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Michael Caulfield: Sport Psychologist

Michael Caulfield: Sport Psychologist

From working with industry professionals such as Gareth Southgate and Dean Smith, to discussing all things football on the Kelly and Wrighty Show, Michael Caulfield is a well-known figure in the area of Sports Psychology.

In this Jobs in Football interview, Michael talks to Sascha about his experiences of working in the football industry, including why management style is so important to a player’s development, how Covid-19 has taken away the luxuries of the sport, and why the delivery of sports psychology is the key to ensuring the area continues to develop.


To start with, can you give us a little background as to how and why you decided to pursue a career in Sports Psychology?

I decided to do so because of an experience I had in my previous role as Chief Executive of the Professional Jockeys’ Association, which is horse racing’s equivalent to the Professional Footballers’ Association. Having been in the role for 15 years, I realised that all jockeys were a little bit mad! If you watched the coverage of Rachael Blackmore win the Grand National - in that ground-breaking win – you will have seen that jockeys and jump jockeys in particular, are beyond brave.


The most brilliant jockey, Sir Anthony McCoy (AP McCoy) said to me that he would pay to see me if I were a psychologist because he thought I was the only person who understood his ‘madness’. I was curious about this idea and he went on to explain that he had seen 2 or 3 sports psychologists when he was younger and they didn’t understand him. Based on that one conversation, that’s what I decided to do and with that, I started my training whilst still working full-time.  


So was Sports Psychology something you were always interested in or did that conversation spark the interest?

I always had an interest. As a young boy, I worshipped football and the manager Bill Shankly of Liverpool fame. You’re a big football fan, aren’t you? Are you a Luton Town fan?


No, I’m a Spurs fan.

That’s interesting you’ve said that because Jose Mourinho is almost the opposite of Bill Shankly in that, Bill never got carried away with himself; he got carried away with the team and the city.


Do you think management styles have changed from that perspective then? For example, if I think about the way in which Bill Nicholson is spoken about, especially by Spurs fans, it’s similar to how you have just described Bill Shankly, that the passion for everything to do with the club and the city was perhaps more apparent than it is in management nowadays. Have you seen a change in the mentality of management in this way?  

It’s changed hugely but the breaking news is that this mentality is coming back; it has to. Football players are smart individuals and they don’t want to be spoken to or treated in a way that isn’t considerate. I’ll use Mourinho as an example. If I were a Spurs player watching him speak about me in the way that he often does, I would immediately think, ‘You don’t rate me, do you?’


So which manager do you think has that empathetic side to their management style?

I think you can say Klopp and Guardiola as they have been successful, and I think Brendan Rodgers has it too but if you go outside of the top clubs, I would say Dean Smith, Graham Potter and Nuno Espirito Santo. As a manager, if you think football management is about you and your beauty, you will get found out; players will think, ‘No, that’s not for me.’

I was speaking to somebody the other day and I told them that my old dog was called Shankly for a number of reasons, one of them being, ‘You’ll never walk alone.’ But it was also for the fact that Shankly understood people, knew the city, the culture, the working-class nature; he understood it all. On the same note, I’ve just been commissioned to do a short film about Guardiola because he has shown an authentic, human side this season, which we hadn’t seen before; I am fascinated by that.

But Bill Nicholson had that management style at Spurs, as did Harry Redknapp. And Pochettino certainly had it but you could tell he was tired; he needed time off!


Have you worked with any of those individuals you’ve just mentioned?

I worked with Dean Smith for a number of years during his time at Brentford but the manager I first started working with was Gareth Southgate, who is of course now managing England. Gareth has the management style we are referring to (empathetic) in abundance. I think at that level, everybody helps in developing the person as much as they do the player because realistically, at that elite level, a player can only be improved so much.

I also want to mention Bielsa at Leeds - who allegedly doesn’t speak a word of English - because you can tell the players absolutely adore him. He has made them into a team that they never believed they could be.

