading this, or chances are you may know someone in this place right now. So please read on. George is determined to show YOU that there is a new passion ready to replace your love of football. YOU can thrive in a new career and YOU can harness those experiences gained from your football education to assist in this major transition.

“My advice for young players going through a career change would be that there is so much more to life than football. Outside the bubble of football you can achieve things you never knew, you can create your own pathway and you no longer need to rely on others opinions to decide on how successful you will be”.

This mindset might seem a long way off for some. When the news of your release arrives there will be TRAUMA. We know the extent of the trauma is often linked to both the ‘timing’, and the lack of ‘control’ in the decision process. Someone has decided your time is up. The more sudden the news, the heavier the potential effect on your mental health and wellbeing. Stress can elevate, confidence drain, and thoughts of failure often manifest. There is no one blue print however, reactions and experiences are individual, so too a persons coping mechanism.

George recalls;

“I actually felt relieved in some respects, I had felt like I wasn’t progressing at all over the last year and knew that I was never going to get an opportunity to play first team football. So I was excited to try a new challenge else where, as it worked out I never managed to find a new club”. 

George (3rd from Right) with fellow Portsmouth FC first year professional players

Straight away you realise George is very self aware. Most probably down to a mixture of his education and the voices of his Portsmouth coaching staff at the time. The idea of a new challenge in football can also present an exciting opportunity. But the realism here is the football industry is tough, unforgiving and ruthless. Chances are limited. What is needed here, is that YOU be proactive. Don’t expect others to search for clubs on your behalf. The best people to help are those that have spent the last few years educating you. It’s your coaches that have the network to open an often closed door. 

YOU will need support, and for George that came through friends and family stating;

“I had little or no support from the club really”. Adding, “I feel clubs could touch base more after being released, but I also recognise now that there was nothing stopping me from calling. So please, pick up the phone and call your coach. Reach out to your sport scientist, psychologist or whoever for advice or a chat”. Great advice!

Thankfully Clubs have revised and improved their after care provisions for players in recent times, often having dedicated personnel responsible for just this. But George is bang on, be proactive, make the call! Trust me the staff will be happy to hear from you. It’s just the nature of the beast that sometimes we forget those that are not in front of us. A gentle reminder and reconnect is often all it takes for support to arrive in abundance.  

George flanked by former Portsmouth Team mates Conor Chaplin & Adam Webster. Friends who’ve become clients of GB Training.

What is important to understand is that through YOUR journey as an apprentice footballer, YOU have experienced and mastered many ‘life skills’.  Defined as ranges of transferable skills needed for everyday life, by everybody, that help people thrive. Sometimes not clearly apparent. But let’s look at the typical player development pathway. 

YOU would have successfully transitioned from foundation phase to elite youth development phase, along the way hitting physical and technical targets. No doubt experienced deselection, spent time on the bench, played up or down a year, suffered and overcome an injury, said hello and farewell to many team mates, and come first or last in countless bleep tests. Think about how many dedicated hours you spent in the video analysis suite critically analysing your performance against the club’s philosophy and your positional role and responsibility within the team structure. Now throw in the countless video clips viewed on upcoming opponents as you unpick their strengths and weaknesses before game day. 

Let’s rephrase the above paragraph in ‘Life Skills’ language. YOU have mastered a range of interpersonal skills including social skills, respect, leadership, communication. YOU have developed personal skills including organization, discipline, self-reliance, goal setting, managing performance outcomes, and motivation. All social skills identified as the most important life skills, YOU are ready for YOUR next challenge. 

George offered this insight in to what is the start point.

“Training was always something I was passionate about throughout my career and doing everything I can in the gym to get better was a priority… once I left playing football professionally, it only felt right to give a role in a gym environment a try. In football you’re educated every day on how to improve your heath and fitness levels, so for me I wanted to take advantage of that, and I absolutely love it”.


George with his happy & healthy clients

George merged his passion for training with the idea of helping and educating others in maximizing their health goals. Noteworthy, is George lent on his education through being, and training, as a footballer to further his chances of becoming a fitness expert. Ask yourself now, what else are you interested in? What parts of your football education can you take with you to a new career? And what do you need to do to start that process?

YOU will see that you’ve acquired some serious transferable skills that employers and entrepreneurs alike desire. YOU have a winning advantage. 

