Michael Caulfield: Treating your athletes as individuals
Written by Michael Caulfield — January 21, 2021
I write this as an experienced, mature and (hopefully) reasonably competent sport and exercise psychologist with (as I was told recently) an eclectic background.
However, this last year has been uncharted territory for all of us, in every way imaginable.
During this period, I have become acutely aware that one must be very careful when giving advice to people about what they should do, as this is new ground. This includes giving advice to sportspeople, too.
I’m reminded of a conference I helped host in New York in 2014, when the teacher and dancer of the acclaimed Juilliard School of Performing Arts, Risa Steinberg, appeared on stage alongside a variety of General Managers from the NFL, NBA and MLS.
The discussion centred around coaching elite performers and I can remember the all-male cast (with the exception of Risa) boasting about their budgets, track records, trophies and the best way to succeed.
Risa sat there quietly and when asked to contribute, she looked across the stage and said, “Gentlemen, they (the athletes) are living, breathing, emotional human beings, not performance tools.”
I come back to this sentence on an almost daily basis in my work, especially now.
Which brings me onto the first theme of this article: that there is no defined ‘right way’ through this pandemic. My job, more than ever, is to help find the best way with an individual player or coach, rather than just telling them what that is.
If you simply tell and instruct, assuming you are right, then you disable the individual further down the line.
I have found that the best way to help athletes is to encourage them to discover their own best way of coping with the current situation, both on and off the pitch.
I have tried to refrain from telling people, especially online, what to do and how to live their lives and have steadfastly avoided my biggest bugbear of all, which is the 'five top tips' (to be fitter, healthier, happier, stronger etc) lists.
When I read these, I immediately think, 'how do they know? They haven’t seen or met the people they are advising.'
We are all different and this one-size-fits-all approach is more redundant than ever, especially in the world of sport.
I think we can all, me included, fall into the trap of believing that we, the so-called experts, have all of the answers, and therefore try to fix everyone and everything.
At the football club I have the pleasure of being associated with, Brentford, we have possibly the most diverse set of players and staff in the EFL, with people of all ages, backgrounds, races and religions, which is wonderful.
Therefore, we must remember that they are not a homogenous group, that every person in that club has a different motivation and outlook on life and how to live it.
Even before Covid, I rarely did group presentations or talks unless the coach and support staff thought it could be a timely intervention from a different voice.
Similarly, in everyday life, what works for one person or family may not work for another and we should not be telling or advising people how to live until we know what they are experiencing and going through.
More so than ever, my job is to understand people, to connect with people, and to relate to them, which takes time and energy. Even with years of experience, I am still capable of getting that wrong.
That brings me onto my second theme, which is that we all have off days.
I am wary and weary of people telling us how to be more successful and to seize every moment of every day when they don’t really know what we are experiencing.
Whisper it quietly, but we are not built to seize every moment of every day.
I am as keen as anyone to exercise, to set goals and to get outside, but there are days when I simply don’t feel as brilliant as everyone else makes out, especially on social media.
Even elite sportspeople have off days too. They are entitled to feel demotivated, down, bereft of energy and bereft of hope on occasion, which is why the ‘five top tips’ I alluded to above can be the ultimate turn-off, especially if repeated over and over again.
Whilst people in elite sport are highly committed, they are not robots. They are entitled to off days and they certainly have them, perhaps more than we might think. It’s about understanding when they are in those periods and navigating them.
We have to be honest - any form of lockdown is not a natural or enjoyable way to live. Despite advances in medicine, science, health care and living conditions, we humans have not really developed that much in many ways and we are still social animals.
Currently, this one vital purpose of life has been taken from us. We are mainly sitting in our homes (caves), curbing our natural instincts and waiting to be let out.
Sport is different at the moment too, and training grounds are really different.
They are not the energetic environments I usually encounter, because the protocols are rightly very secure and minimal time is spent together as a group. This means those wonderful and private boot room chats are simply non-existent.
So what's the answer? Again, to go back to the simple things that tend to work well for you personally and to treat people for what they are - individuals.
To finish this article, I do have to say that, in my experience, sport has responded magnificently to this crisis.
I believe that sport matters, now more than ever, and I have been amazed at just how intense the games have been despite no crowds.
I have also been uplifted, though not surprised, by the professionalism and motivation of the players, coaches and support staff, who have ensured that sport can continue safely, despite the rules and guidelines limiting their ability to spend time together, which is one of the great joys of team sport.
I’d also like to think I know some of what people in the everyday world have felt during the course of the last 10 months, as they have told me, and it doesn’t always match what I read online or see in the mainstream media.
Through the various lockdowns, everyone has worked out their own way of keeping fit, engaged, motivated and interested, despite the odd day or two when they were not the best version of themselves. For that, I tip my hat to you too.
The human spirit throughout this crisis has also been extraordinary, with acts of kindness and support, and in the main it has brought out the very best in people.
- Michael Caulfied is one of the UK’s leading Sport Psychologists and has worked in professional sport for more than 25 years. He is a registered performance psychologist with the Health and Care Professionals Council and retrained in psychology after a career in sport and sports administration. He has worked alongside managers including Gareth Southgate, Steve Bruce, Mick Phelan, Dean Smith and Thomas Frank, and currently consults at Brentford FC.