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Interviews

The Long Read: Michael Caulfield

Michael Caulfield is one the country’s most experienced sports psychologists. From darts to dressage, he’s left no stone unturned in his study of human performance. During a gentle stroll around the pitches at Jersey Road – occasionally interrupted by Michael’s dog Paisley darting into the bushes – we spoke with him about his career to date and his role in Brentford’s performance department

22 March 2022

A chance encounter with Gareth Southgate changed the course of Michael Caulfield’s career.

During a visit to Middlesbrough’s training ground in April 2006, Michael found himself in the club’s treatment room alongside the now-England boss.

The pair got talking and exchanged numbers. Michael returned south. “I thought nothing else of it,” he tells us on brisk afternoon at Jersey Road.

Timing is a recurring theme during our conversation with Michael and, in this instance, everything clicked into place perfectly. That summer, Southgate was appointed Middlesbrough’s Manager. Looking to get the best out of his players during his first season in the dugout, he asked Michael to join his team on Teesside. Michael accepted his invitation.

It was Michael’s first role in football but his career in sports psychology did not start there. Far from it, in fact. As we set off on our walk around the pitches – the same route Michael often treads with Thomas Frank and Brentford’s staff and players - we asked him to take us right back to the beginning…

 

At what point did you decide you wanted to become a sports psychologist?

The first seed was sown in the early ‘90s. As Chief Executive for the Professional Jockeys Association, I was in charge of the executive, income, sponsorship, insurance and legal. I was a multi-tasker. However, the greatest thing I was assisting with – which I probably didn’t realise at the time – was the jockeys’ welfare in addition to the system they already had.

I’m very proud of what we achieved. With no income, we started a number of schemes to improve welfare and wellbeing. Things that are very high-profile now – concussion, psychology and mental health – we were focused on 30 years ago. We were at the forefront of it.

The new champion jockey Sir AP McCoy - who went on to dominate the sport - actually went to see a number of sports psychologists during that period. He came back and told me: “They don’t get me, they don’t get our madness. You get our madness.” Stood on a pathway in the carpark, he said: “You should become a psychologist. People talk to you, you get them. You understand high performance and the madness of sport. You should look at it.”

I went away and researched it. A year later, I came back and asked if I could train whilst working. That’s where my journey to become a qualified sports psychologist began. I went to Brunel University at the age of 40 to start my training. I got my masters and then my accreditation, which was a long process!

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Champion: Sir AP McCoy 

 

You’d worked for the Professional Jockeys Association for 15 years. Leaving there to start a new career can’t have been an easy decision. Talk us through what happened next…

It was the biggest gamble of my life. Initially, I had no work and no income. Nothing. Two lucky things then happened. A football agent called and asked me to help one of his younger players who was playing in the Premier League. I did, and the player found it very helpful. The agent and the player spoke highly of me, which led to me helping some more players.

Then I got a phone call that changed everything. A new manager was taking over at Middlesbrough – it was his first job. I’d met him a few months before when I’d been up to Middlesbrough’s training ground to help a jockey, Graham Lee, get fit. We used to ring up football clubs in those days and ask them to take jockeys on board as, unlike now, we had no rehab facilities. I arranged for AP McCoy to go to Arsenal after a bad injury and he found himself on a treadmill next to Thierry Henry and Patrick Viera!

Anyway, I went into the treatment room at Middlesbrough and there was a player in there trying to recover for the UEFA Cup Final. It was Gareth Southgate. We chatted and exchanged phone numbers. I thought nothing else of it. That was in April and then, in September, he rang me: “I’ve been appointed Manager. Would you be interested in joining the club and helping us out?” I got in my car, drove to Middlesbrough and stayed there for three years! I was working in domestic cricket in the south, too, so my two jobs were in Brighton and Middlesbrough. It was lot of driving!

