Making an Athlete – Review of Soul by Jonathan Harding

Simone Biles considers the Tokyo 2020 Olympics balance beam bronze medal her most meaningful win, above all the golds she has accumulated as the most-decorated Olympian gymnast in history. Biles, who took the decision to not participate for most of the tournament citing mental health reasons—the dreaded “twisties” (a sense of dissociation while in the air) meant that she had to step back for her own safety—was the only survivor from former USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar’s abuse to compete in Tokyo, and only later revealed that her aunt had unexpectedly died during the tournament.

Hours before Biles’ decision to withdraw, tennis star Naomi Osaka was on the tennis court for her first tournament appearance since withdrawing from the French Open two months prior, citing her own mental health. The American took inspiration from Osaka, she said, and was glad to see a mostly supportive response, including from fellow Olympians.

“We’re not just athletes,” she told the BBC. “We’re people at the end of the day and sometimes you just have to step back. […] I feel like a lot of athletes speaking up has really helped.”

Earlier this year, Biles and Michael Phelps were interviewed saying that they wouldn’t want their kids to take part in the Olympics, citing the pressure and the physical, emotional, and mental costs, and a broken system becoming worse. 

One of the first costs of a system where people are looking to maximise profits to the exclusion of all else is the protection of the human being, writes Jonathan Harding in Soul: Beyond the Athlete (Ockley Books, December 2021). Even as the book focuses mainly on the world of football, it asks vital questions about sport and athletes as a whole.

Can you play sport at the highest of levels and still look after, nurture, who you are as a person? Can you be a well-rounded champion? If not, then what does it mean for the examples we’re setting, the heroes we’re idolising? How often do we learn about the cost of being in the world’s high-performance environments? Is it even possible for performance and personal development to truly coexist in high-performance environments? How far is too far when it comes to the numbers? Is winning at all costs worth it even when it includes the price of your own or other people’s well-being?

Soul asks these questions while acknowledging that there are many moving, interlocking pieces of the puzzle to consider, each with their own complicated ecosystem. It accepts that change is complex and that each part of the process requires a different approach. It discusses modern-day society and the hyper focus on results; how ‘high-performance, top-level sport is consciously not doing enough to develop human beings unless it helps contribute towards performing, winning and/or business.’ How the pressures and expectations on a modern-day athlete force them to sacrifice or hide their humanness.

“The question is not only what are we going to do about it, but also what does football, sport as a whole want to really represent?”

In Old English soul was sawol, the ‘spiritual and emotional part of a person,’ an essence that many believe is what’s left in the end, the core of anyone. But for all the chat around mindfulness, peace, and the wellness industry that has sprung up around these buzzwords, how much is really being done at a deeper level?

Art by Shivani Khot

All of this traces back to a player’s childhood, which is why the author begins his investigation at the roots. Jonathan journeys across Denmark, Sweden, Germany, England, Switzerland, and North America in search of answers. He consults with coaches, scouts, physios, professors, former athletes, sports scientists, academy directors, and others, at various levels of the game familiarising himself with not only their visions and how they are put into practice in their establishment, but also with the biggest aching joints in an ecosystem striving to embrace all-round development of everyone that passes through the gates.

Any attempt to compile the author’s resources will only lead to a very long list comprising, among many others, Frederik Bløndal, Denmark’s U16 physiotherapist; Piotr Haren, director of Lyngby’s academy and coaching; Tom Vernon, former Manchester United scout, and founder of Ghana’s largest football academy (Right to Dream) who, years ago, bought FC Nordsjælland with a group of investors; James Vaughan, a former futsal player for New Zealand who, armed with a PhD in sports coaching and creativity in football, is now head of player development for U13-U19s at AIK; Dr. Suzanne Brown, a clinical psychologist working in performance, who used to work with Arsenal Women; Manchester United’s academy director Nick Cox; Rick Cotgreave, a former PE teacher and England lacrosse player with over 20 years of coaching experience in the field who now works as a performance coach and consultant in the business world, as well as helping athletes transition out of sport; Chris Ramsey, who spent most of his playing career at Swindon Town but was also a part of the Brighton and Hove Albion team that made the 1983 FA Cup Final, has since spent a decade coaching at Tottenham Hotspur before moving to Queens Park Rangers (QPR) in 2014, where he is currently technical director.