Let’s finish where we started and leave the final words to George; 

“Imagine if you only apply half the effort and discipline it takes to make it in football, and to get as far as you did in the most competitive industry, and put that into a career or business. You’ll not only stand out from the rest, but you will succeed”.

Finally, my thanks to George for the catch up. Check out just how great he is doing by visiting https://georgebranford.co.uk or give him a follow on Instagram @georgebranford 

Lessons from Liverpool FC

Liverpool FC Academy base at Kirkby

In a series entitled ‘inside the academy’ this blog reflects on the experience and insight gained from visiting professional football clubs and discussing pastoral care for players past, and present.

Liverpool FC are the first to feature. Accepting an invitation from Michael Edwards (Sporting Director), the gates to their new purpose built training facility in Kirkby opened, and a seat n the luxurious boardroom awaits. The two-day trip happily coincides with the visit of KRC Genk for a double header, result! The U19’s fell to their first UEFA Youth League defeat of the season after Genk scored a stoppage-time winner claiming a 1-0 win at the academy. Only for the senior side to avenge that loss with a convincing 2-1 win at Anfield only a few hours later. Honours even.

Top; Kirkby Training ground LFC U19’s 0-1 KRC Genk U19’s. Bottom; Anfield Stadium LFC 2-1 KRC Genk

In truth, this was a fact finding mission with the focus on pastoral care, and the aim of sharing good practice. Firstly, it is worth saying that the experience we receive from club to club varies greatly. You simply cannot second guess what might happen when you enter a training ground as an ‘unknown’.

If you’ve never had the privilege to step foot beyond the imposing iron gates of any Category 1 training ground, allow me to paint the picture. On arrival most share a striking resemblance to that of a military base, or the institutions designed to house the countries undesirables. A gatehouse and barrier are always the first indication you’ve arrived at your destination. A security guard appears from the comfort of an enclosed office acutely aware of your arrival some 500 meters away as the multiple camera feeds update every inch of the sites boundary. Security checks conducted, questions answered via an interactive screen, photographic ID produced, the security staff satisfied and our arrival announced, a stark contrast awaits when you pass through the lacklustre entrance.

Greeted with immaculately presented grass pitches (thank heavens for some prevailing traditions of the modern game), roaming youth players and passing staff meet you with a hello and smile. Our first impressions? A welcoming atmosphere littered with polite and humble people. With striking logo emblazoned buildings and pitches as far as they eye can see, this is a disciplined functional environment.  

The enjoyment, the insight, and the importance of the information earned is dependent on the people you encounter. Our first meeting was with Alex Inglethorpe (Academy Manager).  I’d already had a few conversations with Alex over the phone, and knew by his tone and the passion in his voice, player welfare was firmly on his radar. We had an engaged audience. A good start.

Academy Manager Alex Inglethorpe

As is the case in the football world, and those that have made football their working life after playing has stopped, there’s a ‘feeling out’ period at that initial meet. You bounce questions and slowly latch onto each others stories of yesteryear. Crossover almost always happens in what is still a very insular and network driven industry. It’s not what you know and all that. Ours was a fairly obvious common thread. In the lavish surrounds of elite football we bond over non league coaching and management. Kindred spirits of all things non league Alex at Leatherhead and myself and Adam at AFC Totton. Cutting your teeth in coaching with players that love the game and play for for enjoyment and beer tokens (mainly). We talk about the relative unknown skills a manager needs in non league such as; washing kit, driving the mini-bus, pumping up balls, meeting sponsors to squeeze whatever money you can to keep your club afloat, not the usual coaching badge content.

However, it’s your development in dealing with people that is probably our biggest learning curve when transitioning from player to coach. Being both a mate and the gaffer throws all sorts of challenges and curve balls to any aspiring coach. To the non league player, football is their outlet, their enjoyment and often their distraction. You have to invest in the players’ life. Find out what stresses and strains they are enduring. And help! There is no safety net in non league, you become the expert in psychology by default, or you fail in helping the mental health and wellbeing of your players.

The talk of why myself and Adam have spent time to create a support network for ‘the football family’ takes us through the first 30 minutes of our time together. All fairly scripted, the standard dialogue you would expect from a person in a senior figure at an historic and established academy on the subject of mental health.