I think the management side of football is so interesting though and one of the reasons as to why I am fascinated by psychology. There is a quote from Julian Nagelsmann (RB Leipzig, soon to be Bayern Munich) in which he says that 30% of his job is about football and tactics and 70% is about managing people. I’ve been banging on about that for years! Football has become obsessed – and understandably so – with formations and systems, false nines, low blocks, pressing, sixes and fours, and eights and tens, and pockets of space… which you need to know… but it will always come back to managing the person.


Moving on to your experience as a Senior Consultant at Sporting Edge. For those who are unfamiliar with the business, what do they need to know?

That was 10 good years of my life, at a company founded by former cricketer Jeremy Snape. He had an idea to develop a training consultancy in which some of the world’s best thought leaders in the areas of sport, business, academia and science would be interviewed and short training packages would then be created using the interviews and content. My job was to bring the interviews to life and it was great because it enabled me to work in sport, which is now my main area of work. I am a hopeless addict when it comes to sport; it owns me and controls me, in a good way. But at Sporting Edge, I also worked with senior businesses and business leaders on the life lessons that can be learned from sport, communicating and transferring those lessons to the corporate world. It was a fascinating experience because the corporate world is much like the sporting world in that it is very result driven and to a degree, you often have to make it up as you go along. You would assume everything is about strategy, brilliance and long-term plans and visions but often, it’s just a moment or one conversation that sparks an idea. You assume the corporate world is well organised but you soon realise how well run the sporting world actually is too.


And do you have any success stories that you are able to share with us?

If I had to say one, it would be assisting a leading firm of bookmakers, a well-known bookmaking chain who we ran a leadership course for. The course was put on for 25 inspiring leaders within the company, back in 2017. None of the participants thought they would ever be a leader but there they were, 25 of them in the same room, who had all been promoted to that position. In terms of the corporate world, I don’t think I will ever top the impact that the leadership course had on them and on me too, as the course facilitator. They have all gone on to have great careers and it has been amazing to see them go on and be successful leaders in the space of 12-18 months. Many of them have held down senior positions or even been headhunted to manage or part-manage another business. To see them develop on the back of an 18-month interaction with me via the course has been absolutely brilliant. That’s what gives me energy in life, to see people develop.


It’s nice to have that element within a job and not all jobs have that; the ability to actively see a difference you can make to people’s lives.

A lot of those participants have adjusted their lives too – not just because of the course – but a lot of them have changed their lifestyles, whether it’s adjusting work-life issues, health issues, exercise issues, even relationship issues. The course enabled people to talk openly and it turned out that two men on the course were married to men, something they had never mentioned to anyone. When people really start opening up and expressing themselves, that’s when you know you are getting somewhere.


And you recently took part in the Kelly and Wrighty Show?

Yes, I was a guest on the Kelly Cates and Ian Wright show recently and I was thrilled because I am not 21 or trendy; I am just my authentic self, I hope. A middle-aged white man talking about football isn’t anything new, is it? But there I was in the final third of my life, being asked about my views on football and I was amazed by that. Somehow, someone must have found it interesting and I know it was Ian Wright who asked me to go on the show; he thought I was relevant and was saying interesting things about football and players. Somebody contacted me that evening after the show – an ex-footballer – and he said he felt that I was trying to positively change the narrative of football. Footballers have a reputation of being thick, or cheats, or nothing other than being overpaid but they’re not, not at all. They need to express their emotions as much as anyone else but as a footballer, you can’t because it makes you look soft and useless; it’s absolute nonsense.


I am not surprised that you were asked to go on the show. I think there is a huge interest in this area and it’s not as apparent or talked about as many other areas of the football industry. I actually saw news of your participation on the show pop-up on LinkedIn, along with the post you had written reflecting on a teacher who told you not to waste your time in pursuing a career in the football industry. I wanted to ask why it was at that particular time you wanted to share and reflect on that personal moment?