There is a common thread that links them all together—the belief that character development of the athlete, amateur or professional, is worth pursuing no matter the difficulties involved, and that the experience that the strongest roadblock is the system itself, one that values performance, profit, and results over everything else.

The moment the football part of the development transforms into tangibles, usually from the U17-19 group onward, the word ‘professional’ grips you in its claws and results are the only thing that matter. Everything else becomes secondary, when it should be anything but. That is precisely the time when character work is needed the most, whether it’s a player transitioning to the higher levels of the game or one who realises that maybe his future lies outside of it. So what is to be done?

In 2015, the British Journal of Sports Medicine published a consensus by the International Olympic Committee on youth athletic development. The Committee shared concerns about specialisation happening too soon and its adverse effects on rest, recovery, and, yes, human development, all at the expense of an accelerated physical development. Dr. Richard Bailey, professor, sports scientist, and philosopher, believes that the root of this is the mindset that children are “mini adults”. On an episode of the Learning in Development podcast, he said, “We have to start from the psychology and physiology of children and build coaching practises out of that.”

Also in 2015 was Alistair Magowan’s article for BBC Sport which revealed that only 0.5% of U9s at top clubs were likely to make the first team. In 2018 came Michael Calvin’s No Hunger in Paradise about youth football in the UK and its sobering statistic that 0.012% of all young boys playing organised youth football in England became a Premier League professional.

The IOC supplied their recommendations at the end of their 2015 consensus: establish meaningful relationships that enrich the personal assets of their athletes and foster their own interpersonal skills (e.g. reflection and communication), seek interdisciplinary support, and guidance in managing a young athlete’s athletic development, fitness and health, and mental and social needs.

But how many are actively practising this in their academies? Soul will show you that there are many more than you’d have expected, but also that it’s a very small number. On the whole, the world of elite football has gone too far over to the other side, with the ‘desire to professionalise and commodify everything in society today, as part of the mega-capitalist push for endless growth’ having spread into youth football. When I spoke to Jonathan, he admitted that the last place he’d want his little boy to be was a football academy. “[I know] that’s a pretty damning indictment. I can think of maybe a handful of academies—they are scattered across the world—who are doing really cool things, but as a whole, it’s not an environment I would want any young person to be in.”

Jonathan, who did a Player Care course himself during the pandemic because of his keen interest in that area of development, went on to say that even parents need to realise and understand that pushing their kids onto a track where most people don’t make it—“the numbers are there”—is not the way to change their lives. “I’ve always said, let kids be kids for as long as possible. Can we please change the language around nine year olds being in ‘Career Paths’?”

One of the clubs he mentions as doing really cool things is FC Nordsjælland in Denmark. Former Manchester United scout Tom Vernon bought the club with a group of investors and is the current chairman. Vernon is also the founder of Right to Dream, Ghana’s largest football academy. This tie-up enables young local Danish kids from the Nordsjælland academy and beyond to visit Ghana, play football and meet the people. Last year they announced a new academy for boys and girls in Egypt.

Carsten Hvid Larsen is the mental coach for the Nordsjælland U15-U19s as well as the first team. The associate professor with a PhD is also a sports psychologist and a co-author of a book called Mindfulness and Acceptance in Sport: How to help athletes perform and thrive under pressure. Larsen’s holistic ecological approach to sports psychology is an attempt to change the culture. “You have to slowly massage the change in.” For many kids, the classroom is associated with tests and stress and so they are less likely to want to learn there. For others, there might not be enough of a realisation to transfer the knowledge picked up to the pitch and in their lives. The club’s head of character development and player education, Will Orben is interviewed by Jonathan and elaborates how they try to avoid the inherent pitfalls. The club delivers character development lessons once a week from U10s all the way to the first team. There are activities included and there is a focus on learning through doing. “It’s so important that it’s not just football we focus on. We owe it to each player’s identity.”

