Drewe Broughton: ‘For a lot of players, football is escapism and, if you take it away, they’re left with themselves. Structure is vital.’

(Image courtesy of Sean Ames)

“The reason I became a coach is because I learnt some amazing stuff, and not just from my playing career. When my career finished, I ended up homeless, bankrupt, divorced and in rehab. My life was rock bottom nine years ago.”

Drewe Broughton is uniquely placed to discuss the potential pitfalls of a career in football. Having been relegated from the Football League with Lincoln City in 2011, he recalls how he was “gone, depressed and emotionally broken.”

I first met Drewe shortly afterwards, when he spent a season coaching at Luton Town’s academy. As a 13-year-old, he challenged me and my team mates to think differently and to practise in new ways. I felt he was on the same wavelength as us and made a lasting impression. Now, he works as a high-performance coach, using his wealth of experience and insights into mindfulness to guide young players. He helps his clients to improve their psychology to perform at the maximum of their capabilities.

‘I was obsessive, and it was actually that obsession which derailed me.’

At his lowest ebb, Broughton quickly discovered that he needed to learn from what had led him to the darkest time of his life and, as a result, become a better person.

“I realised where I went wrong. At 16 or 17, I let too many people influence me and didn’t have enough trust and belief in who I was,” Broughton says.

At age 18, having broken into Norwich City’s first team and scored on his debut in the Championship, Broughton made appearances for England’s Under 20s and was offered a three-year contract with Adidas. He didn’t realise then, but this was to be the pinnacle of his 17-year career. 

“I had all of that at 18, alongside Craig Bellamy and some other big players at Norwich. The reason they went on and I didn’t is because I was too sensitive, I didn’t trust myself. At 21, I was falling out of the game.”

‘Players are walking into an industry where you can’t trust many people.’

Now, with the benefit of hindsight and a journeyman career which saw him play for 22 different clubs, Broughton works with a dozen clients, the majority of whom are active professional footballers.

“I look after eight footballers, including some top young players between the ages of 17 and 25. I am there to steer them and make sure that they fulfil their talent.

“My job is about helping people to perform at their best, helping them to absolutely own that inner part of themselves and dominate themselves inside to make sure that everything on the outside is exactly what they are capable of achieving.”

He works with them through WhatsApp messages, recorded voice notes and personal phone calls.

“I watch their games back on Wyscout, watch their training sessions back on Huddle…I’m looking at courage all the time. ‘Have you had the courage to be you today?’ It’s really tough because you come into this world trusting everybody. I’ve got kids and you want them to have a trusting, loving heart, but these players are walking into an industry where — let’s be honest — you can’t trust many people. I have to educate them about that quickly.”

His advice comes from a place of deep-rooted, hard-hitting honesty, something he feels is in short supply in the harsh world of football. Broughton is both honest and introspective about why he never achieved his own potential.

“My experience as a player is that if you open yourself up, you’re vulnerable. If you share your feelings with a coach or a manager you’d always be seen as ‘oh, I don’t know if I can trust him. He’s a bit on the edge, a bit weak at the moment, maybe we’ll go with someone else.’ That was my experience from 17 to 33.”

Essentially, Broughton’s role is to provide players with the fundamental tools that it takes not to just float above water but forge a fulfilling career. “I don’t think, in my experience, players are given the correct armoury. I’m not talking about the technical and tactical side, you can teach that to anybody. I’m talking about the emotional armoury that it takes.”

On top of his performance coaching, Broughton works with two businesses in London, talking with senior management figures, “creating that great culture of honesty and vulnerability and making sure that if people aren’t performing, that they can come and sit with me for an hour and we work out why. Nine times out of 10 it’s nothing to do with their skillset or technique, it’s just that they’re overthinking or feeling pressure.”

‘Football is full of ego and fear…’

Broughton’s unadulterated passion is evident.

“I’ve endured pain since I was a young boy, always feeling alone in a room; always feeling different and sensitive but I was also very talented and driven. It’s about managing the cocktail of all those different attributes.”

That cocktail can have a bitter taste if the ingredients are not mixed together effectively.

“I want to help people with that same mindset, the pain and suffering I experienced. But I’m not a therapist. My passion is that I believe it’s just who I am, it’s a calling. I remember someone close to me in my playing career, when things weren’t going well, said to me, ‘You’re never going to achieve what you should as a player, but you’ll be an outstanding coach.’ Looking back now, they were right. As a player, I was too deep and sensitive.

“I’d question everybody. Now, with kids, I’m teaching them to question everything and what you learn about people when you question them is their limitations and their ego. Football for me is full of ego and fear.”

‘I realised very quickly that this was my sweet spot. This was it.’

Having peered over the abyss and literally limped to the end of a physically and mentally bruising career, things fell into place at a crucial time for Broughton.

“My brother was running the academy at Luton [Gregg Broughton, who went on to become Norwich City’s academy manager and now performs the role at Norwegian club FK Bodø/Glimt] and said, ‘Why don’t you come and take the Under 14s?’

“I did it for a year while I was building my business. I’d studied human movement and injury, so I was looking after five or six Premier League players privately in their houses with injuries. I realised very quickly coaching that year, ‘This is my sweet spot. This is me effortlessly being creative. This is it.’”

It was a highly successful year and the start of Broughton’s transition into another part of the game he had once fallen in love with. With his business growing, he began privately working with around 30 elite players, including Harry Kane, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott.