 

How much of your skillset is learned, how much is innate? You wouldn’t be stood here without your education, but central to your job is emotional intelligence and an ability to connect with people…

I couldn’t do one without the other. I’ve seen football from the ‘60s through to the current era, which is a big advantage because you can monitor and measure, but I couldn’t do this job without the very rigid, formal, academic and theory-based experience I gained at university and beyond. That said, the best classroom is, and always will be, the real world. I love science, I always try and keep up to date with it, but the real world teaches you the most.

Trust is so important, without it you don’t get past the carpark in any job, let alone at a football club. Football can be a mischievous industry, sometimes brutally so. Trust is golden, nothing happens without it.

Timing is also a big thing in life. Good things can’t always be forced, sometimes you have to wait. An ill-timed conversation can destroy so much. The timing of encouragement or a good old-fashioned rollicking, if you get it wrong, can be like pouring petrol on a fire. I’m always wary of the impact of a single conversation.

At the time you might not think it matters, but any conversation could be the most important conversation of a player’s career. If you get the timing or the tone wrong, anything wrong, you can lose that trust with the individual. Knowing how and when to speak - more importantly when not to speak – is so important. There are days when people don’t want to hear from you.

 

“The timing of encouragement or a good old-fashioned rollicking, if you get it wrong, can be like pouring petrol on a fire. I’m always wary of the impact of a single conversation”

 

William Bruce Cameron once said: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” How applicable is this to what you do?

You can profile and measure the impact of psychology, but it’s not as clear-cut and measurable as fitness, for example. My role is greyer, sometimes it’s nearly impossible to measure. Actually, sometimes you shouldn’t measure at all. Our private thoughts and emotions are just that: unbelievably private. Who you choose to share those with is ridiculously important.

My drive comes from a desire to want to understand and help others, that’s where I derive most pleasure. That feeling isn’t diminishing, either. I feel like I’ve been blessed with all the luck in the world to be able to work in an environment such as Brentford. I wouldn’t swap it for the EuroMillions jackpot.

 

How did you first get involved at Brentford?

I was working for Sporting Edge. I got a phone call from Chris Haslam [Brentford’s Head of Athletic Performance], who said that Brentford were looking for a part-time sports psychologist. I then met Chris, Phil [Giles] and Rasmus [Ankersen] at the Leaders and Performers summit in Highbury in late 2016. I remember being interviewed over a period of two days. I drove to Derby to meet Dean Smith and Richard O’Kelly, then I came to the training ground to be interviewed again. It was basically a five-interview process and that told me an awful lot - I know I was one of many they were looking at. By good fortune and good luck, I was selected.

My first morning in the job came on a Monday after a 5-0 defeat to Norwich City. Of course, the reaction from the squad – the likes of Harlee Dean, Lasse Vibe and Dan Bentley – was “Oh, they’ve brought a psych in because we’ve lost 5-0 at Norwich!” I had to stand in front of the group, introduce myself and explain that I wasn’t there because of the result at the weekend!

I pulled up a chair and asked the players to fire questions at me. The first question, I’ll never forget it, was from Lasse Vibe: “How can I trust you?” I had 25 pairs of eyes on me. Talk about the million-dollar question! I couldn’t phone a friend or ask the audience, either! I said that he’d probably made his mind up already. I expanded upon my answer and told him, and the group, that I also happen to like footballers. Football is the greatest meritocracy. In other walks of life you can almost blag your way there, but you can’t in football. Many players come from very humble backgrounds and reach the top of the industry – you don’t get that in many other walks of life. I’d like to think a lot was done at the beginning to build that trust.

 

Do you think there’s a lack of appreciation for the mindset required to become an elite athlete and then maintain a career at the professional level?

