“I think this is the number one reason managers lose their job – they often can’t build that emotional connection or bond with players.”
Football, that random dispenser of joy and woe, mimics life in its unpredictability. Yet we so often reduce the game to numbers and patterns, counting on past results and experiences to repeat themselves because, well, that’s what happened in the past.
A group of good players should make a good team. Decorated players should make winning managers. Spending money should equal success. Given what they earn, footballers should be happy, and so on. On paper this, on paper that.
Tactics, team selections, form and statistics are pored over in minute detail. They matter greatly, of course, but some areas of the game are still woefully neglected: feeling, morale, and perhaps most important: player fear. With no tangible metrics, they cannot be analysed.
Call it mental health, wellbeing, vulnerability or admitting weakness, though improving, they’re also still at odds with football’s macho, stiff-upper-lip traditions. And though it is becoming more accepted that footballers aren’t robots, the idea that their emotions could actually block performance still rarely enters the narrative.
Instead, poor performance is often put down to tactics, injury, the manager, or simply the idea they were never good enough in the first place.
Drewe Broughton, a former striker who made over 500 appearances in the Football League over 17 years, across 22 clubs, is on a mission to improve emotional and spiritual awareness of top football coaches.
Broughton himself felt form acutely throughout 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 coaches rarely did.
Broughton believes the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Brendan Rodgers, among others, possess a common trait: empathy. Elsewhere in the game, it is still lacking.
Defined, empathy is the ability to sense other’s emotions – not to be confused with sympathy. In a footballing sense, Broughton believes empathy is difficult to crack, but more coaches are showing that ability and seeing rewards in their relationships with players.
What happens when that relationship builds? The player will run and fight more for you. It really is that simple.
“First and foremost, before we even get to tactics, every guy in that dressing room has the fear of humiliation,” Broughton tells Sky Sports. “Before they do any tactical work, good coaches deal with that first. That creates an environment of honesty, and the best relationships are honest ones, not relationships in which you hide feelings, tip-toe around.
“Everyone wants tangibles these days, but you can’t see empathy. I think life is really simple. Just be honest with someone: that’s vulnerability. It’s really simple, but simple is hard to do.
“It’s not simple when it’s been your habit for so many years though. The hardest thing 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 feelings, and I think a lot of coaches have done the same because they are often ex-players.
“Brendan Rodgers for example, deep 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 connection with a person, and then with the player? That’s what it’s all about. I listened to Rogers recently say ‘The most important thing beyond the tactical and technical is connecting with players emotionally, getting them to run for you’.
“Our natural human reaction 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 team, ignored by a coach or manager, then told you are great, then jeered from the crowd. It’s such a traumatic, emotional career that you cut off from the pain.”
Broughton’s own journey is layered and colourful. He played for 22 clubs including Peterborough, Southend and MK Dons, was a scorer at 17 on his debut for Norwich, and was in England’s U20 squad alongside the likes of Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher and Emile Heskey.
But throughout his career, the pressure Broughton put on himself crippled him.
“Firstly, at a core level, I am very sensitive, I am emotionally very intelligent. Intellectually intelligent? 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 thought 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 confusing 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 winning 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 come 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 would 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 broken.
“It’s not a case of being mentally tough and resilient; I had that in abundance, living year to year contracts and having to perform to earn another deal for 17 years, no back up, no safety net, so mental 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 comes out with gambling, drinking, whatever. Today so many players use Snus – the smokeless, moist powder tobacco pouch 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 admitted to Tony Adams’ Sporting Chance clinic via the PFA. After rehab, Broughton stayed loosely in the game, studying biomechanics, injury 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 more coming through the door. That’s where talking therapy develops.
“Naturally, that relationship is intimate because they sit on your couch, and I’m putting my hands on them. There’s trust involved in laying your hands on another person and touching of another’s skin. 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 have a character that enables people to open up quickly. I’d chat to players, and players would begin to open up. I could be around 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 gone on after playing and rehab, and they would say: ‘S***, that really resonates, can we talk more about that?'”
Broughton eventually shifted his focus from physical to mental therapy, providing holistic support for professional players who wanted private help, rather than going through official streams at their club. The fear of showing weakness to coaches, and in-turn weakening the chance of playing time, prompts this.
Now, after six years of one-to-one help with players, including three years of coaching hundreds of business owners, staff and delivering workshops and talks, Broughton’s carefully-curated bootcamps are aimed at helping coaches to understand their players’ fears and unlock their potential.
“The young academy players come in pure, open and vulnerable, asking people to show them the way, but what you tend to have is emotionally unaware people in coaching positions.
“The player then progresses to the pro game, which has more damaged ex-players in it, so the constant solutions are always tactical, technical and physical. All the things that are tangible and measurable. That’s what the coaches fall back on.”
Broughton is acutely aware, both through his experience and talking to current professional footballers, just how much certain feelings are avoided behind the scenes at football clubs. If a player admits weakness, they fear they will not be in the starting XI at the weekend. If a coach admits weakness, they risk ‘losing the dressing room’.
But Broughton believes the best coaches today do this. The facing 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 lost a couple games, told me the team had a 40-minute team meeting on the Monday after a defeat, and the coach said: ‘Guys, give me some feedback, what’s going on right now?’
“Everyone looked at their feet. My client spoke up and said: ‘I think we’re playing with fear.’ Apparently you could have heard a pin drop.
“One of the staff very quickly said: ‘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 just 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 like 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 never 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 successful rugby team, some would say sports team, of all time – they call it vulnerability. They see vulnerability as the super power of leadership. Vulnerability is honesty.
“There’s always a lot of pushback at the start when I teach this, because people think 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.”
A mix of coaches have already signed up to Broughton’s bootcamps, which started in March, including the director of coaching at a Championship club, an ex-international manager, a director of football at an MLS club and several younger academy coaches.
Over six weeks, and in groups of 10 maximum, the coaches will gather each week for a few hours to work on learning to how to improve emotional intelligence, empathy, compassion and understand the foundations of fear. Broughton also offers bootcamps to business leaders, having worked closely with several CEOS at financial companies in the City.
Some of the testimonials, even after session one, show the impact of these discussions.
One ex-Premier League international and Championship manager said: “Last 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 easy 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 meeting with my staff for next season – I introduced rapport and empathy to the discussion and then vulnerability with examples. Initially it was quiet because it was uncomfortable, but 30 minutes later we had vibrant and enthusiastic discussion.”
And another assistant manager from a foreign 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 turn the next generation of coaches into empathetic and compassionate people, moving away from the idea of control over a group through fear, an old-school trait so many ex-players cling to as they move into coaching.
Broughton adds: “Players just want to be loved, they want to be themselves, they want to be able to tell the manager they have 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 feeling in another person. But if that coach can’t feel empathy – which so many coaches can’t because that empathy is buried under all the times they have felt like that as a player – you are now triggering that emotion in them. The coach then reacts, baulks, and denies.
“At this point, the coach is essentially saying: ‘This is really uncomfortable for me right 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 generation of coaches to have these skills.”