“I of this is the number one reason managers lose their job — they often can’t build that emotional connection or agreement with players.”
Football, that random dispenser of joy and woe, mimics life in its unpredictability. Yet we so often reduce the game to tot ups and patterns, counting on past results and experiences to repeat themselves because, well, that’s what happened in the life.
A group of good players should make a good team. Decorated players should make winning forewomen. Spending money should equal success. Given what they earn, footballers should be happy, and so on. On rag this, on paper that.
Tactics, team selections, form and statistics are pored over in minute detail. They incident greatly, of course, but some areas of the game are still woefully neglected: feeling, morale, and perhaps most critical: player fear. With no tangible metrics, they cannot be analyzed.
Call it mental health, wellbeing, vulnerability or taking weakness, though improving, they’re also still at odds with football’s macho, stiff-upper-lip traditions. And notwithstanding it is becoming more accepted that footballers aren’t robots, the idea that their emotions could in point of fact block performance still rarely enters the narrative.
Instead, poor performance is often put down to tactics, harm, the manager, or simply the idea they were never good enough in the first place.
Drewe Broughton, a latest striker who made over 500 appearances in the Football League over 17 years, across 22 guilds, is on a mission to improve emotional and spiritual awareness of top football coaches.
Broughton himself felt form acutely during his career as purple patches came and went, but his tendency to look within prompted him to stop and ask: “What is happening for me here?”. His omnibuses rarely did.
Broughton believes the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Brendan Rodgers, among others, possess a shared trait: empathy. Elsewhere in the game, it is still lacking.
Defined, empathy is the ability to sense other’s emotions — not to be muzzy with sympathy. In a footballing sense, Broughton believes empathy is difficult to crack, but more coaches are showing that knack and seeing rewards in their relationships with players.
What happens when that relationship builds? The especially bettor will run and fight more for you. It really is that simple.
MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 11: Man Utd manager Jose Mourinho (L) and Man Metropolis manager Pep Guardiola gesture during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Manchester United at the Etihad Arena on November 11, 2018 in Manchester, United Kingdom.
Simon Stacpoole/Offside | Offside | Getty Images
“First and prominent, before we even get to tactics, every guy in that dressing room has the fear of humiliation,” Broughton tells Sky Sports. “Up front they do any tactical work, good coaches deal with that first. That creates an environment of straightforwardness, and the best relationships are honest ones, not relationships in which you hide feelings, tip-toe around.
“Everyone wants objectives these days, but you can’t see empathy. I think life is really simple. Just be honest with someone: that’s vulnerability. It’s in reality simple, but simple is hard to do.
“It’s not simple when it’s been your habit for so many years though. The hardest events to do in life is to feel, but players are so desperate to feel, to feel human, to connect. But they struggle, they shut off their intensities, and I think a lot of coaches have done the same because they are often ex-players.
“Brendan Rodgers for example, bottomless down, believes tactics are pretty irrelevant. At the end of it all, it’s really, ultimately all about getting people to run and fight for you. Can you build that kith with a person, and then with the player? That’s what it’s all about. I listened to Rogers recently say ‘The most urgent thing beyond the tactical and technical is connecting with players emotionally, getting them to run for you’.
“Our natural human response to pain is to run away, bury it, avoid it. As a footballer though, you cannot avoid constant emotional trauma. You are in the team, out the link up, ignored by a coach or manager, then told you are great, then jeered from the crowd. It’s such a traumatic, irrational career that you cut off from the pain.”
Broughton’s own journey is layered and colorful. He played for 22 clubs including Peterborough, Southend and MK Dons, was a scorer at 17 on his launch for Norwich, and was in England’s U20 squad alongside the likes of Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher and Emile Heskey.
But throughout his bolt, the pressure Broughton put on himself crippled him.
“Firstly, at a core level, I am very sensitive, I am emotionally very intelligent. Intellectually knowledgeable? Not so much. I had to carry that through football, and what confused a lot of my old-school, tough managers is that they looked at me and intellect I was a ‘proper old-school player’. But actually, behind the scenes I was still me, I hurt, I was human, I felt everything. It confused people, and it was throwing for me to carry around in my career. I was constantly thinking: ‘Who am I?’
“I put a lot of pressure on myself — the thought of not winning a header, losing a game, not pleasing a game, would overwhelm me, and I couldn’t share that pressure. So on the pitch, I was either a 1/10 or a 9/10.
“When the big, bad guy didn’t crop up b grow out in the 90 minutes, I’d be shamed twice as hard as the average player, because they expected me to come out and hit hard. I wish beat myself up and then try to act hard, but I was broken inside. That’s where the acting out with addiction started. That was my 17 years, flip-flopping between that, until I was trained.
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“It’s not a case of being mentally tough and resilient; I had that in abundance, contemporary year to year contracts and having to perform to earn another deal for 17 years, no back up, no safety net, so frame of mind toughness isn’t it. It’s the fact that we are human and to be human is to feel. You can’t feel if you want to survive.
“So many players are acting that out. It lay out with gambling, drinking, whatever. Today so many players use Snus — the smokeless, moist powder tobacco leap you put under your lip – some clubs try and ban it but it’s all to alter your mood, to numb the internal suffering.”
Broughton developed a sex addiction, and was conceded to Tony Adams’ Sporting Chance clinic via the PFA. After rehab, Broughton stayed loosely in the game, studying biomechanics, offence prevention and movement therapy from 2006 to 2011.