Footballers are some of the most underestimated, underrated people in this country. Take Ollie Watkins, for example. You could not meet a finer individual. If you go anywhere in life, you will not meet a better young man. If you come to Brentford now, there are members of this squad who are among the finest young men I’ve ever met in my life. Ethan Pinnock, Josh Dasilva and Christian Norgaard are just three examples of my theory. They are some of the kindest, sharpest, high-achieving and decent people you could wish to meet. Anything that Ethan achieves, he’s earned. He was rejected as a teenager and he’s been rejected a number of times since. He’s brought up a family, studied for a degree and done part-time coaching. Ethan’s story is the very essence of everything a good society should stand for. Ivan [Toney], Charlie Goode, I could go through the whole squad. These guys have found a way to reach the very top of their profession whilst still looking out for other people.

I’ll never forget introducing myself to Vita [Vitaly Janelt]. On his first day at the training ground, we had a cup of tea and I explained who I was. He’d never played outside of Germany and arrived during a difficult season because Covid meant games were being played in empty stadiums. He settled within weeks, spoke fluent English within months and now his fiancé has joined him in London. He’s the glue of the team on and off the pitch, speaks at least two languages and has already integrated into Brentford community life. It’s extraordinary.

We should be highlighting these examples of resilience and positivity – it’s everything you want in life.

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Going up: With Ivan Toney after our Play-Off Final victory

 

A Head Coach’s role is multifaceted, but how important is it for the person at the top to embody the values of the organisation?

It starts at the top – if you get that right, you stand a chance. Everything at Brentford stems from the leaders we’ve had and have now. Their integrity runs through the Club. It’s not luck, these people have been recruited specifically. If there was one moment, by accident, that summed up Brentford, it’s when Thomas went to see Woody at the end of the Arsenal game. That’s probably the most golden moment of the season. You can’t fake that; you can’t plan a moment like that. Then Vita, Frank [Onyeka] and Christian went over to see Woody, too. Our leaders represent what we stand for, Dean did while he was here and now Thomas does too.

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More than a game: Thomas Frank and Woody share a special moment after our victory over Arsenal

 

How often do you take lessons from other sporting contexts and apply them to your work at Brentford?

I always bring back thoughts and ideas to discuss with my line manager, the staff and the head coach. In rugby they have lots of meetings because it’s a game of set-plays. I saw lots of activities and engagement with the Scottish rugby team when I worked with them last winter. In other sports, team meetings tend to be more two-way than in football. But, just this morning, I saw our players asking questions rather than just listening in.

I try and bring back the relevant bits at the relevant time, but I always respect the place I’m worshipping in. Cricket, rugby and football all have different cultures, if you walked in and tried to tear it up and start again, you wouldn’t last five minutes.

I’m big on engagement with players because sport can become very repetitive. Information is vital, but sessions and meetings can’t be informative all the time. Playfulness is an important part, too. We play indoor head tennis, basketball and giant Jenga. It can’t always be three-hour seminars on high pressing. Football is the jigsaw puzzle you can never solve - there’s always a piece missing. You have to enjoy the moment and remember that the process is half the fun. 

 

What’s your definition of high performance? (We may have been slightly inspired by Jake Humphrey’s podcast for this question!)

It’s the ability to gel a group of people from many diverse and different backgrounds towards a common purpose, while ensuring everyone is having the time of their lives. It’s an alignment towards a goal and a complete commitment to it.

Humility is so important. Emiliano, for example, played as if his life depended on it at Wembley, even though he knew he was most likely going to be released. After the game he recalled in an interview that when he first arrived at Jersey Road the door was falling off the outdoor loo. And it was. That’s quite special in a way. This is a humble training ground: the players and staff don’t demand white orchids, mineral water from Switzerland and our shoes to be polished. It’s not that type of group and we must never, ever, ever lose that. 

The day after we got promoted, I was told by an experienced person in this league that, whatever you do, do not get caught up in the b******t. We must retain who we are and where we come from. This is a solid, honest and committed group of young people.