I’ve had all the advantages in the world, although I wasn’t born into a sporting family and certainly not a football family; my family didn’t follow football and professionally, many of them were lawyers. I also went to a school that again, had no interest in football; it was an academic school focused on areas such as science, law and accountancy. I was asked, in my teenage years, what I wanted to do when I grew up and I said I wanted to work in football because I love sport, I love football and I want to be like Bobby Charlton, Georgie Best or Bill Shankly. This dreary looking man said to me, “Don’t waste your time with that; you’re dreaming. People from this school don’t work in sport and football.”

Anyway, I came back from the Kelly and Wrighty show and I was in a bit of shock as I had a lovely message from Premier League TV and supportive comments from Kelly Cates, Tony Cottee and Darren Bent. There I had been, sitting on the Kelly and Wrighty Show - who are two of my favourite broadcasters by the way - being asked to talk about football and I thought, ‘I’ve done alright’ and so that’s where the post came from; it was the reaction that came into my head. There was no thought behind it.


I want to move on to the effects that the pandemic has had and continues to have on the area of Sports Psychology. Mental health and wellbeing have been spoken about a lot more and football players have been more open about their personal struggles too. With that said, how has it impacted and changed your role?

It’s enabled me to be freer. More generally, what Covid has done to the sports industry – I’ve actually spoken to the Premier League about this and on the Kelly and Wrighty show too – is that it has highlighted that sport got a bit ‘show offy’. It turned into a, ‘We’ve got a bigger ice bath, better plunge pool and showers, a bigger pitch, better security at the training ground etc.’ Covid essentially said, ‘Not interested, not important’ so all of the luxuries in sport disappeared and, in some areas, football almost went back to a Sunday League standard too. You couldn’t have a meeting, or stay in a luxury hotel together; you couldn’t have luxurious travel and at times, players had to get changed outside. Brentford played Arsenal behind closed doors at the Emirates via Project Restart and the players drove themselves there, got changed at the side of the pitch and drove themselves home again in a wet kit.

Covid has stripped everything back and I believe, in life and in football, there are far too many people who take themselves too seriously. I don’t and I certainly don’t take myself too seriously as an ‘Ologist’. People in my profession say to me, ‘Michael, you should always promote the profession and not belittle it.’ But I don’t believe that’s right. The kit manager, the chef, the physio, the groundsman etc., can have as big an impact on a player’s psychology as a sports psychologist. Those individuals, along with the club secretary and the player liaison officer, are brilliant psychologists, master psychologists even, because they know the players inside and out; not me, I just try and sprinkle a little bit of salt and pepper on it all.


How important do you see the role of player care?

It’s top of the list and it always has been, even in the Bill Nicholson era; that was the point of it all. Nicholson, Shankly, Lyall… they loved their players and their players worshipped them. Tony Cottee, on the Kelly and Wrighty Show, spoke about how he respected and adored John Lyall; that was back in the 80s. Were these managers tough on the players and was the game different to what it is now? Of course it was but players revered these coaches not because they were terrified of them but because they had a healthy respect for them and wanted to please them. Player care and player wellbeing is showing us that if you don’t look after the person, you won’t have a player; they will get bored and give up.


Do you think the player liaison element is best served from being a part of a manager’s role, which is perhaps not practical given the pressure they are under with results, overall performance etc., or do you think that investing in a player liaison officer, like many clubs are doing, is the best way forward with this?

I think everything has to stem from the manager otherwise it’s pointless but I think managers realise that they need staff around them to work on the mental and emotional side of the team as much as the tactical and performance side. We have become obsessed with the tactical and technical side of the game and have too long ignored the emotional side. Although, Ferguson didn’t; he was the best by a country mile. He wouldn’t have lasted 26 years at Manchester United if he wasn’t.

Player care is as important as ever but I think because the demands put on coaches is so intense, whether it’s from the football side or the media side, they don’t have the time to put everything into this area; they need people around them to fill in the gaps. That’s what I try to do - fill in the gap to assist the coaching and support staff.


It’s an interesting side to football and football players, which I haven’t had the opportunity to discuss with anyone until now. The area of data and analytics has been spoken about in a few interviews I have carried out recently so it’s interesting to understand the human element to football players.

