How vulnerability became sport’s winning weapon
Clubs around the globe are embracing emotional openness as a means of fostering team spirit.
By Konrad Marshall
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It is a Thursday morning during the Victorian school holidays, and the semi-rural grounds of Geelong Grammar School are deserted but for the luxe new theatrette of the prestigious boarding school, which is overflowing. Inside, more than 600 educators and facilitators sit quietly, filling even the aisles between rows, craning their necks at a handsome young man in a blue polo shirt as he strides to the lectern. A barrel chest on panther legs, the 28-year-old keynote speaker seems affable and relaxed, radiating muscular confidence.
But, he explains to the audience at the educational conference, he does not always feel this way. After all, he says, the life of a professional AFL footballer is filled with myriad challenges to happiness. He recites a list of obstacles. First, you live inside "an industry of winning", and yet perversely losing has become the dominant aspect of the sport. "That's what you're judged on: the losses and poor performances." He holds up his hands. "That's a really difficult thing to adjust to."
A career in footy, he adds, is challenging immediately; you're plucked from a junior talent pathway and thrust into a ruthless scrum of competitive beasts. "You're no longer the oldest or the best. In fact, you are literally the worst player in the side." Anxiety takes hold, he says, and it eats away at your self-assurance. Ephemeral worries – contract negotiations, injury, fluctuating form – conspire against you. "You're fearful of getting the ball in your hands. The joy you once got out of footy has … changed."
Of course, he doesn't feel that way right now. He hasn't in some time. Because he is Patrick Dangerfield, a shining star not only for his team, the Geelong Cats, but a poster boy for the entire AFL – one of the top footballers in Australia and a charming, ubiquitous media entity. Yet Dangerfield has been through his own slumps of continuity and confidence, and what he learnt within those troughs, he says, is that peak performance emerges not when the chin is held up but when the guard is let down. We do our best, he says, when we are allowed to feel insecure, and to express that insecurity
"Because," he pauses, "everyone has a story."
Way up above, in darkness at the very back of the room, a tall man with a thick, brown bushranger beard sits taking notes on a laptop, nodding. His name is Shane McCurry, and he has worked for several years in athletic culture and leadership roles, most recently at the Richmond Tigers in the AFL but also with National Rugby League club Wests Tigers, with the NRL itself, and with several private sector companies. The openness that "consultant, coach and facilitator" McCurry just saw in Dangerfield, he says later on the campus lawn, would have been unheard of in elite sport a decade ago. Yet such sensitivity, once a liability in an alpha male domain, is now an asset.
All over the world – from America's National Football League (NFL) to the National Basketball Association (NBA), from our own AFL to NRL – athletes and coaches are cultivating club cultures in which tales of personal hardship and woe are welcome, even desirable. All are clamouring to embrace the biggest buzzword in professional sport: vulnerability.
The most publicised incarnation of this shift was the "Triple H" sessions used at AFL winners Richmond last year, where once a fortnight a player stood and shared three highly personal stories about a hero, hardship and highlight from their life – from jarring migration narratives to caring for a disabled loved one. Running defender Brandon Ellis wept as he told his teammates how he felt ashamed – "like scum" – growing up in a housing commission flat and stealing clothes from the mall. Veteran defender Bachar Houli spoke tenderly about the birth of his daughter, and how he now makes a point of kissing both his father and his mother every time he sees them.
These closed confessional sessions in front of 50 musclebound blokes often ended in a heady mixture of tears and applause and group hugging, and ultimately acted as an emulsion, uniting a group en route to a famous premiership. Ellis was one of many Tigers who said the sessions had built not a team but a "brotherhood".
Something similar happened last year for the Buffalo Bills in the brutal realm of America's NFL. Detailed in a Sports Illustrated piece titled "The Crying Hour", the Bills invested in a program whereby each weekly team meeting would end with a linebacker or tight end telling a candid and often blubbering story about their upbringing. This cluster of gargantuan, weaponised athletes said they, too, now felt like brothers. This was to be a tradition their new coach, Sean McDermott, had said he wanted when he took over: "We're going to build this thing on love."
In rugby union in 2014, when NSW coach Michael Cheika was credited with taking the Waratahs from ninth place to a Super Rugby championship in a single year, he was assisted by a program he called "the couch of truth", in which two players would sit in front of their teammates while Cheika peppered them with questions, nudging them to share honest, authentic moments from their past. Back rower Wycliff Palu said the sessions left a mark: "That's where it all started."
Even New Zealand's fearsome squad of All Blacks has taken the idea to heart. Their mental skills coach, Gilbert Enoka, recently confirmed how a new culture was built there. Disclosures drove acceptance, he said, which created closeness. "People tend to think vulnerability and high-performance culture don't mix," Enoka said. "And that's false."
