By Francesca Champ
I’ve worked in the ‘beautiful game’ for over 3 years. My role during this time has been to design, implement, and deliver a bespoke psychological development program to an elite level professional football club’s academy set up (U9-U21). Any individual who has worked within this environment will understand there is something different to the ‘normal world’. Something endearing, something frightening, something exciting. I experienced this, and more. I knew things would be different for me, I would never be the same as the other staff, or the players. I’m a female.
Being a female has produced a number of challenges, but also been greatly beneficial for some aspects of my work. For the purposes of this article I recreate an encounter between myself and the 1st team fitness coach. The short story aims to illuminate the psychological and cultural challenges I experienced when attempting to establish a relationship with an individual, when power, dominance, and control are paramount. The following event took place after 4 weeks involvement with the professional football club, and at a time where my primary focus was on gaining the respect of both the staff members and players at the club. The encounter occurred prior to an afternoon weights session for the U18s, U21s, and 1st team, meaning that all players within these age groups and sports science staff were in the gym at the time.
I’m stood in the gym,the part of the training ground where the players and staff are tense, pitch up against one another, make and take banter, and engage in a different off the field competition- without doubt the most masculine environment in the facility. is here where each male boasts their rugged, red-blooded dominance. It’s the afternoon, the busiest part of the day. Matt (1st team fitness coach) enters the gym and his eyes fixate on myself and the player I was talking to, like a lion looking at his prey. Matt spoke, “Oi Francesca… I need to speak to you about your progress”, the clanging metal came to a halt, and silence filled the air. I sensed that all eyes were on me, my face beating as the blood rushed to my burning red cheeks. I somehow plucked up the courage to confidently respond “yeah of course, when are you free?” Matt’s bellowing voice delivered the next embarrassing blow “I’ll find you when I’ve got time”. He then turned around, and without looking back left the gym. I spent the next hour riddled with anxiety; Matt finally approached me and suggested we talk in his office (shared with 1st team manager and assistant manager). His opening tone was overwhelmingly negative, and I couldn’t help but compare my feelings to those I experienced when asked to report to the Head teacher’s office in primary school. I felt isolated, alone, and lacking any control over the situation I found myself in. However, what came next would serve to enhance these feelings further. In a cold, harsh tone, Matt demanded that I remove my email address and contact number from any document that could be seen by the Academy or 1st Team players. I was stunned. The gym boasted an overly large notice board, pinned to this was a personal profile of all staff working at the club (each one gave a contact number and email address). I mumbled, hoping for a positive response “my role within the club means that occasionally contact with the players outside of club hours is vital”. Matt responded “you’re a female; you don’t need to be contacting anyone, or be contacted by anyone outside your allocated hours”. Head down I shrank into my seat, hoping that somehow it would swallow me up and this encounter would come to an end.
Just as I perceived myself to be at breaking point, the door barged open, no knock… nothing. James (1st team manager) entered. With a welcoming smile on his face, he spoke “hi Fran, how are you finding things so far? You seem to be settling in well, we’re all happy with how you’re doing”, I put on a brave face, and lied. I said that things were going really well, and I was starting to feel a part of the club. I glanced quickly back to Matt, worried what he may say next. However, it was now Matt who looked nervous, and even embarrassed. I took lead in the conversation and explained my plan of action for the following month. The tension had diminished; it was as though the opening of the office door brought with it a presence that had a holding effect on Matt. Not only was he smiling, he agreed with what I was suggesting, and spoke in soft, quiet tone of voice. The conversation came to a natural end. I left the office, a mix of thoughts and emotions running wildly through my head, I was frustrated, confused, and lacking any understanding of where this had come from.
The aim of this story was to provide you with an insight into the day to day experiences that I have faced whilst working in professional football. I’m still unsure whether the 1st team fitness coach acted in this manner because he perceived it was his role, or he was using me as a way of showing others within the club his dominance. However, the experience had a significant impact on shaping how I acted over the upcoming months. I felt both isolated, and lonely. The isolation did not refer to missing friends or family, rather a lack of understanding and an estrangement of meaning from the situation. I was pushed out of my comfort zone, and had to rediscover my sense of self. Initially, I was left questioning my belonging at the club, and more importantly my identity as a sport psychology practitioner. Although I had heard stories relating to the complex micro-politics within a professional football club, experiencing it on a fist hand basis came as a shock to the system. This is a little part of the story to share with you and I hope to start a discussion with others who have interests these issues in such environments and the methodological and dissemination challenges and opportunities related to this type of field work research.
As I continue to complete my PhD at Liverpool John Moores University, I will hope to share more of this story. Until then please feel free to contact me on email: F.Champ@2010.ljmu.ac.uk or twitter to chat.