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Professional Football: A Case Study to Create Culture Change Through Inner Personal Development

culture change football men in sport Jan 17, 2023

Professional football (soccer) is one of, if not the most, lucrative and widely played sports in the world. At a distance, it seems cutting-edge, with many coaches and performance staff wanting to “break in” to this elite of elite environments. 

My Own Story

My own career started at Fulham F.C., which included an internship and paid roles ranging from 1st team sports masseur to assistant academy S&C coach. I saw this opportunity as a gift I had to hold onto as hard as I could. I didn’t question the long hours each day and the last-minute changes to training, which meant at times I drove to New Malden from Brighton for no reason (approx 1h 30 each way).

On a few occasions, we arrived back at the training ground around 12 am after an away game, and I was expected to be back in at the training ground at 10 am. This 10-hour gap also required me to drive to and back from Brighton (approx 3 hours) as well as sleep. I didn’t question it because I had no personal boundaries and lacked the self-awareness and skills to communicate my needs.

This was an “alpha male” environment with the banter, the jokes, the derogatory talk about women, and the focus on money, cars, and status. I struggled deeply with this, despite doing my best to keep up the veneer that I enjoyed it.

I kept up the act especially amongst my friends and social networks because I was always someone of interest to be around as many of men friends at the time loved football. I also got lots of attention from women, which played directly into my insecurities around needing to be liked and to be validated for being "successful."

Because of all that, I did my best to deny the reality of the dark side I was seeing and experiencing. In the end, this experience made me fall out of love with a sport I had loved for much of my youth. I am grateful this happened.

Coach Success

As performance staff, our success is often solely defined by external results, such as jobs held, seniority, win-lose, KPIs, and other objective markers of success.

But underneath these external measures are our own stories within us. And that story is governed from day one of our life, childhood, and our experiences up until this moment that we are in right now. 

My personal stories were about very low self-worth, which I only realized after grief forced me to look at myself. In hindsight, I see how much my value of self-worth was tied to my coaching career. I did all I could to seek validation from my peers and social networks for "achievements" and my roles, which kept me trapped in a self-imposed glass prison.

Freeing myself from this prison is the very reason why I founded men behind sport and to provide the support I never had.

The Unaddressed Face of Football

At the end of 2021, I began a research process that involved interviewing >150 male performance support staff from around the world, across sports, roles, and disciplines. Many of these men are highly successful and in “the top jobs” that the majority are chasing, including in the top flight of professional football.

Yet what I hear about time and again, is how football has a culture stuck and out of date with regard to coach needs and wants. This spans from English Premier League through to small-town leagues, European leagues, South Africa, Major League Soccer, and Asian leagues.

Examples of what’s meant by this out-of-date culture include:

  • Normalisation of 24/7 mentality
  • 1st in/last out badge of honour
  • Skewed loyalty to team/department
  • Men feel they can't share their problems
  • Personal life "should fit in” around the sport
  • Male chauvinistic behaviour
  • Bullying
  • "Man up"

The Truth Hurts 

These examples are of course present in other sports and environments, but professional football is standing out as the most prevalent. I have literally hundreds of examples highlighting how performance support staff in elite football are struggling emotionally:

"I feel it's a 24/7 job and I need to say I'll do whatever, ask whatever of me I'll do anything. My promotion was at first a massive high and then the pressures of working abroad with a newborn became so great that I completely lost myself in work. I just couldn't stop and it became very very mental because I couldn't switch off anymore."

"I ask myself am I blinkered by my career in sport, am I lacking the ability to make the decision to step out of sport so I can begin to live my life how I want... success in life is much more valuable than success in my career."

"I am just frustrated, there are so many things that bump up against my morals and personality. In 10 years' time, I don't want to be moaning about missing important milestones in my life, I'm bending my boundaries to allow me to do the practicality of my role in football."

"My identity as a coach consumes my life, all the conversations I have outside of work stem back to work. I'm either at work or I'm at home reading up about stuff to do with work, I'm in the gym on my days off lifting. I don't really do much else and I feel lonely."

"It cost me a loss of respect in some of the people I managed who were exposed to the same bullying I was. I felt guilty because that was my role in protecting them. It led me to become flat and upset at home. I didn't know what to do or what was wrong with me. I typically freeze and don't know what to say when I'm being bullied, then I beat myself up. I don't speak up and say my thoughts as I'd be afraid of a reaction - so I was just drifting through."