This movement started less than a decade ago with an American professor named Brené Brown. It can be lazy to quote TED Talk numbers as a measure of reach, but her 2010 talk, The Power of Vulnerability, is an exception. It is one of the top five of all time, with an astonishing 34 million views. In it Brown explains that, during hundreds of research interviews, she began to notice a trend in the way humans connect.
When she asked people about love, they told her about heartbreak. When she asked them about belonging, they shared horrifying stories of exclusion. People's most meaningful moments, she said, kept circling back to shame. Having to ask their husband for help. Initiating sex with their wife. Waiting for bad news from the doctor. Being laid off. Laying people off. What Brown saw was power in the willingness to share pain and discomfort. "And what underscored it all was this excruciating vulnerability," she said. "It's this idea that in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen. Really seen."
Paul Groves has seen this in action perhaps more intensely than anyone. Groves is the senior coach of the Western Bulldogs in the AFL Women's competition. His team won the premiership in March, but they finished sixth of eight only a year ago. In that previous preseason, he says, the team endured a vicious physical boot camp that left them athletically primed, but they played poorly thereafter. The experience led to an entirely new approach this year: a two-day event held at a city hotel. Theirs was a preseason "camp" without a single sprint or kick, handball or push up.
Day one they just talked – about what is important to them in life, what demons they wrestle, and why they love football. The players were not the only ones to grace the stage, either. Coaches, trainers, doctors, statisticians and support staff all had to speak, and the tenor of their speeches swiftly grew painful.
"Pretty much everyone cried," Groves says, matter-of-factly. "It was a really emotional day. We were mentally exhausted afterwards, because there was a lot of rawness." They heard several stories about sexuality and the trauma of coming out as gay. There were countless biographies blighted by depression. Tales of illness and death, fear and self-loathing, anxiety and grief. They slept on it all, and brought the material back together on day two.
"It became a catalyst for new behaviours all season long," says Groves. "What do we want to stand for? How do we want to help each other? There was more smiling. Fewer critical voices. You felt like you knew how to tailor your conversations. But you also felt trust, because we all gave and received information that was personal and confronting, and knew it was not going to be used flippantly."
Samantha Graham has experienced similar epiphanies in a different setting. Graham is an expert in educational design and human ecology, and runs a mental skills training business called State of Mind, offering a suite of workshops and programs. A few years ago, however, she was half of a duo that worked with the likes of the BBC, Nestlé, the Reserve Bank of Australia and the South Sydney Rabbitohs NRL team, the latter in 2014, the season they broke a 43-year premiership drought.
There's a lot of jargon to weed through in what she does; in what all practitioners of such work do. Theirs is a lexicon peppered with references to self-actualisation and synergies – terminology that would appeal to the LinkedIn crowd – but essentially Graham specialises in group dynamics, power and trust.
Some clients, she acknowledges, are not willing to take part in the process. Not everyone drinks the mind-training Kool-Aid. For every fawning article about unlocking mental power, there are as many alternate headlines asking "Corporate saviour or crock?" Graham says lawyers and financial traders, for instance, are often attached to their modus operandi – wrapped up in an identity that is always on, always stressed, always churning. "With those guys there was a lot of armour and not much openness to letting new information in," she says. "Their cups were full."
But the hulking rugby league players she encountered at the Rabbitohs were not so resistant. It was early 2014 when she arrived at the team's base in inner-Sydney Redfern. She was there at the invitation of then-coach Michael Maguire, essentially tasked with improving an already physically robust team that had inexplicably choked in the semifinals of the previous two seasons. "I like to say they could have run up Mount Kilimanjaro in flip-flops," Graham says. "They knew what was missing was all between the ears."
She remembers a critical moment near the end of that season, as the grand final approached – a session in the weights room, addressing pressure and the "external noise" they all sensed swirling around them.
Senior players Lote Tuqiri and Sam Burgess led the way, sharing a glimpse of their own mounting angst, even the need to throw up before a game. "It was gold," she says. "Right there something shifts, and all these other young men are given permission to feel what they're feeling, to know it's a stage that will pass – that others have been through it all before them."
Graham believes admissions of that level are all that's required in this kind of work – that there's no need to "fabricate" vulnerability by tapping into some regressive childhood shame. All you need to do, she says, is create conditions for a meaningful conversation about what you're feeling in high-pressure situations. "That's plenty of vulnerability right there for most groups of men, in my experience."
She was often more shocked by the topics that hadn't been discussed. Investigating those moments on the field when your thoughts turn negative – "identifying the chaos" – is as deeply as she likes to probe. "Take them out of their comfort zone, because that's where learning happens," she says. "But you don't want to take them into their terror zone, because it's not productive or ethical."