And then that human connection hits Adam and Alex like a train, almost instantly the guard drops. All it took was for Alex to mention Tommy Taylor (his former coach at Leyton Orient). Adam smiles, “he gave me my league debut for Cambridge United as a 17-year old”. Well that’s’ me done for the next 10 minutes.

Now firmly a lunch meeting, we had two new additions join our table. Enter Yvie Ryan the clubs Performance Coach. How Yvie is utilised by the club is interesting. The first of our three take homes messages. Traditionally, coaches and sport science staff would recognise a player showing signs of distress in their behaviour and would either refer the player to the club psychologist, or request the psychologist to arrange a meeting with the player. Either way, any diagnosis and initiated strategy would be owned by the appropriate department or staff member.

Here’s the twist. Alex sees Yvie’s work more akin to that of a ‘consultant’. She is there to educate and upskill the frontline staff involved with player development. Ensuring she is a regular visitor to the grass, the gym, the treatment room and analysis suit. In practice this places Yvie in effective collaboration with the player and staff member, increasing what we like to call in the academic world ‘ecological validity’.

King Kenny flanked by two over excited grown ups.

Ok, so I said earlier that we had two people join our table. Welcome King Kenny. Now I can’t tell you any of the wonderful anecdotes or memories of Sir Kenny Dalglish’s career, these past times remain his to tell, and ours to enjoy. Suffice to say, he can hold an audience and we were very fortunate to have the ear of such a footballing legend. Two hours flew by and it was now approaching kick off. What I can tell you is this, there is an ease and rapport between Kenny, the youth players, and the staff.

Kenny recalls with alarming accuracy a youth football festival some weeks prior to our visit, even naming the stand out players. The U19’s are huddled in the foyer awaiting a team meeting prior to beginning their pre match warm up. Each player that catches the eye of Kenny either nods, smiles or greets the man. Kenny had time for everyone. He added an enthused commentary on the game events throughout to the small cohort of people stood in close proximity from our balcony view. Often challenging the lads in certain situations (including the Genk players) and congratulating touches, skilful movements, and always praising brave blocks and individual work-rate for the team.

It was a great insight into how to integrate, respect, and treat a club legend. But key to this was the humility and eagerness of that club legend to be part of the process. Football courses through the veins of many an ex player. Having a former decorated player, coach, manager and director of football walk the walls of the training ground strengthens the ‘Liverpool connection’. I’ve not witnessed many operate in this way, but I’m hopeful it happens. Basic learning and teaching theory points to ‘lived experience’ as a key theme in the transfer of knowledge. Who better to act as a sounding board for staff and a presence around its youth players? This surely is ‘added value’.

And lastly, our third take home message. And this is quite innovative. Liverpool have created a new role tilted ‘Alumni Manager’. This was designed with the idea of contacting and supporting those players no longer at the club. In a shift from the norm, this adds a new dimension to player welfare. Focus has remained largely on the registered players for many successful academies with a conscious effort to reach out and assist released players. Now a leading football power is trialling a new initiative to promote ‘Alumni support’, could this be adopted by others?. Open to all players who have at one stage represented the club at any playing level or age.

This for me this missing across the sport. If you read the following extract from my former colleague Gary Issott, and Alex’s equivalent at Crystal Palace FC, he says; “As an industry we’ve got to do more for post-player care. It’s a traumatic experience, effectively players are being sacked if they don’t get a new contract. It affects your finances, your wellbeing, your ego and status, your dreams, you lose friends from a dressing room environment. So it’s a huge trauma leaving a professional football club.”

Candid, blunt and hard hitting from a man who’s spent over 20 years living and breathing everything associated with youth development. Players’ transitioning out of the game is so complex. Retirement, injury and unemployment all manifest a number of serious mental health issues.

The PFA will do well to share a coffee with Alex as his team capture this impactful longitudinal data. How can we triage the trauma? We can but raise awareness of the good initiatives and share practice that has a positive impact on individuals. This is after all about helping people. Get sharing, keep caring.

Match day at Anfield is always special. Just before kick off, and on cue, Liverpool supporters enter full Gerry and the Pacemakers mode. It’s a spine tingling moment. The presence of its former players at Kirkby and Anfield, together with the creation of the Alumni Manager are further evidence that at Liverpool FC ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’.

YNWA