"The roles in football didn't allow me to see my kids, my kids always said to me "dad why are you always on your phone," even when I'm at home with them I'm not at home with them. The reason why I went to therapy was that I got too engrossed in my work, so when my partner tried to interact with me or interrupted my thought process I'd be very aggressive and verbally shout over the simplest of things."

"I feel there is a perception where we have to be strong leaders and show no cracks, I don't sense other coaches who are driven for their own kind of success look outside of anything else of high-performance sport, so when the tiniest little thing goes wrong it becomes this huge issue. The figure front is a divorced male who works all the hours. I feel trapped because I am quite well looked after with my salary but there are so few jobs that earn a similar salary. I feel I have nowhere to go meaning I can't get off."

"It's true that everyone in football is in 100% and this is where the challenge comes with managers and coaching staff who are historically 100% in. In Sunday morning, in early and leave late, travel everywhere with the team, and hotels before every game which impacts the staff massively, but they don't care, their driver is if I have to do it then you should have to do it."

"My whole focus after university was to do anything to work in football. I thought when I got the tracksuit and initials on, wow I've done it. But I joined that crew that glorifies being at work all day. I had nothing else and that was my whole identity and being. All I was was a sport scientist, I didn't have any other hobbies or interests. I was almost arrogant levels of assured of what my beliefs were - I only followed logic and I felt so sure dismissing anything to do with feelings, emotions or spirutuality, classic male hard outlook. I'm a complete angry person with tiny patience."

Recently I reached out to my networks on social media. I asked: Is high-performance football (soccer) being held back by out-of-date mindsets and male behaviour?

Of a total of 58 votes across platforms, there was a unanimous agreement:

Of course, an off-the-cuff poll on social media is a very small and limited snapshot. But Rob Pacey at Sportsmith conducted a more thorough job and collaborated with Setanta College and Dr Sean Mclaren. The report looked at work conditions in football. 

It's an eye-opening read! The report supports much of what I'm saying in this article:

  • Performance staff are regularly working upwards of 70 hours per week in the most elite academies
  • For those hours, the average mean wage works out to be £12 per hour

A total of 138 practitioners filled in the questionnaire which was distributed to those who work as strength and conditioning coaches or sports scientists in English academy football. Just like this article, it's not meant as a way to beat the industry or to share negativity.

They are intended to put some objectivity to the often-held conversations around salaries and working conditions for those working in sports performance.

You can read the full report by clicking here.

The ex-international and premier league player, as well as coach, Steven Reid has also been very vocal about his struggles within football. His interview on Sky Sports reveals a lot:

"This was tough to open up fully for the first time in the Media about the struggles that I faced during my career. But glad I did, the response has been incredible, and many from within the game have shared with me their own challenges."

But, as is so often the case, this is through the eyes of an athlete. Performance support staff just don't have a voice in uncovering the experiences that you're reading about in this article.

Thoughts on Why

Almost 8 years ago, a light bulb came on that was the first actual event horizon in my life outside of being born - I was 36. Giving my mother end-of-life care was the moment that changed everything for me.

This opened the door to all of the emotions and grief I had repressed, as we as western men are encouraged to do, after losing my father at 16 yrs. I had buried this for almost 20 years. I consider myself lucky and grateful because grief forced me to look at myself and my actions in this world. 

I began to rethink my decisions. I began to look at the people I chose to associate with. I began to educate myself as a man, not as a coach. I looked to others for help with understanding life. I began to ask critical questions. I figuratively died and went in the opposite direction of everything I knew and understood. 

To do that, as a man in this culture, meant me overcoming the messaging from my outside environment – and going against thousands of years of built-in programming.

This process has defined the last 8 years of my life, career, and path. I learned to think critically at a time when most of my peers were still reinforcing a lifestyle and habits that would come to haunt most of them. This article is an example of that.

The video below is an example in professional football of how we get hypnotised by elite sport, at the expense of our awareness and perspective of life:

Now, to me, that example is quite sad. And it just shows me how performance staff can get lost to the world of performance sport.

They may be some of the most technically skilled, yet they lack the personal awareness to realize their thoughts, feelings, and actions are causing incoherent MDTs that are most likely not operating as well as they could be.

  • How do you turn the mirror in on yourself to want to understand yourself, YOU the man on a deeper level?
  • What kind of event is going to make you realise, if the problems are inside it doesn't matter what job you have, how loyal you are to the role, what people think or say, what objective achievements you get - until you resolve those issues within to allow you to become content?

For more context, the man behind sport article has been one of the most popular on the blog.