Things can go too far. Paul Groves admits that some of the women involved in the two-day Western Bulldogs camp this year thought the torrent of emotional outpourings was "too much". The Adelaide Crows AFL team recently came under fire for what Age sportswriter Caroline Wilson described as a "disturbingly cultish camp" on the Gold Coast. Details about what happened are sketchy, but raised concerns from some players and their families, even coaches – with one footballer reportedly left in a "fragile mental state".
The club will not be drawn into discussing the matter. The most candid response came from captain Taylor Walker, who spoke of "the bond that was built" on the camp while conceding the program was not for everyone. "You've got to open yourself up and be vulnerable," he said.
The camp itself was run by a group called Collective Mind, founded by mental performance facilitator Amon Woulfe along with Samantha Graham's former business partner, Derek Leddie (with whom she worked at the Rabbitohs and the AFL's St Kilda). Woulfe and Leddie cannot discuss their work with the Crows, which is ongoing, but explain to Good Weekend that their inspiration in this space is a man named Dr Don Greene, a former US Army Special Forces guy who has worked with everyone from race-car drivers to SWAT teams, but also opera singers and symphony orchestras – everywhere from the US Olympic Training Centre to the Julliard School for performing arts. They also admire the work of Brené Brown but actually don't like the term "vulnerability".
"We use 'Power of the Heart'," says Woulfe. "A culture is created every time people meet, but you have to reveal something from the heart. No one is going to lay down and bleed for his mate unless a real intimacy has been built."
As for the actual work with the Crows, their exercises and sessions take on any number of forms. In some, they ask players to talk about how they felt about a bad loss. They often don't know. "They'll use 'thinking words' instead of 'feeling words', so we have to teach them to draw from a different body of language," says Woulfe, who vividly remembers the MCG change rooms after the Crows lost the AFL 2017 Grand Final to Richmond. "It was like being at a funeral. But weeping in front of your teammates is building emotional fitness."
They work on everything from delivering criticism to paying compliments and – crucially – knowing how to receive both. They discourage defence mechanisms, too. "Males will use humour whenever they can – to collapse a conversation so it doesn't go too deep," says Leddie. "And you just can't make a joke when someone is giving you precious cargo."
The willingness to take part in such bonding exercises, Woulfe believes, is part of a positive global shift in models of masculinity, yet he says most boys still need serious help navigating their emotions. "There's a massive skills gap that simply hasn't been passed down to males. But the younger generation are so much more open. They're more willing to go to these places in ways that the Xers and the Baby Boomers weren't."
The latter, he says, maintain a stiff upper lip, born of post-war trauma. "And sure, that stoic heritage got us through some tough times, but the fallout is that we were left feeling isolated. Now we're shifting back – we want to be part of a collective."
Sport has a unique capacity, of course, to influence societal mores, and perhaps in that light the embrace of vulnerability by athletes can be a force for good. The timing is right. In bygone days if a man talked openly about his insecurities and bugaboos he was considered weak. Yet over the past decade, coaches of all footy codes have begun sounding less like drill sergeants and more like pastoral carers. They talk uniformly about how they want to build not just better players but better husbands and better fathers – better men in general.
This is wise. For there is an undeniably boorish edge to footy culture, from the back-slapping boys' club commentary booths to the rabidity of the grandstand – not to mention the rap sheets of the participants themselves. Not a year passes without a player or coach from the major codes cited for drink-driving or sexual assault. If vulnerability can find a way into our most testosterone-scented environs, it could help create a more empathetic athlete, reducing the damage done off of the field while championing a more evolved version of manhood, one that is free of bravado and "bubbling", pack sex and homophobia.
Back on the campus lawn at Geelong Grammar, McCurry points out that the modern players who freely share their sunken sorrows and darkest fears might not be trailblazers, but rather exemplars of a shift already underway in the wider world.
"What's happening in sport is really a logical progression of what is happening more broadly in society," he says. "The players are basically a microcosm."
I meet Emma Murray in the Richmond club auditorium, where one wall is given over entirely to a photo of the players rejoicing after their 2017 AFL flag win. A former national-level netball player turned mindfulness coach, Murray, who works weekly with the entire team, is considered to have been integral to its success.
She notes that not everyone buys into these programs automatically. There are often sceptics at the back of the room. She laughs, thinking about forward Josh Caddy – resistant at first, but now devoted to the idea of connection. "Cads says this work is one of the best things ever to happen to him, but he certainly sat in that space of 'This is total bullshit'."