“It was great being around players and it was good money, because I’d spent most of my money during my career chasing myself. But it never felt like my calling…my brother called me one day about a player that he knew and said, ‘I know he’s struggling, and I think you could help him.’ We talked — the player was only 18 at the time — and he related to every emotion I went through [with him] and I saw hope in his eyes again.

“I started working with him emotionally and mentally and being there for him every day, validating him. He started to do really well and knew a lot of people in the game. They heard about what I was doing and, all of a sudden, I had [the opportunity] to grow a business.”

Broughton found his calling as a high performance coach, working with elite performers, after hitting rock bottom at the end of a 17-year playing career. (Image courtesy of Sean Ames).

‘Structure is absolutely vital.’

Broughton acknowledged that the current period of uncertainty and isolation brought about by the coronavirus pandemic is likely to impact those with problems similar to the ones he experienced.

“Structure is vital, especially for players, because they live in such a structured environment every day. So this is almost like retirement, which I know from playing is so difficult because that structure goes.

“It’s tough for everyone. In the businesses that I work in people are being laid off, people are struggling for money. I’m self-employed and very lucky with the emotional skillset I have, I can sit with that pain…but people will be struggling. I have to work hard every day to have a structure.”

Out of necessity, people are finding themselves confined and restricted. But there are two sides to every coin.

“For a lot of players, football is escapism and, if you take it away, they’re left with themselves. There’s a great irony in that because it’s a great time for growth.”

Along with reading and setting aside time to meditate each morning, Broughton writes a daily gratitude list in order to connect with his inner thoughts.

“This morning, the first point I wrote was that I’m so, so grateful for the NHS, for the doctors and nurses we have, for the fact that we are safe because we’ve got these people who are putting their lives on the line for us.

“I really anchor to that. Once I do it for 25 minutes, I’m at peace and all is well. My mind hasn’t had time to start cranking up and lying to me yet…I don’t give it a chance to start. Once I hit it early, my mental health is strong because it doesn’t get the chance to start negatively talking.”

‘I always say to the people I work with, you want to learn from the best. The biggest thing the best have is courage.’

During his playing years, Broughton took nuggets of information and different approaches to work from a few of the more special characters in his life.

“I remember Paul Ince coming to MK Dons fresh out of his playing career and he had that Man United mindset where it was intense every day. I think that’s what Guardiola and Klopp are bringing now, it’s that intensity. I speak to a lot of young players at Liverpool who say that there’s no grey area — it’s a brutal intensity.

“I had a mentor, Ron Alfred, who passed away a year after my playing career. He was both my mentor and my agent. Without him I would’ve been another statistic. Ron helped me and he was someone [special] to talk to.”

Broughton is open-minded and doesn’t align himself with any particular religion.

“The biggest influence on my life is the universe. I pray and I meditate every day…tapping into this energy from the Bible to the Qu’ran to the Buddha to Tony Robbins, everyone talks about that same energy.”

“I’m not religious but it’s about finding something bigger than you. The best in any industry — from music to film to sport to business — all have that spiritual sense to them.”

‘I remember this level of depth. It’s who I am but it’s also a burden’

From age seven or eight, Broughton says he remembers having an unusual level of depth, passion and empathy.

“Tyson Fury has inspired me a lot because he said, ‘I always felt different as a kid.’”

Broughton feels that there are a lot of overwhelming messages today that can guide the thoughts of young people down the wrong path.

“I really feel for this social media generation, it must be torture.”

But, thinking differently to others is part of who he is; something he refers “one of my greatest gifts, but also a burden.”

This notion is something Broughton delves deeper into in his podcast series, ‘The Gift is The Curse’.

“I tried to open up with a couple of managers during my career and it was the worst mistake I ever made! You come away feeling even more lonely and ashamed of feeling that way. 

He was a misunderstood character. “Managers never understood me because they said, ‘You’re one of the toughest players we’ve seen, you’re aggressive and you’ve got a nasty edge. But I was this alpha male as well as a really sensitive, five-year-old boy. I surrendered and just said ‘I’m going to be me.’”

‘The minute you open up, you’re seen as weak. How will it change? Everything is education’

More and more footballers have begun speaking out about their struggles with mental health, including Danny Rose and Aaron Lennon, and the numbers of them actively seeking help are also increasing. But there is still an underlying disconnect, Broughton feels, between players’ desire to offload their emotions and a realistic ability to do so.

“I know what these guys are thinking but they’re never going to come out and say what they should say because you can’t. The minute you open that side, you’re going to be not trusted and seen as weak.”

By exposing their perceived vulnerabilities, players are forcing more people to naturally open up and reciprocate.

“In my experience, the majority of coaches and managers can’t go there. They haven’t got that emotional resource.”

Referencing the most recently recorded episode of his podcast series, Broughton echoed the thought of his guest: “Michael [Kightly] said that most players have to shut off a part of themselves to survive — without doubt.”

“You know you can’t be open about your feelings, so you shut them off.” This is the burning issue, and can become a curse when it takes hold of players.

“That’s the moment you lose and bury yourself, through alcohol, drugs, women and gambling. That’s why mental health issues are off the scale.”

The message is clear: Be yourself, and don’t lose sight of your identity. Education and empathy are essential. Going forward, football is tasked with changing its approach. Drewe Broughton is at the forefront of that movement.

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