I work at a club (Brentford) where we led and perhaps still lead the field of data and analytics. You won’t get anywhere without analytics. Once you bring a player into the club you need that structure in place. However, football players are also living, breathing, emotional human beings and they can join a club from all over the world. Therefore, you can’t expect, for example, to bring a player in from Uruguay, who doesn’t speak a word of English and say, “Okay, go on and be great. You don’t know anyone and you’re living in a hotel but in two days’ time I want you to put in a world beating performance against Arsenal.”


Every club can measure a player and the way it’s measured is fairly equal now too; everyone uses the same data and analytics tools. Some are doing it better than others but when you take that out, what are you left with? You’re left with players that you need to get the best out of so the human side is still the most important. It’s always been that way. You can only spend so much time looking at systems, formations and data tracking analysis; there’s only so much you can do there. But you have to keep the person engaged and involved.


Have you found that those clubs who have happy managers and happy players also have the same mentality throughout the club so the CEO is also like that and then it filters through the ticket office, the retail team etc?

Absolutely. I will use Brighton as the example. I think Brighton is a club that takes a great interest in the player and the person. When you listen to their CEO (Paul Barber), their manager Graham Potter and also Dan Ashworth, their Technical Director, it feels like a club which has a huge interest in anyone that plays and works there. It’s infectious.


I would agree. I interviewed Paul Barber a few months ago and just from an hour’s interview I could tell he and the club had a real focus on people. He is also a board member for Women in Football. If a CEO has an empathetic side to them, it would be fair to assume it probably filters throughout the club.

Of course it does and it will be embedded into the recruitment of their players and staff too. Whenever you hear of anything coming out of Brighton, it’s always person-led. I was on a coaching course last year with their former player, Bruno; he is an extraordinary man and he absolutely loved being a part of Brighton football club. There has to be a reason for that and I believe it’s because Brighton is a very caring and relevant football club.

Football is also changing and you just mentioned Women in Football, which is a fantastic movement. Another big breakthrough is Rebecca Welch, refereeing Harrogate Town versus Port Vale and the Champions League coverage featuring three female pundits; it’s a big moment. Seeing Eniola Aluko as a pundit on Match of the Day, Gabby Logan presenting Match of the Day, Laura Woods presenting on Talksport, Kelly Cates on Monday Night Football etc. Football is changing; we just need more female coaches and head coaches now.


Is women’s football something you are involved in, or would like to be involved in?

I would love to be involved with women’s football and women working in football because it’s brilliant to see the game and the coverage develop. Women in Football is a great name for a group too.

I recently saw something interesting from Laura Woods, who highlighted that it’s believed that women can analyse politics, business, anything really…except analyse football. That’s just not true, is it?


Moving back to Sports Psychology and for those interested in pursuing a career in this area, what are the key factors they need to consider and be aware of?

It’s not as complicated, as complex or as theoretical as you think it is. What people really want in psychology, deep down, is somebody to talk to and somebody they trust. People are not always looking for advice and solutions. In fact, trying to fix something is often the worst thing you can do because it can disable a person. People just want someone who they can talk to about anything without being judged, without being told what to do and without it being publicised. Once you start talking freely and without barriers, it can take you anywhere but if you try to fix people, you won’t mend anything.


It’s interesting. I saw something the other day whereby somebody was complaining that they were tired of the term ‘soft skills’ when referring to empathy, listening skills etc. but actually those skills, which some people classify as soft, are some of the most important skills to have.

In which case Bill Nicholson, Bill Shankly, Matt Busby etc., were all brilliant at soft skills.


I don’t agree that they are soft skills; I think some skills can be taught but I don’t think you can teach somebody to be kind and empathetic.

You can’t. A good colleague of mine is a Director of the Brit School. Stuart’s motto, which he said to me in conversation one day was, “We start with kindness and encourage adventure. If kindness is your root motivation, you’re doing well.”

I also have a quote here from Bill Shankly and I used this in a recent presentation and the quote is, “Whether you’re a good player or a bad player makes no difference. If you’re a good man, then we will help you.”