Even if you don't buy into something like mindfulness, Murray believes the exercises are nowhere near as destructive as the "old way" of coaching by confrontation – making a motivational gauntlet out of shaming a player as weak or hopeless. "You say that kind of thing to a young man, and then expect him to get out on the field and be confident, and take risks?" she says, eyes wide. "When you think about it, it's quite ridiculous. Madness, really." Murray takes issue with anyone who sees mental training and emotional vulnerability as hippie-dippy or soft. "This is not the easy road," she says, pointing a finger. "Being vulnerable is bloody hard … and there's not a much more vulnerable job in the world than being an AFL player in Melbourne."
Social media is an interesting factor in all this, and not merely for the attacks such platforms invariably invite. Today's digitally native players have spent their lives watching people upload not just photos of their breakfast but heartfelt messages about dead pets or grandparents with dementia, and they've seen the latter rewarded with many more likes and comments than the former.
This dovetails neatly with another trend in elite sport: the growing segment of the sports media machine devoted to these kinds of raw, emotive tales. First there was The Players' Tribune, a website founded by former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter and filled with the "unvarnished" first-person stories of athletes. Then there was Uninterrupted, a multimedia "testimonials platform" founded by American basketballer LeBron James, offering video content of a similar tone.
Australia has its own equivalents. PlayersVoice promises to introduce sports fans to "The Human Behind the Headline", whether code-hopper Israel Folau trying/ failing to soften his controversial, anti-gay sentiments ("I'm a sinner, too") or Collingwood forward Alex Fasolo opening up on depression and its ugly cousin, anxiety ("Death was an escape fantasy"). There is also Unscriptd, a multimedia company producing videos for everyone from soccer star Ronaldo to Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli, but also Aussie stars – Patrick Dangerfield talking candidly about the impending birth of his first child, and Richmond's Trent Cotchin opening up on the "black cloud" hanging over his 2016 season, and the consequent relief of shedding tears in front of his friends.
Unscriptd was launched by a man named Ben Crowe, once the youngest director at Nike and a close friend of tennis great Andre Agassi, an investor in the company. (Agassi's autobiography, Open, is the standard bearer for confessional storytelling by an athlete.) We meet in South Yarra, where his expansive corner office is filled with sports memorabilia, from soccer boots to surfboards and signed jerseys. A black acoustic guitar leans on a chair. A putter and golf balls against a wall. He wears Chuck Taylors and a crumpled blue linen shirt.
"Just a second," Crowe says, before we begin. He needs a moment to watch something on his iPhone. It's a live feed of his mate, six-time world champion surfer Stephanie Gilmore, carving up grey waves at Torquay. It's an early heat at the Bells Beach Classic, and Gilmore gets through with a clean ride. He pumps his fist. "Yes!"
Crowe is a life coach and professional mentor, who works with everyone from the most successful coach in the AFL, Alastair Clarkson, to Melbourne Storm CEO Dave Donaghy. In recent seasons, he, too, had a hand in the Tigerland transformation, working directly with president Peggy O'Neal, and also Cotchin, the captain, and Damien Hardwick, the coach. Crowe describes the process as follows: "teasing out identity" through a series of guided conversations, which ultimately lead to building a road map not so much to a great career but a great eulogy.
"At a deeper level, I try to find the real you, versus the one you're trying to be," Crowe says. "It's the only way to leave behind that mask and accept imperfection. Accepting you're full of struggle but you're worthy: that's the gold. Unfortunately it's counter-intuitive to how we've all been taught."
Crowe thinks the popularity of such work – almost professional therapy – is in part due to timing. He quotes a proverb: "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." Look at the planet, and society, he says, motioning to his fifth-floor window. If you want to know what our embrace of vulnerability says about us, consider the "macro fears" we all face: global warming, terrorism, financial crises, the breakdown of religion, collapse of the family unit, natural disasters. Consider that, and also our desperation to feel good enough, strong enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, intelligent enough.
"We are the most addicted, medicated, in debt, obese adult generation in the history of the world, because we're numbing our shame. Because we hate that feeling. So how do we cut through this shit?" he asks, both palms up. "Being vulnerable, and then comfortable in your own skin, is a good place to start."
Crowe says he recently worked with the CEO of a global, publicly listed apparel company whose bottom line – and culture – was "tanking". The leader got up and apologised to his entire workforce for being defensive and closed off. "And as soon as he did that, he normalised imperfection and vulnerability and created a safe environment for everyone. It led to the most amazing cultural transformation, simply through him taking off his disguise."
This might all sound a little too spiritual to grizzly old timers. Even an early adopter such as Hardwick – the man who brought the Triple H sessions to Richmond, and welcomed Canadian author and mental skills guru Dr Jacques Dallaire to the club for an intensive one-off preseason workshop this year – is pragmatic.
"It's funny," he muses, smiling wryly as he looks around the MCG one Tuesday afternoon. "Sometimes I think you can't even yell at them anymore."
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