As the Saints As One campaign continues, Player Care Manager Emma Walker explains how the department has adapted to provide support for Southampton’s First Team, Academy and Women’s players under the government restrictions…
Player Care has evolved. Initially, within football clubs, it was predominantly welfare and pastoral care that was offered to players, with less of a structure – just having a duty of care to ensure the players’ wellbeing is looked after.
For us, being in the privileges position that we are, we have player care officers for the Academy, a player liaison for the first team and a player care officer for the Women and Girls, as well as an extra player care officer who assists the player care officer within the Academy!
How receptive are the players to the concept of player care, and how is it tailored to the individual?
You can do a ‘one size fits all’ approach and assume what’s best for that player, in terms of player care or support for them and their family, but that’s not the way we work.
Ultimately it takes time to build up relationships and familiarity with that individual to knowledge what they may or may not need. Once you formalise that relationship, you’re able to provide them with a level of support and care that they’re more open to receiving.
It’s always tailored to the individual – it’s nice to acknowledge each personal situation to work out how best to develop them and support them.
You worked hard to get the Player Care Hub up and running. How much has that helped? It’s a project I’m so proud of. Being part of a department that’s continuously growing, we acknowledged early on as a team that it would be really great to secure a home for player care – a place the players could come to speak openly, confidentially and feel comfortable with the environment they’re in, to encourage those types of conversations. It’s an opportunity for the team to have a physical presence at the training ground. As much as it’s really comfortable, with all the niceties like a TV, sofas and soft furnishings, it also operates as a functional office. It’s proved to be really worthwhile and impactful for the players – they’re dropping in more than we’re asking them to, whilst ensuring they’re not wasting their time and sticking to their schedule. It’s really encouraging.
How are you coping without that daily face-to-face contact? I’ve realised more so now than ever that my team are predominantly people facing – those interactions happening throughout the day mean so much not only to the staff, but also to ourselves and the players. The challenge is to upkeep those connections we currently hold with players. Luckily enough, the Hub was in place for long enough for us to establish those relationships, so they trust us and want to speak to us anyway, without us having to force that communication.
How have you adapted to the government restrictions and managed to maintain that level of communication?
As people working in player care, we’re used to having those interactions and we miss it. We have daily interactions on Teams, so It’s nice to be able to keep on top of how the team are doing. Player-wise, it’s the usual WhatsApp groups. From age 16 downwards, we’re mindful that parents are receiving a lot of communications from schools, trying to maintain jobs and home-schooling, so we don’t want to bombard them. The professionals, the Under-17s and Under-18s are having regular meetings with their multidisciplinary teams, and my team are amongst it. We’ve all got a duty of care to ensure the players are doing ok and managing in these times, and it’s nice for my team to be part of that.
“We are mindful that some first-team players are in flats; they're used to kicking a ball around and having the freedom to play football every day, doing what they love.”
This situation is not the same for everybody; players in different countries might be following different guidelines – is that something you’ve come across? We’ve been working together to support the players as best we can, and a really important part of that is acknowledging the different situations they’re in. Luckily enough, myself and my team are in a position whereby we hold all of that information. We are mindful that some first-team players are in flats; they’re used to kicking a ball around and having the freedom to play football every day, doing what they love. Ultimately, it can be more of an issue if you don’t have that freedom, and with social distancing and only being able to go out for an hour’s exercise a day, staying inside in a flat is not something they’re used to. We’ve got players who are following training programmes throughout the day but also managing childcare and a family, so it’s about knowing how to support them. We’ve also got players who are practising Ramadan at the moment, and we need to be aware of that. Whilst we’re giving them programmes to keep up with their fitness, they’ll be following different routines through the day. It’s about knowing the details for every single player and making sure the programme suits every individual.
What techniques have proved successful for you in overcoming some of the challenges this unique situation has posed?
It’s a time that we’ve really acknowledged the good work that other departments do – working together to make sure we’re all listening to each other and understanding what we need to do to help the players and ensure their programmes are working successfully. On top of that, it’s about keeping things exciting – we’ve come from having a million meetings a day, to a place where our communication needs to be really precise and focused. I think we’ll look to bring that into our day-to-day when we resume normal life.
How can this help us work more efficiently in the future?
We realise when we’re sitting in front of a computer for eight hours a day that you have to keep it fresh and you have to keep it fun, otherwise you’re not going to be engaged. That’s something we’ll definitely look to bring into our interactions with the players. Whilst we feel the Hub is really successful and encourages an environment where players can feel relaxed and have conversations, we also need to think of other innovative ways where we can drive forward those communications and encourage people to develop themselves in different ways when we have downtime.
Emma’s top tips for staying in touch during lockdown…
- Maintain routine and structure in your own life - Maintain regular contact with friends and family, and reach out to those you haven’t spoken to for a while - Be creative with your communication: FaceTime a friend, organise a family quiz on House Party, “meet up” for brunch in a group chat on Zoom - Explore more traditional forms of communication, like sending a letter or a card in the post