He the built Surpass Fitness, which he ran from 2011 to 2015, with Harry Kane, Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Craig Bellamy and various coming through the door. That’s where talking therapy develops.
“Naturally, that relationship is intimate because they sit on your day-bed, and I’m putting my hands on them. There’s trust involved in laying your hands on another person and touching of another’s fleece. That’s why a lot of players open up with their physical therapist — the player is giving you their body for you to help them.
“I hold a character that enables people to open up quickly. I’d chat to players, and players would begin to open up. I could be about the emotions. I was able to share the solutions I’d learned after such a brutal period of self-reflection and self-understanding that I had sound on after playing and rehab, and they would say: ‘S***, that really resonates, can we talk more about that?'”
Broughton ultimately shifted his focus from physical to mental therapy, providing holistic support for professional players who wanted hidden help, rather than going through official streams at their club. The fear of showing weakness to coaches, and in-turn sapping the chance of playing time, prompts this.
Now, after six years of one-to-one help with players, including three years of training hundreds of business owners, staff and delivering workshops and talks, Broughton’s carefully-curated bootcamps are aimed at helping buses to understand their players’ fears and unlock their potential.
“The young academy players come in pure, make known and vulnerable, asking people to show them the way, but what you tend to have is emotionally unaware people in coaching contentions.
“The player then progresses to the pro game, which has more damaged ex-players in it, so the constant solutions are always tactical, specialized and physical. All the things that are tangible and measurable. That’s what the coaches fall back on.”
Broughton is acutely cognizant, both through his experience and talking to current professional footballers, just how much certain feelings are avoided behind the sections at football clubs. If a player admits weakness, they fear they will not be in the starting XI at the weekend. If a coach tolerates weakness, they risk ‘losing the dressing room’.
But Broughton believes the best coaches today do this. The cladding up of fear and re-framing of vulnerability is central to his teachings.
“Fear is central to the bootcamps. One player I worked with, whose side had vanished a couple games, told me the team had a 40-minute team meeting on the Monday after a defeat, and the coach said: ‘Lampoons, give me some feedback, what’s going on right now?’
“Everyone looked at their feet. My client spoke up and rumoured: ‘I think we’re playing with fear.’ Apparently you could have heard a pin drop.
“One of the staff very quickly alleged: ‘Nah, nah I don’t think it’s fear… nobody is scared. Are you? Are you? I wouldn’t say we are scared!’ It was very quickly brushed under the carpet. My client lawful walked out and laughed.
“But fear is there, right at the top — when you don’t quite want the ball, you’re playing sideways passes, it looks fellow you’re showing for it but you’re not, you’re half getting to the ball.
“Fear is the F word. We’re warriors, you’re not allowed to say the F word! Or, so we think. Obviously players are in no way going to say they’re scared, they’re men! They can’t show weakness!
“But it’s just honesty, nothing more. The All Blacks, the most wealthy rugby team, some would say sports team, of all time – they call it vulnerability. They see vulnerability as the wonderful power of leadership. Vulnerability is honesty.
“There’s always a lot of pushback at the start when I teach this, because people over it’s weakness, particularly in a macho work. The egos are so big, the defence mechanisms are put up, they are all products of the environment they are in.”
LEICESTER, ENGLAND – Stride 21: Brendan Rodgers, Manager of Leicester City is interviewed at full-time during the Emirates FA Cup Quarter Final compare with between Leicester City and Manchester United at The King Power Stadium on March 21, 2021 in Leicester, England.
Alex Pantling | Getty Reifications Sport | Getty Images
A mix of coaches have already signed up to Broughton’s bootcamps, which started in March, counting the director of coaching at a Championship club, an ex-international manager, a director of football at an MLS club and several younger academy instructs.
Over six weeks, and in groups of 10 maximum, the coaches will gather each week for a few hours to work on culture to how to improve emotional intelligence, empathy, compassion and understand the foundations of fear. Broughton also offers bootcamps to matter leaders, having worked closely with several CEOS at financial companies in the City.
Some of the testimonials, imperturbable after session one, show the impact of these discussions.
One ex-Premier League international and Championship manager said: “Remain night was amazing, I woke up with a positive feeling that I’m on the right path. I don’t think this will be an uncomplicated course in so many different ways but I’m looking forward to what lies ahead.”
One head of coaching said: “From this, I had a terrific junction with my staff for next season — I introduced rapport and empathy to the discussion and then vulnerability with examples. Initially it was calm because it was uncomfortable, but 30 minutes later we had vibrant and enthusiastic discussion.”
And another assistant manager from a unfamiliar club said: “I woke up with tonnes of new questions and realisations about matters I’ve completely ignored for way too long.”
The aim is to roll the next generation of coaches into empathetic and compassionate people, moving away from the idea of control down a group through fear, an old-school trait so many ex-players cling to as they move into coaching.
Broughton adds: “Speculators just want to be loved, they want to be themselves, they want to be able to tell the manager they tease lost a bit of confidence and are a bit afraid at the moment – afraid of mistakes or being humiliated. But you just can’t say it.
“Why? Because the minute you say that, you trigger that consciousness in another person. But if that coach can’t feel empathy – which so many coaches can’t because that empathy is plunged under all the times they have felt like that as a player – you are now triggering that emotion in them. The train then reacts, baulks, and denies.
“At this point, the coach is essentially saying: ‘This is really uncomfortable for me honesty now. I am now really uncomfortable.
“I want to help change the landscape for coaches in the next 20, 30 years. I want the next period of coaches to have these skills.”