We are continually concerned about having athletes with narrowly limited identities, but look around and show me a staff member who isn’t at risk of burnout and isn’t being exploited for their passion and identity.”

The "cultural stasis" in football is endemic, with an awareness of "mental performance" being seen only through the lens of athletes, not support staff. This is a great article written by John Nasoori on why there aren't more psychologists working in English football:

"The relative lack of media attention afforded to footballers’ use of psychologists - despite the efforts of players such as Jordan Pickford and Tyrone Mings - might also be due to the presence of a cultural ‘stasis’ within the sport, according to Gervis."

“People who are now running clubs have been quite insular in their understanding of what's happening and therefore all the cycles (we’ve seen before) get repeated because people feel comfortable with them,” she explains.

This cultural stasis is not a problem just because it's the dominant male presence. It's a problem because most of us as western men are limited in when, how and what to feel and express emotionally.

Bite your tongue, bottle it up, and carry on. The conditioned ‘masculine’ ideal has taught us that the expression of our feelings and even leaning on others during hard times are not ‘masculine’ traits. 

From a young age we are taught that crying, talking about feelings or showing emotions is equated to weakness. Do you remember being told to be a ‘big boy’ and not to cry? This causes the belief that expressing emotion is inherently wrong. According to society we have to deal with problems alone, and be ‘tough’.

We are quite literally never given the option or tools for dealing with emotions, which boys and men carry through to adulthood...and into our personal and professional lives!

If So, So What?

“Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” Mahatma Ghandi

Much of what I hear about stems from very primal emotions and a sense of self. This shows up in us as low self-esteem, seeking validation, over-striving, being held back by our identity, and pleasing others at the expense of ourselves.

Change therefore on a cultural level, has to and must come from us as an individual first. We are 100% responsible for our experience of life, no one else is.

There's no doubt, change is a ball-ache! But that doesn't excuse us from the responsibility of looking at ourselves as people first, before our roles in sport. But change can be made easier when there is a pathway to follow. For me, this 7-stage pathway gave me a real anchor to pass through the painful aspects of change.

And make no mistake about it, I am still in this process of change. Something I'm extremely grateful for.

I believe wholeheartedly that senior performance staff have a duty to look at themselves with more detail than they look at performance data. This includes their habits, behavioural patterns & what effect that has on younger/junior staff. And up the chain with their partners and children.

The alternative of not doing this is to continue to perpetuate a culture that's causing real damage in people's lives. The worst-case scenario of this is suicide where globally, the suicide rate for men is twice as high as for women.

1. Ask yourself the question: "What do I want?"

This is to be asked precisely when you're experiencing someone/something/some situation you clearly don't want and feel pissed/exhausted/burnt out by it.

When you know the answer to that simple query, you move from complaining to committed - meaning you're then bound to shift/shape/change/improve/leave the situation... or stop complaining about it.

The only way to get what you really want is to know what you really want.

The only way to know what you really want is to know yourself.

The only way to know yourself is to be yourself.

And the only way to be yourself, is to listen to your intuition and heart.

2. Personally, I tune into that by getting clarity on my motives:

  1. Am I doing this to look good to other people e.g. coaches/friends/partner/social media (leaves me exhausted, contracted in my body)
  2. Am I doing this because it feels right in my heart, which makes me come alive (feel unlimited energy, expansive, could do it every moment)

Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”  - Howard Thurman

3. What is success to you?

So many are bouncing, stepping stone to stepping stone without awareness of the specifics of what success means to them. And of course, "better never stops" can be broken down through the lens of which we all know so very well. The labels of world-class, conferences spoken at, the number of medals won, I can tell you that it's a costly pursuit.

"I had a tough time after athletes I supported achieved Olympic success. I felt directionless and aimless in my mind and I thought having an athlete win gold was the pinnacle of what we do and why we do it. But after they had won, I was waiting for some kind of feeling of achievement to hit and it just never did."

Is This Article Resonating With You?

All of these takeaways are exactly why I created The Lost to Liberted Blueprint. It dives deep into all of these areas, offering senior performance staff powerful skills to free themselves from improving athletes at the expense of their health & happiness!

So they can find their personal freedom within sport or create their own exit strategy to stop living to work and start living their life.

Book a call to find out more. Or download the full details in the program overview.


Download Workbook now!

Discover where you currently are in the 7-step process of change, the problems that keep you trapped in frustration, the path of moving from "I can't" to "I am", and the powerful guided reflection to support you in taking the next steps in your life.