Jamie Young: the goalkeeper and PhD candidate psychoanalysing coaches
Jamie Young was a teenager when he got his first real lesson in man management – or, perhaps more accurately, on being the man-managed. He had moved to the UK to join Reading’s youth team under Brendan Rodgers. “He’s a very warm person,” Young says. “He always made me feel like I was socially accepted as a person first and then as a footballer second. Maybe that’s what I needed at that time.”
The softer-touch experience was somewhat different to that under first-team manager Alan Pardew, whose unforgiving nature matched the unforgiving environment. “He was a bit more old school,” Young continues. “He was constantly testing his players to see how mentally resilient they were. He’d give them little negative comments. Not to insult them, but to see if they were resilient and motivated, if they were up to it.
“That was typical of that time of coaching. And motivation in English football is a huge thing – it was about wanting it more. All the managers I’ve ever had who were successful, they drive very high standard, through on-field behaviour and off-field behaviour as well.”
Now at an age that, even in goalkeeping terms falls into the “veteran” category, the 36-year-old has been utilising his own experiences as the basis for a PhD on the psychology of sports coaching and, specifically, the coach-athlete relationship. As part of the qualitative research he hopes to interview A-League coaches, coaching staff and players to gain insight into why each behaves the way they do in an elite environment.
“The A-League is novel because we have a salary cap and we don’t have promotion and relegation, yet if coaches don’t achieve finals status they’re often sacked, as we’ve seen with Mark Rudan, for example,” Young says. “So we want to understand why coaches are behaving the way they do, and the players as well, and the expectations around this relationship in our environment.
“How we behave is dependent on the situational context. The coaches have to have an understanding of how to read people in a certain situation and when to apply certain behaviours, which can range from controlling to autonomy-supportive. It’s their ability to decipher the person they’re interacting with and, essentially, lead.
“If I can get access to people at the very highest level of football in our country, that’s really good research that can be delivered. It could be given to the governing bodies and say ‘this is what these coaches are doing and why they’re doing it’, and maybe ‘here’s a curriculum that can help serve coaching in the future’.”
Global examples of coaching styles and idiosyncrasies are extensive. In England, for instance, where Young spent more than 10 years hopping around lower-league clubs, there was the loyal discipline of Alex Ferguson – who has said he evolved to meet the needs of more fragile players – and the philosophical authenticity of Gareth Southgate. And what about the players operating under said managers? Do they prefer autocracy or democracy, or even a laissez-faire attitude? And does what a player requires to perform at his or her best differ depending on age and experience, or how firmly established his or her team is?
Young says the methods of Pardew, for one, were effective in culling players who probably weren’t built for it. “You want to have the strongest players – both mentally and physically,” he says. “Any successful sporting team has strong characters, and I think that’s where people like Alan Pardew come from. So I think it did work, and I am a believer personally that, in a very elite context, the culture should weed out the weak.”
Young knows this because it has happened to him. While a young player at Reading and for England’s youth teams, he was loaned out to Rushden & Diamonds.
“I thought I was a little bit too good for my ability and was disappointed I was going on loan to only a League Two club, even though I was 20,” he says. “I underperformed and I wasn’t tough enough for that environment, so Reading released me. I had to learn the hard way, go and work on my game and not let something like that happen again.”
There was also a more recent experience, under Robbie Fowler at Brisbane Roar. He had just come off two individually successful seasons, having been awarded A-League goalkeeper of the year in 2017-18 and club player of the year in 2017-18 and 2018-19, when the newly-appointed Fowler dropped him for the opening seven games. He was told to work on his kicking, so spent an extra hour after training every day kicking balls, and was subsequently reinstated and named fans’ player of the year.
He counts Fowler as one of his best managers because he did not buy into what Young labels the “transactional nature of Australian football”.
“People [in Australia] come to training to play football and develop their skills, and they get the return of becoming more competent,” says Young, who recently left the Roar – now under Warren Moon – for John Aloisi’s Western United. “Whereas, from my experiences in England, for instance, people were footballers and football was part of who they were. So they were more devoted, more committed. They spend more time playing football and training.
There’s a spectrum of emotional intelligence when you look at a football manager anywhere in the world
“But now we’re at a point here where sports scientists are quantifying everything. How do you quantify human resilience, desire or determination? I think that’s why the best athletes in the world come from poor environments, because they have to do whatever it takes to win. Here, in this country, we have sports scientists saying ‘well, actually, you don’t’. So I think the influence of sports science in this country has hindered the resilience of our athletes.”
When pressed, Young does acknowledge the positive contributions of sports science to the game and the wider sporting landscape. His research, though, is focused on psychology.
“I’ve never had a coach speak to me about being self-aware, or how to become mindful, perform gratitude or meditation, or become more emotionally intelligent to deal with difficult moments in my career,” he says. “All I was ever told was just to get on with it, and I think that’s a disservice to players.
“There’s a spectrum of emotional intelligence when you look at a football manager anywhere in the world … I think coaches should have a deep understanding of human psychology. If their role is to manage, they should be an expert in that area. Most coaches were ex-players, and they sort of translate that to being competent. But when players go into coaching, they’re starting all over again, and all of a sudden it’s not necessarily about football but human people.
“Players understand how to play the game, but do ex-players who become coaches understand how to motivate people? What information do these people have that can help develop those characteristics in their skillset? I don’t think there’s anything in the current coaching licences in Australia.”