I agree. Kindness goes a long, long way and even more so in a sports environment which is naturally competitive because that’s what the nature of sport is.

You have to be kind.


How do you think sports psychology will develop?

It will develop if it’s practiced correctly. The industry is doing a lot of soul-searching because we haven’t cracked it yet but the delivery of sports psychology is key. If you go in as a fixer and the solution to everything, it will go horribly wrong, but if you go in ‘side of house’ as I call it, as opposed to ‘front of house’, it can go anywhere. If the role becomes more trusted in football and the stigma is further broken down, the profession will develop. It has to be practised in the right way though and if you approach it in a way as if you are trying to show you are smarter than everyone else, it won’t work.


Do you think it’s an area that may also fall foul of becoming a box-ticking exercise like some areas and initiatives unfortunately become?

Yes, because under certain guidelines, for example, under EPPP, you have to have a psychologist for the academy. I’ve done the box ticking exercise before by the way, just once and it was the worst experience. It wasn’t in football but it was a pretty big sport and team, a national team, and the psychologist on the day couldn’t attend so I was there instead. Every member of the team was told they had to spend 20 minutes with me, they had to. It was a waste of their time. At the end of the day, I was asked for feedback and I said, “On what? I’ve met everyone for 20 minutes.” It was like speed dating; you can’t develop a relationship in that time.


And the worst part of that is that there were probably individuals there who would have loved to have spoken with you for longer but didn’t have the opportunity because it was 20 minutes for everyone.

Absolutely. One of them is still in touch with me though; we had a mutual interest of music and that was the human element that sparked a real conversation.

Professionals will say, ‘Well you weren’t there to talk about music.’ No, we weren’t but in discussing music, it sparked a conversation.

We are all vulnerable and if we go back to your beloved Spurs, I have seen some of those players struggle over the years. Look at Gareth Bale at the minute, getting paid half a million a week but I bet he would rather be fit, happy and playing every week.


Yes, I think it’s easy for people to reference the money but you would assume he wants to play every minute of every game, that’s what he’s trained his whole life to do.

Exactly. If I said to you, “Sascha, you can’t work in football for the next three years, you would be pretty devastated, wouldn’t you?” Because one of the most frustrating things in life is to be trained in something and not be able to do it.



Yes, I agree. Moving back to your work, do you have a sportsperson that you would love to work with?

Roger Federer.

For a British athlete, in the current generation, it would be Andy Murray; I find him fascinating. To come from Dunblane and go on to become Wimbledon Champion, having gone through what he has in his formative years… To become Olympic and Wimbledon Champion is amazing.

On a global scale, Roger Federer in full flow is remarkable; he has a sheer love of what he does.


And finally, our two Jobs in Football classic questions…

What advice would you give to those individuals hoping to pursue a career in the football industry?

Get in front of as many people as you can; not just online either because we are all fed up of emails and messages. The world still develops through connections and meetings so meet as many people as possible. It may only take one moment or one sentence that sparks something in someone that they didn’t know existed.


Where do you see your career in the future? Are there any objectives you hope to achieve?

I just hope my career is still me being present, live and in the same room with people, rather than online. I don’t feel as though I am at my best, or that sport is at its best, living online. Football is not played on Zoom. I enjoy building real relationships with people through sport and I think we learn so much through the power of conversation and storytelling.


Yes, I miss talking to strangers at football matches, people that you speak to every other week but still don’t know their name or what they do for a living.

The person who sits three rows down, you see them once a week, you have a great chat, you don’t know who they are or where they live but you can discuss why your left-back is out of form.

There are only two places where that happens: sport, particularly football and also through music. You can go to a gig or outdoor festival and just sing along to your favourite song and hug a stranger. You don’t do that anywhere else.


Interviewer: Sascha Gustard-Brown

Sascha is highly experienced within the area of Supporter Engagement, having held the positions of Head of Supporter Engagement at Luton Town Football Club and Supporter Liaison Officer at West Ham United. She is currently working on small supporter engagement projects in sport and freelance writing in football.