However, the group most difficult to work with is the U17 to the U19; with professional sport only a step away, it is scarily easy to consign character development to a subject off the field. But what’s the point of offering growth when the support and pathway is snatched away the moment it is most needed? It’s a question the book asks and asks often, and one that Jonathan’s interviewees are fighting against in their own way.

Soul also references the AIK academy in Sweden with their motto of ‘As many as possible, as long as possible, in the best possible environment’ which Jonathan was lucky enough to visit in person before the pandemic hit. “I really loved the concept of an academy where the development of first-team players is a by-product not an aim. We can all win here if the focus is purely that.”

Manchester United Academy Director Nick Cox is firm that an academy must have a higher existence than developing and generating debuts. “That higher existence for me is about creating an amazing addition to childhood, creating memories and experiences that will enrich lives, regardless of what the outcome is so if you don’t become a footballer, you still reflect on the experience as one that enriched you and you were better for. And the time you dedicated means you still have some tangible stuff that you can take with you on your journey wherever you end up, knowing it was an amazing launchpad for adult life.”

He does acknowledge that while there is much juggling to be done in terms of managing various demands and expectations (from the parents and the club which has its own reputation and brand to maintain), he still has the time to care about the “legacy of the person” as opposed to a first-team manager who is never thinking beyond the next couple of games and whether he’ll still have his job if results don’t go their way.

Again, that transition from the academy to the first team is the one proven to be the most difficult, especially when you consider the exponentially greater number of influences a modern young player has by then – coaches, sponsors, agents, family members (who may not always have the child’s best interest at heart), teachers, friends. There is a trend of player care officers and departments for the first team at many clubs now, but even that comes with its pitfalls if not implemented properly. How much care is coddling, how little is too less, and what about the focus and nature of that care and assistance? What if the player hasn’t been through a similar system of character development? To quote Will Orben, “The changing of the culture starts at a younger age. You can’t just slap it on.” There are many nuances to consider and none of them offer tangibles, which makes it harder to push for change.

Human development is harder to see—unlike speed and strength—hence easier to discard, especially when pitted against the pressures of deliverables, especially in a sport like football where there is an intense analysis of performance every week or every few days. But Steve Johnson believes that “well-being will be to sport what strength and conditioning was 30 years ago.” The CEO of Australia’s Well-Being Science Institute runs the world’s first recognised government accredited training programme for elite athlete well-being. “The shift to the person-then-player perspective is coming, and it starts with well-being.” He gives the example of the Australian Rugby League which is a forerunner, despite its other problematic elements that Jonathan hasn’t shied away from discussing in Soul. It is proof that it can be applied in an elite scenario; that the right player care will lead to better performance.

There is hope now that this won’t be a phase; after all, the pandemic saw athletes and their mental health being viewed and discussed in a manner never seen before. We had to confront what modern sport and its commodification would have us forget—that there is a person behind the athlete; in fact, that person is crucial to what makes up the athlete we root for.

For Stephen Rollnick, a professor of psychology who grew up in Cape Town but lives and works in Wales, there is a very prevalent paradox regarding time and lack thereof in elite result-oriented environs. “Taking a few moments to listen and guide a player saves time, because you are less likely to experience a repetition of the attitude or behaviour again. It’s not time you’re taking, it’s progress you’re making.” In short, you are saving time by making time for human development.

But in a society that pushes the infinite growth model, can there ever be contentment in the face of never-ending progress and the pursuit of perfection? How do we strike the balance of progress?

The short answer that Soul comes up with is that there are no shortcuts or a single appropriate approach. This is the hard truth.

Soul is not designed to provide a definitive answer because there isn’t one.

I appreciate and respect Jonathan’s bravery in accepting that perhaps “there is no changing the world in which prices are so readily paid”, but also his hope that we must keep trying to find a solution to at least lower the cost of those prices.

The long answer that the book contends with is this—everything is complex and unclear—and yet, Jonathan believes that these are issues worth grappling with, that it is possible to care for the person and still win.

“What is sport without the person, the community, or everyday interactions? Indeed, what is life without all of that? There is not one definitive way to put human beings first, there are many. […] What I want to achieve with Soul is just to show that it is possible.”

Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.