Gareth Fox

GARETH FOX: Build, don’t break

OVER the last few weeks, as teams bow out of championship football, I’ve had a number of club managers get in contact regarding building mental toughness for the season ahead. One email stood out as particularly worrying; “… we’ve done all we can as managers – the lads are just not mentally tough enough.”

Aside from apportioning blame, there was no real indication of what mental toughness looked like and why they thought it would help. What I mean by worrying is that if we don’t know what it is, chances are we’ll do what it’s not.

And no other case highlights this more than the infamous Adelaide Crows pre-season training camp of 2018.

The Crows had just lost the 2017 AFL Grand Final, and lack of ‘mental toughness’ was highlighted as the reason why by Adelaide’s Head of football, Brett Burton, and Head Coach, Don Pyke. So, they set to work, alongside ‘reputable’ high-performance leadership consultancy, Collective Minds, in order to create a pre-season camp that would “…explore and remove any immature, masculine behaviours … that were limiting performance or impacting the club culture, and create an upgrade in maturity to healthy masculine behaviours that supported their performance.” Already, the language is startling.

What ensued was nothing short of horrific, if not emotionally and physically torturous, and it’s thanks to the recent biography publication of former Crow’s player Eddie Betts, and subsequent statements of Josh Jenkins and Bryce Gibbs that we get a clearer understanding of what went on in the camp four years ago.

Jenkins states that players bought in initially to the idea of a camp because they wanted to believe it was the last hurdle to overcome in order to atone for the previous season’s loss and achieve premiership glory. Players were called for a meeting and told that they would be going to an ‘intense camp’ in the Gold Coast.

Some were asked to stay behind and decide ten players and two coaches to participate in the most intense group called ‘Mark of the Warrior’ (the other two groups or ‘rites of passage’ being ‘Heart of the Warrior’ and ‘Code of the Warrior’). I find it strange that an activity which was created to improve bonding and mental toughness within the group would have three dividing levels of participation – not all players were facing the same challenges.

This was an immediate red flag for Jenkins as ‘Mark of the Warrior’ was pitched as ‘the scariest thing you’ve ever done, but the safest thing you’ve ever done.’ For him, the immediate image was of sleep deprivation and starvation. He voiced his resistance in wanting to go, but off the back of losing the final and having personally played so poorly, he found he had no leverage and finally agreed to go. This in and of itself is emotional blackmail.

Before leaving for the camp, the ten players – of which Jenkins and Betts were two – took phone calls with ‘supposed councillors’ sharing intimate information about their childhoods and upbringings. Jenkins states that he asked on numerous occasions that nothing from his ‘unusual or difficult’ childhood was to be made public, or used against him during or after the camp. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case – a huge breach of the Code of Ethics and Professional Practices.

On arrival, the 10 players were greeted by men holding guns (later discovered as imitation) and dressed as the Richmond Tigers, who had defeated the Crows in the Grand Final. From there, Jenkins describes how things went from ‘dumb to disgraceful.’ Tied up, in what is now known as the ‘harness ritual’, they were barraged with verbal abuse consisting of the information they had disclosed in confidence to the supposed councillor.

The camp continued with more activities set to break them down physically, but also emotionally. And on the final day of the camp, players were briefed on how to talk about their experience in the group with other teammates, and with their partners and families – again, another red flag.

Jenkins finishes his interview with the question, “How could you possibly allow someone of that nature to be in control of a high performing group of athletes?”

Post camp, the club fell apart. Sworn to secrecy – even from teammates – the supposed bonding camp had done the opposite. Players and coaching staff left the club and results suffered. Jenkins, who was quickly labelled by as  some a cancer at the club states that “the only cancer at the club was the idea of taking us on a psychologically unsafe camp, which was supposedly going to make us better.”

And there-in lies the key, psychological safety. We see toughness as coming from being pushed beyond breaking point, but there is only so much of an emotional load we can take until we break irreversibly. A word of advice for any pre-season training camp, group bonding and emotional toughness should be about building and not breaking.

Building relationships, building respect, building trust, and dare I say it … love? It takes time to build toughness, to build resilience and the ability to perform in the most pressurised circumstances. It takes togetherness and team strength, but you don’t create that by breaking a team, you create it by building a team – and that takes courage.

Gareth Fox is a Performance Psychologist and Culture Creator @garethfox.

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