Spotlight: Identity and Personal Development

chris mccready, manchester united

Chris McCready has worked in Player Care at Manchester United for the last three seasons, running a holistic development programme that encourages young players to build strong personal identities alongside their football careers. While completing his doctorate looking into personal development and identity in football, Chris conducted research that shows players find it helpful to switch off from football for at least a couple of hours a week. Building on this feedback, Chris and his team encourage players to develop their understanding of identity beyond their footballer status, and engage with practical activities outside of sport. We caught up with Chris to find out more.

Chris, what does holistic development mean?

For me, a holistic approach means developing the whole of a person, not just the footballer. We need to encourage players to fulfil their full potential because when they’re not a footballer anymore, it’ll be the person they are that drives their future. We also have to be mindful that not many of the children currently engaged in academy football are going to become professional players. At what point are we comfortable ethically encouraging every child in the system to think about football and only football? Every industry has its own challenges, but I feel we have a duty of care to provide alternative ideas for players to think about. We are not asking them to think about failing at football, we are encouraging them to explore and develop who they are, alongside football.   

What does holistic development work entail?

Firstly, it’s about understanding the concept of identity and personal development and discussing different approaches. If a player says they only want to focus on football, that’s valid, but I try to debate that view. Then I get them to try a few different hats on, like delving into a new language or exploring a passion for business - introducing experiences that might spark their interests. After that, we try to offer them short taster opportunities for a couple of hours a week so they can continue trying new things. Recently, we’ve run music production, Spanish and business development short courses, and I work hard to normalise the idea that there’s more to all of us than the jobs we do.

How important is a sense of personal identity for wellbeing?

When you think about mental health issues in sport, they’re perhaps related to this idea of identity. Professional football can be a notoriously difficult career, so what's the cost to the individual if that career path is not going well? People might not see football as a job, but once you’re professional, that’s exactly what it is, so I’m not sure it can also be your hobby. Almost everyone I know has some other interest or hobby outside of work, but in football, we’re like, ‘No! You can only have one interest, and that’s the same thing as your job’, but that’s nonsensical! This mindset doesn’t work well for human beings. My personal opinion is people don't work to their full potential under those conditions, so I feel players must have interests outside of their job.

Why is it important to focus on the wellbeing of younger players?

We’re mindful of mental wellbeing for our younger players’ because they only get one chance at childhood. They will have plenty of time for adult problems, so we make sure we maintain their childhood as long as we can, keeping it as fun as possible. We don’t ramp up the pressure at all because that comes naturally as they progress through the age groups. We help them navigate the academy system instead, to prepare them for the challenges that lie ahead.

What do you wish you had known about personal development and identity while you were still playing?

I feel I should've got going earlier. I put it off for so long because I thought it would detract from football, but actually it was the exact opposite. I had this view that a 24/7 focus was needed to be successful, but I was playing at my best when I was married with a family, a degree and doing some charity work. Once I started to develop more interests and build a life alongside football, I was more consistent, started playing better and football became more enjoyable. I felt like I was functioning better than I had ever been, and committing to personal development was the best decision I ever made. Now, I'm having good fun helping and supporting players to develop ideas. It feels like the right thing to do, and I get to keep developing myself while doing it.

Find out More..

Personal development is a key focus of the work carried out by the Education department at the PFA. Through the PFA Charity, we offer a wide range of opportunities to all current and former professional footballers who want to broaden their horizons. For more information, get in touch with our Education department here.