It’s More Than A Game – Julian Tagg
Written by Tracey Duke
Julian Tagg is a man with his feet firmly on the ground. Despite his club securing a place in Football’s League Two Playoffs, last season, the Chairman of Exeter’s Premier Football Club tells us that it’s about far more than the football.
Conscious of the highly pressured environment, in which they work, the former psychology lecturer, is deeply committed to ensuring the mental health of his players and to giving back to the city he loves, through the newly launched “CITY” Community Trust Programme.
Julian, as always, let’s jump straight in and talk about the mental health aspects of wellbeing. The pressure on a professional player, to perform well, is huge; every single aspect of their performance is being measured both on and off the pitch. How does the club manage the mental health aspect of the player’s lives?
Mental health is obviously a topic on everyone’s mind at the moment; from the club’s point of view, we take it very, very, seriously. First and foremost the player’s health and wellbeing are our priority.
If we start at the Academy level, where we have a programme for excellence, our sports psychologist is working closely with players from as young as 8 and 9 years old. It’s so important that they’re looked after in every way; we’ve all seen the fantastic player who, at 15 or 16, is going to be the best Pro in the world and then, suddenly, they disappear. We all know why that is; so often it’s because of the mental pressure they experience. So it’s important to put practices in place, from an early age, to help them deal with the pressures of the game.
The most important thing is for players, at all levels, to understand what is expected of them. In my old life, I lectured in sports psychology. I remember working with a young footballer, who was still at the club (Exeter) at that point. He did an intensive “A” level course with me and, from his studies, gained an insight and understanding of anxiety, goal setting and working in a pressured environment. He did well in his studies and achieved a grade A. The interesting thing was that this lad felt that if he had understood at the age of 15, when he had trials at Spurs, what he now understood, then he’d probably be there now. The mental pressure on him during those trials was just too much and he performed very badly; simply because he didn’t understand what was going on.
So an understanding & having a full picture, of any situation, is very important in preventing anxiety. If you can get that pressure out of your mind and concentrate on what you should be concentrating on, i.e where I should be and what I should be doing, rather than thinking about the pressure of exterior expectations, then you’ll flip things on their head and all of a sudden there’s clarity.
So how do you work with them to get to that place and that mindset? What practices are you working with?
I don’t think there’s a clever, easy fix. The bottom line is that it’s about them being able to understand the power of being able to remain totally focused at all times. The manager and coaching staff are constantly creating situations on the training pitch where we push the limits and make life difficult. As a simple example we’ll take penalties with noise; taking penalties with no-one around is a damn sight easier than if you’re at Wembley in front of 40,000 fans. So it’s about creating opportunities to practice under pressure, to facilitate staying focused and to deal with expectations.
And education? That must play a huge part in a player’s career and in preparing for life after sport?
Football is a burgeoning industry and I’m very proud that we have, within our CITY Community Trust (CCT), nearly 200 children in full-time education; facilitated considerably by a hugely successful link with Exeter College.
We work in partnership to help children who come out of school with an interest in a career in football, but their academic results are not so good. CCT gives them a chance to re-focus, keeping football at the core, but linking to various courses which then can lead to foundation degrees in football coaching. We have clear pathways for education in place; The CITY Community Trust alone had over 100 courses running during summer 2017.
If kids have an interest in football, our educational links also give them genuine opportunities to thrive, whether that’s in a football career or elsewhere. Our work providing life experience through the CVS programme helps to create socially conscious young people who are not only thriving in their education but are also being challenged to find solutions to real problems being faced on a global scale.
That’s because you’ve given them a sense of purpose.
Yes. Exactly. Football is the honey and the glue. At the end of the day, their role models are simply teachers wearing an Exeter City FC tracksuit. It’s the perception and meaning that the youngsters give to that tracksuit, along with the environment they’re in, that makes the difference in their attitude to learning. If they feel inspired, they’re going to want to learn.
Which then links straight to their mindset.
Of course it does. I believe that, particularly because we are a community club, it’s our responsibility and duty to use the badge of our CITY to influence and maximise the advantage for all age groups, but particularly to those who are finding life difficult. We need to build their self-worth. Without that in place, you don’t have a foundation on which to build.
And looking at the part the CITY Community Trust is playing in the city itself, what are the biggest current challenges for you and how are they being overcome?
It’s very definitely getting the finance to keep our social programmes running. The money simply isn’t coming out of central government now and so, whilst they still have to tick the boxes of social responsibility, the finance isn’t there.
Our projects relied, for many years, on grant funding but that tends to stop after a while and we’ve struggled to keep many excellent projects alive.
The twilight hours football, that goes on in the more difficult areas of the city, is immensely valuable; you’ve only got to speak to the police liaison officers to know that. But the funding is simply not there now. We need to attract that funding with donations again; hopefully from individuals but businesses too.
We’re a community club, but it’s not just about the football; we have a responsibility to continue working with partnerships like Active Exeter, Active Devon ECC and DCC to ensure that the element of our social communities that sometimes get forgotten, are taken care of.
The reality is that Exeter, as with any city, is dealing with many social problems, be they physical and/or mental health, drink and drug problems, or homelessness. The programmes we run here at CCT@ ECFC are addressing these issues and engaging with that element of society; giving hope to those that may have lost it.
All too often, we’re providing medical solutions for social problems; loneliness being one of them. So let’s work together to address it and to engage with them through positive programmes and measures.
We can’t solve everything, but we’re here in the hope that we can provide opportunities for people to be involved in all sorts of physical activity; often leading to mental wellbeing and where possible, get at the problems before they become an issue.
Julian Tagg is Chairman of both Exeter City Football Club and the CITY Community Trust. You can catch up with him and his social enterprises @jftagg