 

“This is a humble training ground: the players and staff don’t demand white orchids, mineral water from Switzerland and our shoes to be polished. We must never lose that” 

 

We often see you walking around the pitches with Thomas, the staff and the players. How big a role does Paisley play in breaking down barriers? Dogs have an amazing knack of creating conversation…

My first dog, Shankly, died during the first lockdown. I wasn’t a Liverpool supporter in my youth but I was a great admirer of Bill Shankly, hence the name. Shankly was with me during my time at Middlesbrough, Hull City and then Brentford – he lasted a long time! When you’re new to a role and people aren’t sure who you are, a dog can help break down barriers. It also helps that Shankly, and now Paisley, are unbelievably soft, kind, sweet and loving. They almost know when to take over and give off some affection.

When you go for a walk with someone, the level of conversation is different class – it flows like a river. You’re not sitting face to face, there’s no desk, there’s no office or machinery. At Brentford it’s just me, whoever I’m joined by, Paisley and nature. It’s unorthodox, but Brentford is unorthodox. I love animals, I love my dogs, but having Paisley with me actually helps the process. If it works, why stop doing it? It’s broken barriers, built trust and led to some extraordinary moments of conversation, self-awareness and silence. The best thing about going for a walk is that you don’t actually have to say anything – that can be priceless. You can have a ten-minute silence on a dog walk and it feels like ten seconds; a ten-second silence in a room feels like ten minutes.

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Breaking barriers: Michael and Paisley at Jersey Road

 

“The best thing about going for a walk is that you don’t actually have to say anything. A ten-minute silence on a dog walk feels like ten seconds; a ten-second silence in a room feels like ten minutes”

 

You Tweeted: “The greatest thing about dogs is that they live completely in the present, the moment. That’s very smart, actually, it’s genius.” In a society that poses an increasing number of distractions, how important is it to live in the moment as much as possible?

The worst industry in the world for living in the moment is professional football. I remember Alex Ferguson saying that you can spend so much time looking back, and so much time looking forward, that you forget to focus on the now.

What I’ve learnt from the animal kingdom is that they don’t care about the future, they care about the now. They live completely in the moment. I’ve used the dog to talk to players and staff about concentration. If Paisley sees a hare in the distance, the world could be going mad around him, but he’s just focused on that one thing. Watch the wildlife programmes, a cheetah will wait and wait and wait for the right moment. It’s an important reference. When the crowd are getting wound up and VAR has upset us, it matters not; it’s what happens in the moment, living completely in the present. It’s the hardest thing in the world. The power of concentration is something you can help teach and guide but you have to experience it yourself to get better at it.

Immersion is very important. Roger Federer, to use another sporting example, loves to hit a tennis ball over the net, he simply loves it. He’s always got a smile on his face when practicing. He once said he’d never hit the same shot twice in his life. Returning to football, and Brentford specifically, we want to hang on to why we love the game so much in the first place and play with that almost childlike thrill.

 

Shortly after Shankly died you were presented with a signed ‘Shankly 14’ shirt by Brentford’s players and staff. How much did that mean to you?

Shankly died aged 14 on 23 February last year, we were still in lockdown. I remember texting Chris [Haslam] to tell him that Shanks had passed away. I live quite remotely out in the hills and I was a bit crushed for a few days. The following week, when I was at Jersey Road, Stubbo [Nick Stubbings, Brentford’s Senior Physiotherapist] asked me to head over to the sports science room. “The players have done something for you,” he said. I went in and they presented me with the framed shirt. If you’d given me a Ferrari later that day, it wouldn’t have meant as much. That’s Brentford for you.

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That’s Brentford: Michael was presented with a signed shirt after the death of his first dog, Shankly

 

‘These five tips will change your life!’ You can’t scroll down your Twitter feed without coming across prescriptive articles on how to live your life. How dangerous is a one-size-fits all approach to mental health?

My golden rule is that you can’t treat two people the same. You have to treat people as individuals as you have no idea what they’re going through or what they’ve been through. It you try and fix things for people, it’s fatal. You can help lead someone to a solution, but they have to make those final steps themselves. Once they work it out for themselves, they’re in business. This team is very good at working it out for themselves.

 

Find Michael on Twitter @TheCaulfieldWay and online justcaulfield.com


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