All in a day’s work: Sports psychologist Michael Caulfield — ‘Humans have a remarkable ability to complicate things’ *H&H Plus*

  • Sports psychologist Michael Caulfield on why any form of sport helps make a person whole

    Through my time as chief executive at the Professional Jockeys Association (PJA), I met some fascinating characters, from Lester Piggott, Willie Carson and Pat Eddery to Peter Scudamore, Richard Dunwoody and Sir AP McCoy.

    It’s well known that Richard went to see a sports psychologist in the mid-1990s, which triggered my initial interest. Then AP said he’d been to see a couple of sport psychologists but, in his words, they didn’t understand his madness. He said, “You do, and if you were a psychologist I’d pay to see you.”  That led me to research what it involved and I retrained.

    I’m amazed how often elite performers have the same worries, doubts, hopes and fears as we do. Most people already have the solution, it’s just got stuck somewhere. If they find it themselves, it’s 20,000 times more powerful than if I say, “Do this.” I help to declutter and untangle knots.

    Humans have a remarkable ability to complicate things, but the simpler you keep it, the better. I often take athletes back to when they played their best in their formative teenage years. They were doing it for fun; when they start getting paid, recognised and rewarded for it, it gets too serious. I call it “play like a child”.

    I don’t think I’ve come across anyone as level, determined, resilient, consistent and successful as jump jockey Richard Johnson. He’s one of the most remarkable athletes in British sport for the past 25 years. He’s humble, likeable, kind to others and yet a ruthless champion.

    AP changed the face of jump racing. He remains a close friend; I put him in the Sir Andy Murray category of achieving things you thought weren’t possible.

    The jockeys I know would naturally love to ride the best horse, but more than that, they simply love riding. If you look at Roger Federer, he says he’s never hit the same shot twice. He’s still intrigued by hitting a tennis ball over a net. You have to fall in love and stay in love with the reason you did it in the first place – if it becomes just a job, it can affect your motivation.

    My 15 years at the PJA were a remarkable privilege. On day one, Peter Scudamore said, “Please sort the medical and safety side out for us.” That was always my primary concern. Through a team effort with the British Horseracing Authority, the Injured Jockeys Fund and others, there are now three rehab centres, and jockeys are fitter, healthier and better supported than ever.

    I’m not a great horseman. Captain Forster said I was the worst employee he’d ever had and he was right. I hadn’t sat on a horse before joining him and he sent me to a riding school for three months. I was incredibly willing but never naturally gifted. I worked in racing for seven years, 40 years ago, and I still get up at “stable lad o’clock”. Without that, I don’t know what life would have looked like – it gave me a direction that I didn’t previously have.

    Sport promotes physical and mental health. It gives you discipline, makes you meet different characters, be part of a team and keeps you fit. You have to turn up and be reliable; all the things you want in a person, you can gain through being involved in sport.

    ● As told to Kate Johnson

    Ref: 7 January 2021

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