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’.
“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