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Interviews

Inside the Mind of Thomas Frank

Head Coach opens up on mental health, discussing at length the pressures of being a modern-day manager

18 May 2020

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, the EFL and its official charity partner, Mind, have teamed up to speak to each of their ten 'On Your Side Champions' about their experiences of mental health. Brentford Head Coach Thomas Frank is one of those Champions. Thomas joined broadcaster Charlie Webster for a special video call, detailing the highs and lows of management, the link between football and psychology and more...

As a manager, you take care of a whole team. What role have you played during this time in terms of checking in on players to make sure that they’re not only doing physical training, but also that they’re okay?

We decided to split the squad into three or four groups.  We make sure one of us [staff] is in contact with our group at least once a week, depending on the situation or if they are alone or with family. We’ve been checking up by having calls to see if they’re okay, what they’re doing, if they learned to play the guitar or cook another dish, whatever it may be. We try to stay in contact to see if they’re okay, so that’s been good.

Have you missed being part of the team and having that camaraderie?

To be completely honest, yes. You miss the togetherness and that unique job you have together with some fantastic people. All of us want to be doing what we normally do, and what we like to do, that’s one thing. The flip side is that I’ve massively enjoyed the time I’ve had with my family; not working so many hours for such a long time has actually been quite nice.

Has this period given you a chance to reflect and do things differently, because you’ve had that headspace?

That’s the biggest thing, I would say. Having the opportunity to use more time with my family to think and consider, it makes you think ‘am I doing the right thing, spending so many hours doing what I love?’ It’s a privilege to do what I do but, everything you do, there’s a sacrifice. I’m not saying who should judge in terms of who has the biggest sacrifice, but it’s just giving me more time to think. I’m privileged in some ways, but there are also sacrifices – I knew that before, but it’s become clearer.

Do you think this will make you approach management and mental health differently?

It’s a very good question, a big question, and a big question in life as well. I think, from this moment on, things are going so fast. I’m always trying to improve or get better and sometimes I get totally fed up and feel like I need to relax. People tell me to take a rest and take time to think because it will make you a better coach, husband and friend, and that’s absolutely true. It’s difficult to actually allow yourself to take that time; I’m getting better at it and I just spent 24 hours with another friend who’s a top coach. We had time just to talk with no time constraints. We sat and talked about life, football, all of that, and also that we’re both always trying to push ourselves. We both said we’d become better if we just paused sometimes and gave ourselves a break. Even though we know it, it’s so difficult to actually do it. You’re just running in that hamster wheel every day and you don’t have that mental space to calm down a bit, so I definitely understand why it might be difficult to get out of a bad cycle if you’re in one. A negative mind-set is a difficult thing to get out of.

Has there any been any bad moments in your life, when you’ve struggled with mental health?

I think we all sometimes wonder ‘am I good enough?’ Everyone feels that and, if they say they don’t, they’re not human beings. You feel as it as a kid, as a young adult, when people measure who the best person is at something. I definitely feel it sometimes, 100 per cent. I try to say quite often that my biggest strength in my current job is that I’m working with people who are more clever and more skilful than me, but I tell myself that I’m good enough if I’m in doubt. Why shouldn’t you be good enough? My biggest strength is my belief in myself, but of course I have doubts. When you walk into a room to make a presentation and you have to be on it, maybe you just breathe and go for it. All of us are struggling in one way or another.

Didn’t you study psychology? How did that factor into football?

I think psychology is a massive part of football, and in life. Confidence and self-esteem are the biggest things – if you have those, no problem. It’s massive; it can be the difference between players performing and the top level and not. Sometimes, they just need to build that. I think you need to be honest with people if they don’t perform, but I always try to boost that confidence, not only on the football side but also on the human side. I always try to meet the parents of the players and say ‘what a wonderful son you have, he is an unbelievable person’. It’s a big thing, and also very difficult, because I’m the one who might leave them out of the team. That’s a different thing, because that’s about trying to win that particular match, but I care about all of my players and want the best from them. I can only choose 11, but I want the best for all of my players as people.

What do you say to players when they’re not in the team?

If I talk with a player and they’re not in the team, it depends. If they’ve played the last eight games but now they’re on the bench, maybe I’ll have a chat with them, but if they’re in and out of the team, it’s a bit different. I learned from my career that as soon as you say ‘you’re not in the team’, they don’t listen any more, so I put up four criteria. I have four reasons why you’re in the team or not in the team: fitness, attitude, tactics and performance. I can always rely on that, and they can always come to me, because my door is always open. If you’re told you’re not in the team, it’s a setback and it relates to mental health, because everyone in your family will ask why you’re not starting, and you have to say ‘because the manager is crazy’ or something. I follow up with them during the week when there’s more space.

How do you cope with the highs and lows of management? We often see managers vilified…

It’s very difficult, very difficult, I must say. It’s an art, not getting too high or too low, and I’m not saying I’m doing a great job of that. You’ll always win matches and you’ll always lose matches. If you win, you’re a hero with the fans and the media, but if you lose, you’re worthless. I know I’m not a hero and I’m not worthless either, I’m something in between. Every win is a relief, because it’s a sense of ‘we’re past that one, now it’s on to the next one’. You try to put all of those emotions in place and stay as calm as possible to take good decisions. One thing in the modern world is social media, both for players and young people in general – people need that boost in terms of likes or whatever, but I’m not on any social media for various reasons. For me, I can’t see why it should help me, having a lot of followers. It’s a way of profiling yourself, so I understand it, but I think it’s very difficult to cope when people are writing stuff to you – it’s very difficult.

As an ‘On Your Side Champion’ for the partnership between the EFL and Mind, how important do you think it is to talk about mental health like this?

It’s extremely important, unbelievably so. All people, one way or another in their life, must have experienced tough moments. It might not be something that has been diagnosed as something specific like depression, but I’m sure that everyone has experienced some lows that have been difficult to manage in daily life. It might be that a loved one has died, you’ve broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend or you didn’t get the job you wanted, and the good news is that a lot of people are capable of getting through it. Hopefully you have a good support network of family and friends, and it’s extremely important to speak about your emotions with those people – that’s the best way to get through it. It might take a day, a week or a month, but other people can help. I haven’t heard of anyone that has spoken up about their issues that hasn’t had help from friends or family; people want to help, so speak up. We all have some loved ones; some of us have 10, others have two, but one is enough to help. If you don’t have any weaknesses, you don’t have any strengths.

What would you say to someone who is struggling with their mental health?

It’s okay. It’s okay to have a mental health issue. Everyone has it, one way or another, so it’s normal. It’s normal to have something to worry about or struggle with, and the best advice I can give you is to talk. Talk to people and don’t feel it’s unnatural, because it’s a big strength to show weakness. If there’s something I’m in doubt of, I speak to people.

Finally, what would you say to Brentford fans right now?

I hope you’re well. I hope you’re taking care of your loved ones. I’m looking forward to getting back to normality and to playing some football, because I think sport is a help to a lot of people. Whether you play it or follow it, it’s something to rely on, so we’re looking forward to it. We’ll enjoy the highs and lows, like we do in life. I’m looking forward to seeing you again.

For more information about Mind and mental health work, click here.


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