Michael Caulfield: Brentford and the power of playfulness
Written by Simon Austin — April 5, 2021
GIANT Jenga might not be a typical recovery tool at most clubs, but at Brentford it is.
"We have a temporary structure that I call the biggest gazebo gym in the world and players have taken up two-touch, head tennis and stand-up Jenga in there," explained Michael Caulfield, Brentford's consultant psychologist, at TGG's Recovery Webinar last month.
"It's not the sit-down version of Jenga - the bricks are the size of cricket bats - but it's one of the games the players want to engage in. I’ve recorded a couple of games and the level of competition is extraordinary."
Caulfield and the club's Head of Performance, Chris Haslam, believe that playfulness is key to mental recovery - especially in a season of unprecedented fixture congestion because of Covid-19.
"The word I always use is playfulness, which I don't see in too many scientific journals," said Caulfield. "I learned that from my background in other sports and also from a colleague called Michael Beale, who spent a year at Sao Paulo and noticed that a huge part of their training was playfulness, to keep the players involved, and he's trying to bring that into Europe."
Beale is now the first-team coach at Glasgow Rangers and has just helped them win their first league title in 10 years. Prior to this he was the assistant manager at Sao Paulo in Brazil in 2016/17.
Caulfield, who has worked with managers including Dean Smith, Steve Bruce and Gareth Southgate during a 25-year career in football, added: "Boredom does play a role, because if you do the same things every day, with the same people and the same voices, that can become tedious.
"I have yet to meet any professional footballer who said, 'I came into this because I couldn't wait to be tested.' The vast majority came into football because they played it in the park, in the street, at school, with their mates."
Haslam, who has worked for the Bees for six-and-a-half years, agreed.
"We ask the players if they are eating well after a game, if they are sleeping well and what active recovery are they doing," he told the Recovery Webinar. "After that, it’s how do we keep them engaged and playing and laughing.
"We’ve got so many good clips of the players playing fun games - games they’ve made up themselves - and that’s what we want to create on those recovery days and around the training ground every single day.
"If they’re engaged and want to be at the training ground, that’s the mental side which ticks every box. The players love competition and playfulness. That’s the best way to win in terms of mental recovery. If you’re doing the same things every day, it becomes draining."
It's not only Brentford who have realised the power of playfulness. In November, a video emerged of Tottenham's players taking part in a cricket match in the gym of their training ground. You can watch the clip below and the joy is evident for all to see.
"One of the best things I’ve seen this season is the Spurs players from across the world playing indoor cricket," said Caulfield, "and Joe Hart sending a nice medium pacer and nipping Harry Kane’s off stump and one of the players, who had probably never even heard of cricket, taking a catch at mid-on.
"It just was playful, helps to bring people together and keeps us engaged, because it can get very monotonous otherwise."
In November 2019, Pippa Grange, the former Head of People and Team Development at the FA, who now works for Right to Dream, gave her own example of the power of playfulness.
Grange was working for the New Zealand rugby league team on the eve of the World Cup final against Australia in 2013.
"There was a lot of tension in the camp," she explained. "The arrangement was that we were gonna go to a haunted house in London. So we’ve got these enormous burly tough guys, a lot of them had had quite tough upbringings, and on the bus on the way to the haunted house there was all manner of giggling and all sorts of ‘I’m not going at the front, you’re gonna go at the front’.
"I have never heard such high-pitched screams in my life. But it was just such an enormous tension release. They had heaps of fun for a half hour and then had a Nando’s and went home and went to bed and it was a couple of days out from a game and it was a really good reset.
"Those moments where we can create fun or an opportunity to break out of the deep focus are hugely powerful in performance. But you don’t have to create fun. If you create conditions for it, people will find their own fun.
"Play is very natural to us. Laughter, fun, oxytocin, endorphins have massively positive effects on brain chemistry."
And playfulness can be more than just a break from routine and monotony - it can be a route to learning and developing too.
In this article in April 2017, Paul McGuinness, the former Manchester United Under-18s coach who is now National Coach Developer at the FA, explained: "Footballers are experts in calculating time, space, speed, spin, in pressured environments. They do this by play, a series of experiments over years. Einstein said, ‘Play is the highest form of research’.”
We have also reported how Dutch side AZ Alkmaar have built a 'performance playground,' complete with beach, asphalt pitch with two goals and basketball hoop, and concrete wall.
Their Academy Director, Paul Brandenburg, explained: "We believe adaptability is a part of talent and the Playground fits in with that vision. In this inviting environment, children are constantly playing in their own way, with their own rules and solutions, without a trainer telling them what to do."